Douglas Grant was born into a traditional Aboriginal community in the Bullenden Kerr Ranges of Northern Queensland in the early 1880s. Originally named Poppin Jerri, his early family life was torn apart in 1887 when his parents and much of his Aboriginal community were killed in what was believed to be a tribal fight. He was rescued just moments from death by scientist Robert Grant, a Scottish immigrant surveying in the area at the time. There were no other survivors. Grant decided that the best course of action was to care for the little boy himself. Naming him Douglas, he raised him as his son.
The Grant family settled in Lithgow, New South Wales. Douglas, along with Robert’s other son, Henry, attended Scots College in Sydney. There, he developed a love for Shakespeare and poetry, and his talent for drawing was encouraged. In 1897, while in his teens, he won first prize in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee exhibition for a coloured drawing of the Bust of Queen Victoria.
After finishing school, Douglas pursued his interest in drawing, training as a mechanical draughtsman. He was still working in this role at Mort’s Dock when the First World War broke out in 1914.
Though Aboriginal men were excluded from military service, Douglas managed to enlist with the 34th Battalion in January 1916. As he was about to leave Australia however, the Aboriginies Protection Board intervened, noting that regulations prevented Aboriginals from leaving the country without Government approval. Undeterred, Douglas enlisted again, and this time successfully embarked with the 13th Battalion for France in August. He was now 30 years old, and was ready to serve his country.
However, his service was to be short-lived. On 11 April 1917, just two months after arriving in France, Douglas was wounded and captured during the first battle of Bullecourt. In this battle at least 3,300 men were killed or wounded and a further 1,170 were taken prisoner.
Douglas was a well-educated and articulate man with a thick Scottish accent. As such, he was a person of curiosity to German doctors, scientists, and anthropologists. To his comrades, however, Douglas was cherished as a remarkable figure who proved to be both honest and quick thinking.
After his capture, Douglas spent two months in France with the other Bullecourt prisoners, who were used as forced labourers for the German Army. Owing to his dark complexion, Douglas ended up at the German camp for Muslim prisoners at Zossen in the German state of Brandenburg, where he supervised the distribution of comforts to Indian prisoners as a member of the British Help Committee. In this position, Douglas was in regular contact with the Secretary of the Australian Red Cross Society, Miss Elizabeth Chomley, who was a vital link between prisoners in Germany and their families in Australia. Douglas wrote to her in 1918:
I am happy to say that I am enjoying perfect health, but as it is only natural I long and weary for Home which I trust may soon be within measurable distance. Please accept many thanks for past favours.
Douglas' role in distributing comforts was an extremely important one. Not only did the parcels lift the men’s spirits with much-needed essentials, but the system also provided the opportunity to accurately record who had been taken prisoner and where they were held. This vital information could make a huge difference for families at home in Australia who were waiting for news of their “missing”.
After 22 months Douglas was repatriated. On his return to Australia he resumed his job as a draughtsman before moving on to work as a labourer in a paper factory and then a small arms factory. Although he had served his country in war, as an Indigenous Australian he was not entitled to the soldier settlement blocks offered to returned soldiers. The equality he had experienced while serving with the AIF ended on his return to civilian life.
Back in Australia Douglas lobbied for Aboriginal rights and became active in returned servicemen’s affairs. He played the bagpipes well, and for a time conducted the returned soldier’s session on the Lithgow radio station 2LT. He dabbled in taxidermy, like his adopted dad, and worked as a clark in the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane.
After the Second World War Douglas lived in the Salvation Army’s old men’s quarters in Sydney, then spent two years in the First War Veterans Home at La Perouse. He moved in and out of repatriation hospitals, and died in 1951, aged 65. He was buried in Botany Cemetery in Sydney.
Activities for research and classroom discussion
1. What might it be like to be raised in a culture different from your own?
2. Research the Aborigines Protection Board. What were its aims?
3. Investigate the first battle of Bullecourt. Why do you think so many soldiers were killed, wounded and taken prisoner in this battle? Use the following image and diorama to support your answer.