On Anzac Day, we need to recognise the role of Aboriginal diggers

By Stan Grant

Somewhere buried in the fields of France is an Indigenous man who gave his life for his country.

He had barely time enough to live. He was not even old enough to enlist; he was not meant to be there.

The military records don’t show his name — he passed himself off under the name of his older brother, John.

By all accounts that wasn’t uncommon in 1914, when young Australian boys were impatient and eager to fight and the Army was willing to look the other way.

Like all Aboriginal men, this boy was legally exempt from military service. This was meant to be a European army. But they joined up anyway.

Why? Much the same as their white comrades: patriotism, loyalty, adventure.

No doubt there was another deep motivation — they were fighting for their country, the country of their ancestors.

It was also a chance to earn a wage. It was a shortcut to equality.

It’s thought about 1,000 Aboriginal men enlisted. The records are patchy.

Their race was usually not mentioned, but there were clues — euphemisms: ‘dark complexion’, ‘curly hair’, ‘dark eyes’.

Only now are we fully discovering the extent of the sacrifice of these brave young boys.

A tradition of military service

John’s real name was Ivan Grant.

In my family it is a story handed down through the generations.

I was told how Ivan changed his name, lied about his age, and set sail for war. He never came home, he will forever rest in France.


His name though lives on, passed down to my cousin Ivan. He is a soldier too, an officer who has served in Iraq.

Like so many Indigenous families, military service has been something of a tradition. Why would it not be? We are from a long line of warriors.

The first Ivan Grant signed up not even a century after his forebears met and fought the British — settlers and soldiers — on the plains west of the Blue Mountains.

In the 1820s, the Sydney Gazette newspaper reported widely on what it called an ‘exterminating war’. The Wiradjuri people, led by a man named Windradyne, fought a long-running guerrilla campaign against what they would have seen as the invasion of their land.

It was effective and it was bloody — on both sides.

The governor, Thomas Brisbane, declared martial law and armed groups hunted down the so-called “troublesome blacks”.

The conflict devastated the Wiradjujri.

Finally, Windradyne led his people on a trek over the mountains to Parramatta to sit down with Governor Brisbane.

It was said the warrior wore a straw hat and written in its bream was the word peace.

Equality in war but not at home

By 1914, a Wiradjuri boy was enlisting in the Australian army. He was part of a new country, and he carried the blood of white and black — his grandfather an Irish convict later wealthy, landed gentry.

I see this now as a nation being born, of white and black living, often uneasily, side by side. The first people now outcast and segregated yet looking for a way in — for a way to belong.


In 1939 war came again and Indigenous people heeded the call.

Cecil Grant carried the memory of his dead brother. He was a man in his early 30s, a husband and father. Cecil lived on the Aboriginal mission at Condobolin in western New South Wales and, with other black mates, rushed to enlist.

Cecil was a rat of Tobruk — he fought Hitler’s army in the Middle East. Unlike his brother Ivan he came home, but it was to a country that still did not fully recognise him.

Cecil devoted his life to the fight for equality, for the right to belong in a country he had served in war.

He took his family off the mission and with others walked more than 300 kilometres to the booming Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area to work on the farms picking fruit.

He battled to get his kids into the town school and to be given the soldier settlement block of land that was his due. He later built a little tin and fibro house and lived there until his death in the late 1960s.

Cecil didn’t march in Anzac Day parades until the last few years of his life. With crisp white shirt and his medals on his chest he walked with his white comrades down the main street of Griffith.

With the others, he went back to the pub, but was stopped at the entrance by the local police sergeant who told him he wasn’t allowed in. Blackfellas were still barred — even a blackfella with war medals.

But something remarkable happened that day; his digger mates formed a circle around him and walked him inside defying the local cop.


Cecil Grant was my grandfather.

‘Lest we forget’ — and what we choose to remember

Today, I heard the sound of the didgeridoo as it echoed over the dawn service in Canberra and I thought of my grandfather and his brother Ivan and of the many thousands of black diggers who believed in this country enough to fight for it when it did not yet believe in them.

I think of those people who met the coming of the whites with resistance and bravery and whose blood and sacrifice we still don’t properly recognise.

There is no wall of remembrance for Windradyne and his people or the countless others who fought and died for their land.

I think of that mournful phrase “lest we forget” and what we choose to remember.

On this most Australian of days, I think of the sacrifice of those in my family and what they demand of me still.

As Indigenous people we mark these solemn moments with our own memories, what the Polish Nobel laureate poet Szeslav Milosz described as the ‘memory of wounds”.

They are the memories of people who served and fought but came home to a still segregated land.

I think today of those black diggers and their white comrades. I think of their sacrifice and the mateship they forged.

And I see the better Australia they fought for.

That’s the Australia Cecil Grant believed in. His brother Ivan lies in a field in France to remind us.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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