Uniquely this year, Remembrance Day coincided with NAIDOC Week. As such, at our High School assembly we paid special tribute to the Indigenous servicemen from World War One.

The service began with a lowering of the flags, Acknowledgment of Country and an outline of the significance of NAIDOC Week. Year 7 student, Liora, then outlined some of the history of the involvement of the First Peoples in World War One. “At the outbreak of the war, large numbers of Australians came forward to enlist, and Aboriginal Australians also answered the call. Best current estimates are that about 1,000 Indigenous Australians fought in the First World War (though the real number is probably higher). It is not known what motivated Indigenous Australians to join the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), but loyalty and patriotism doubtless played a part. In general, Indigenous soldiers served under the same conditions of service as other members of the AIF, with many experiencing in the army equal treatment for the first time in their lives. There may have also been the hope that having served would deliver greater equality after the war. In reality, however, upon their return to civilian life they were treated with the same prejudice and discrimination as before.”

Three students then acknowledged three Indigenous servicemen with researched attributions, which follow below. The assembly concluded with The Last Post, followed by one minute’s silence and then The Rouse.

Lest We Forget.

Private Richard Martin

Richard Martin joined the AIF on 17 December 1914 and declared on his attestation papers that he was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, claiming that he had five years’ prior service in the Australian Light Horse. Richard in fact was born on Stradbroke Island in Queensland. He was taken on the strength of the 15th Battalion on 9 May 1915 on Gallipoli. Martin was transferred to the 47th Battalion in Egypt in March 1916 and went on to serve in France, where he was wounded in action on 9 August 1916. He again was wounded in action on 7 June 1917 in Belgium and a third time on 13 October 1917 with a gunshot wound to the right hand. He rejoined his battalion on 27 February 1918 and was killed in action a month later. Some records suggest he was buried in the cemetery at Dernancourt, but a later document states his grave could not be found.

Private Edmund Bilney

Edmund Bilney joined the AIF in June 1917 (before the easing of restrictions in late 1917); a note on his attestation papers describes him as a half-cast. Bilney was attached to B Company, Mitcham AIF Camp, South Australia, for training but was discharged after serving just 16 days, the medical board having described him thus: “deficient physique, half cast Aboriginal, too full blood for the AIF”.

Corporal Harry Thorpe MM

Harry Thorpe was born at the Lake Tyers Mission Station, near Lakes Entrance, Victoria. He enlisted at Sale on 12 February 1916, and embarked from Melbourne on 4 April 1916 aboard HMAT Euripides. He joined the 7th Battalion in France in July 1916. He was wounded in action at Pozières in 1916 and Bullecourt in 1917.

Lance Corporal Thorpe was awarded the Military Medal and promoted to corporal for his conspicuous courage and leadership he showed during operations at Broodseinde, near Ypres, in Belgium, on the night of 4–5 October 1917. During the advance on 9 August 1918 at Lihons Wood, south-west of Vauvillers, France, a stretcher-bearer found Thorpe shot in the stomach. He died shortly afterwards and is buried in the Heath Cemetery, Harbonnières, France, with his friend William Rawlings, another Aboriginal Military Medal winner who was killed on the same day.