Remembering Australia’s Aboriginal Servicemen

The subject matter relating to soldiers of Aboriginal and Indigenous heritage is very important — and broad, but here I concentrate upon several areas where I have some understanding: my own family involvement, and the service of soldiers of Indigenous heritage in the Middle East and the land of Israel during both World Wars.

Like many other Australians, I am of mixed heritage, being part English free settler, part English ‘convict’, part Scottish — and part Aboriginal.

However while growing up at Babakin, near Corrigin (where Ken Wyatt once lived), I had little idea of my Aboriginal heritage.

We were told that my mother’s grandfather, John Websdale, had been a British soldier in India and had married an Indian lady, and hence we were darker than other children. This story was told in order to ensure acceptance in the Anglo-British-white society.

Yet as a child I developed an interest in the Jewish people, the land of Israel and the Middle East. This interest was sparked initially due to the military service in the Middle East of two of my father’s brothers, one of whom, John Crombie died at Tobruk in 1941; as well as the presence in the region of the Light Horse Mounted Infantry.

As a result of these and other factors, including reading about the Holocaust, I went to live in Israel at the age of 21. After becoming a follower of Jesus, a Christian, in 1981 I lived in Jerusalem for another 24 years.

For 20 of those years I worked as a local guide with the Anglican Christ Church inside the Old City of Jerusalem, specialising in British, Protestant and ANZAC involvement in the land of Israel.

During the years 1914-1919 and 1939-1945, tens of thousands of ANZAC soldiers were in the Middle East.

My work included leading tours to Beersheba to explain the significant role the Light Horse played in capturing that town from the Turks in 1917 through the famous charge of the Light Horse.

Occasionally, I also took groups to the Galilee region especially to visit a location on the shores of the Sea of Galilee named Semack — where Aboriginal Light Horsemen fought in 1918.

While home in Australia in 1997 I did some family research and discovered that my Grandfather’s brother Leo Websdale had served in France in 1918 — as a part-Aboriginal soldier.

Further research revealed that my great grandparents had actually married in WA, and that my great-grandmother was a Noongar Aboriginal lady named Julip.

Now I had to relate to the fact that I had Aboriginal heritage.

Leo Websdale was among the 500 or so men of Aboriginal heritage from Australia and the 123 or so from Western Australia who served during World War One. He also served in World War Two.

Additionally one of my grandfather’s half-brothers, Victor Harp also fought in World War Two, one of an estimated 5,000 people of Indigenous heritage who served in that War.

No doubt there were many more who served, but they suppressed their Indigenous identity.

This is reflected in a statement by Brendan Moore on the website of Noongar Knowledge, which relates to Leo Websdale, and I quote:

Brendan Moore’s … great grandfather Leopold Augustus Websdale … , fought in France during World War 1, and enlisted in the Australian Army in 1942 during World War II… Leo enlisted as having dark complexion, dark eyes and brown hair; since joining as a Noongar would have meant his application would have been rejected on account of race.

Once in the armed forces Leo, like almost all soldiers of Aboriginal heritage during both World Wars, was probably treated with more respect than usual.

Yet upon their return to Australia, these soldiers were not given the same treatment as their fellow Anglo soldiers. Brendan Moore continues, and I quote:

Upon returning to Australia, Leo received little acknowledgement for his service and missed out on privileges most other returned European soldiers had earned.

After 1967, the situation changed for the better for people of Aboriginal heritage and it became easier for them to join the military and receive closer to equal opportunity. One of those to join after that year was Leo’s son, Allan Augustus Websdale.

Another from the broader Websdale ‘mob’ was my first cousin, Terrence Sullivan — even though he never knew of his Aboriginal heritage. Terry’s mother Jessie was a Websdale before marrying.

Cousin Terry served in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam during the 1960s and received the MBE. Before his premature death in 1975, he had attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Today at least one member of the Websdale ‘mob’ is serving in the Australian Defence Force — Ben Curtis, a former student of this, the Lesmurdie High School between 2009-2012. Ben’s mother Jennifer was a Websdale before marrying.

***

My grandfather’s father died in 1903 and his mother later married John Harp, a Wadjala or white man. John later joined the 10th Light Horse from Western Australia and fought in the land of Israel.

Some 117 men of Aboriginal heritage served in the Light Horse, and at least 11 served in the 10th Light Horse Regiment from WA and one in the Camel Corps. One of those, Charlie Burns originally from the Wyndham area, also served in the land of Israel during World War Two.

The Light Horse fought in Gallipoli, the Sinai, Palestine (the land of Israel), Transjordan and Syria against the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

Most men in the Light Horse had some form of Christian and Biblical upbringing and were familiar with names such as Beersheba, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee and Damascus.
Three very significant battles in this campaign were at Beersheba, Jerusalem and Damascus — and the 10th Light Horse was involved in all three battles.

Most of the Light Horsemen would have known of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus had ministered.

On the southern shore the Ottoman Turks had built a small railway station on the Damascus to Haifa line, known as Semack.

Early in the morning of 25 September 1918, Light Horsemen, primarily from the 11th Light Horse Regiment charged the railway station and surrounding areas, and after encountering some stiff resistance, secured victory.

Some 26 or so Aboriginal heritage horsemen were involved in the 11th Light Horse, including Frank Fisher, the great-grandfather of Cathy Freeman.

Only six days later Damascus was captured, with the 10th Light Horse receiving the surrender. The Ottoman Turkish regime surrendered on 31 October 1918.

Thankfully so, as this regime was then implementing a terrible genocide against the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians.

The defeat of the Ottoman Turkish Empire ended 400 years of Turkish rule over the Middle East. Five Arab countries were formed in those captured regions, namely Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Additionally after some 1900 years of national dispersion, an opportunity arose for a restored Jewish nation to be established within the land of Israel.

But before that could happen, the Jewish people had to endure a terrible genocide, when Nazi Germany set out to murder some 11 million Jewish people in Europe and the surrounding regions — including the Middle East where some 700,000 Jewish people lived.

Had Nazi Germany captured the Middle East during World War Two, those Jewish people would also have been murdered in addition to the 6 million who were actually murdered in Europe.

Soldiers from 3 Australian infantry divisions plus other personnel served in the Middle East, most of them being based in the land of Israel, then known as British-Mandated Palestine.

Among that number were many soldiers of Aboriginal heritage, including at least 65 from Western Australia.

Wherever those soldiers fought against the German-led forces, they were protecting thousands of innocent civilians in the region, especially the Jewish people.

Unfortunately when our forces were defeated in Greece and Crete, the Germans began rounding up the Jews there, and ultimately some 54,000 were gassed in Auschwitz.

In 1942, as our soldiers were facing German and Italian soldiers in North Africa, the Nazis sent a murder squad to the region to begin their task of murdering Jewish people.

Thankfully they did not implement their genocidal plan, as the Allied soldiers defeated the Germans and Italians at El Alamein.

Among the Western Australian soldiers at El Alamein was Robert McGuire, supposedly a full blood Aboriginal man born in Brookton, who was also severely wounded.

Several other part-Aboriginal men were captured, including James Brennan from Laverton. Brennan later escaped from a POW camp in Italy in 1943 and fought for some time with the Italian partisans. He returned safely to Australia.

Many of the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust chose to go to the land of Israel, where in 1948 against all odds, the state of Israel was founded — an event of profound historical significance.

In 2007 I had the pleasure to guide a group from the Australian Light Horse Association led by Barry Rodgers which came to Israel to re-enact the charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba.

We first visited the old railway station at Semack, where we ‘pledged’ to establish a memorial to the action of 25 September 1918. Rodgers, then took the lead in seeing this vision come to pass.

Barry and I met with Ken Wyatt in his office in Canberra in about 2010 and discussed the vision, together with the idea of also erecting a statue of an Aboriginal Light Horseman.

Then in October 2017 we had another re-enactment for the 100th anniversary of the battle of Beersheba. On this occasion, there were a number of riders of Aboriginal heritage, many of whom also rode in a parade at Semack. The following year the statue of the Aboriginal Light Horseman at Semack was officially unveiled.

There were several reasons why I felt it was important to have such a statue at Semack:

First, it was a military action in which there was considerable Aboriginal involvement.

Second, more than likely these Aboriginal Horsemen had heard of the Sea of Galilee through exposure to the teachings of the Bible and the person of Jesus.

Jesus, the Jewish rabbi from Nazareth, set the greatest possible example of self-sacrifice. On the night before He was executed He said:

Greater love has no-one than this that he lay down his life for his friends.
(John 15:13)

The statue is actually called “No greater love” and it depicts an Aboriginal Trooper (Jack Pollard) tending the grave of a fallen white mate.

Third, the defeat of the totalitarian Ottoman Turkish and Nazi German regimes resulted in the Jewish people, the most persecuted people group in world history, being officially restored to the land of covenant promise.

Almost all of the Anzacs of Aboriginal heritage in World War Two were based in the land of Israel. Additionally, the Middle East was the ONLY region in the world where Anzac soldiers served during both World Wars.

There could be no more appropriate place to have such a representative statue.

Although small in number, these soldiers with Indigenous heritage have played a part in shaping world history. Despite not being treated fairly in Australia, they nevertheless helped better the lives of other persecuted peoples.

This is surely a matter of great significance and one upon which we should take note of this Anzac Day. Hopefully, such a perspective can inspire and encourage us to emulate this wonderful example.

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The above was a presentation to students at Lesmurdie High School in Western Australia, under the title Soldiers of Aboriginal Heritage, on 22 April 2021.

Main Sources
AWM – Australian War Memorial, Canberra, including Michael Bell.
NAA – National Australian Archives, Canberra (Individual military service records).
Battye Library, Perth.
Crombie, K. Anzacs, Empires and Israel’s Restoration 1798-1948 (Perth, 1998).
Crombie, K. Anzacs & Israel: A Significant Connection (Perth, 2010).
Crombie, K. Gallipoli – The Road to Jerusalem (Perth, 2014).
Crombie, K. El Alamein – Halting an Impending Holocaust in the Middle East, (Perth, 2012).
Curry, J. Aborigines in the Light Horse Troops.
Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, No Less Worthy.
Department of Aboriginal Affairs Community Development Directorate, They Served With Honour.
Hall, R. The Black Diggers: Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War, Aboriginal
Studies Press, Canberra ACT 2600.
James, J. Forever Warriors, (Perth, 2010).
South-West Aboriginal Land & Sea Council.
The Spur, magazine of the Australian Light Horse Association.
Various archives and sources associated with Websdale family research.
Western Australian War Memorials Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial, Kings Park.
Willis, B. Aborigines and the Defence Forces in WA in World War II, Master of Philosophy, 1 Dec 1995,
UWA. (Copy in Battye Library).

Thanks also to help from Phil Sullivan (10th Light Horse), Colin Turner (Vietnam Veterans) and Brendan Moore, as well as acknowledgment of the work of John Schnaars, founder of Honouring Indigenous War Graves (HIWG).

[Photo: Minister for the Army, the Honorable Frank Forde, greeting Corporal Latham during a visit to the Western Training Centre, Northam, W.A. 2/4/1943. Courtesy Australian War Memorial.]

By |2021-04-26T16:04:35+10:00April 26th, 2021|Australia, Fairness & Justice, Faith, Indigenous, World|0 Comments

About the Author:

Kelvin is married to Lexie and all four of their daughters were born in Israel. Kelvin's eldest daughter, Orit, has been running tours to Israel since 2014 with Heritage Resources. Kelvin worked for CMJ Israel for many years as a guide, manager and author, most of his work based out of Christ Church -- the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East. He has written many books and produced documentaries on their work over the last two centuries around the world.

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