Words by Caroline Oakley
Warning: this article contains graphic historical images of Aboriginal people who are deceased.
Caroline Oakley is a proud Gamilaroi woman currently completing a Masters of Aboriginal studies and Honours in Contemporary Art and Design at UniSA. Her ancestors fought in past wars, including her ancestor John Alfred Richards who died in WWI. In the present day, Caroline’s son, Mathew Oakley, has also contributed to the ANZAC legacy; serving on peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan in 2016 when he was 17. Today Caroline recognises and invites us all to commemorate the often unheard Aboriginal men and women who have served in valuable roles during Australia’s wars.
Today the 25th of April 2020, I would like to pay my respects for all Australian Defence Force personal that have served overseas to defend their country. During this difficult time of COVID-19 and isolation, it is important to remember the events even if many of you may not like the idea of publishing anything that relates to war. However, it is important to acknowledge all Aboriginal soldiers past and present that have served to protect their country. This includes acknowledging westerners.
Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the frontier wars and massacres of 1788, Australia. Aboriginal people fought with tenacity and courage against the new invaders, as these westerners successfully stole, pillaged and raped the Australian landscape without permission or acknowledgment. They simply saw Australia as ‘Terra Nullius’. This was the reality of my Gamilaroi people, no different to other Aboriginal people living along the western frontier of Australia. My Aboriginal ancestor was born not long after the horrors of Aboriginal communities being murdered and butchered along Waterloo Creek and Myall Creek in 1838.
For more information on Frontier Violence in Australia, please follow the link: ‘Busting the Myths of a Peaceful settlement’.
The discussion around how Australia perceives Aboriginal service people has changed significantly as an awareness of the horrors of Australia’s frontier wars comes to the surface with undertakings such as this Guardian piece from July 2017. The project contained a map of over 150 massacre sites that took place from 1788 to 1872, which have until now have mostly been excluded from Australia’s history books. In 2018, journalist Nick Irving succinctly commentated on the effects of such investigations:
“It’s markedly different, and I think more useful, than the attempt in 2017 to commemorate “Black Diggers” — that is, to try and stake out space in the positive narrative of soldier-citizenship for Aboriginal men. Instead of trying to make black men unthreatening by dressing them up in the trappings of the loyal citizen-soldier, the listing of black massacres tries to capitalise on the white appetite for sympathetic suffering on April 25th. When better to mark Aboriginal lives lost during the violent colonisation of the continent than on a day where we’re all told constantly not to forget the impacts of war?”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have served in the Australian Defence Forces since the 1860s—serving in the Boer War and both World War I and World War II through to service in Afghanistan. They served on the ground, in the air, at sea—even on horseback. They served and defended Australia and Country with many being treated as equals for the first time—an equality that, unfortunately, did not continue when they returned home. For these reasons, many Aboriginal soldiers were not given veterans housing or allowed to be seen in pubs let alone march in the Anzac Parade before 1967.
…We’re not citizens, yet we’re willing to die for this place, we’re willing to die for non-Indigenous Australians, have a think about that one….— Gary Oakley
Gary Oakley was the Aboriginal Liaison Officer at the Anzac War Memorial and ex-Navy and Squadron Leader of the Royal Airforce. Gary Oakley was born in the Blue Mountains and has connections to my partner’s family in Dungog NSW. Gary Oakley also identifies as Aboriginal.
I have Gamilaroi descendants that fought for their country that never came back from WW1. My ancestor’s name was John Alfred Richards, grandson to John Richards senior and Caroline Richards nee Carr from Garah, New South Wales. Private John Alfred Richards (602, 2nd Battalion) was born in Boomi, NSW. He was Gamilroi, Yuin and Anglo-Celtic descent.
He was working as a station hand at Garah, NSW, when he enlisted in March 1916. John received bullet wounds to his back and shoulder during action at Passchendaele on 27 October 1917 and died the following day in the 2nd Canadian Casualty Clearing Station. He is buried in the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Belgium. John’s father wrote that he was 17 years and 8 months of age at the time of his death.
John Alfred Richards, Born: Boomi, New South Wales, Australia, 1 February 1900, Died: 28 Oct 1917. Last Rank: Private. Permission granted from Caroline Oakley 2017 & Australian War Memorial.
I am also a mother of three children. My youngest son Matthew Oakley was an army Cadet before enlisting into the Australian Defence Force in 2016. He was 17.
Matthew served in the Army for four years. During his service, he was deployed to Afghanistan on a Peace Keeping Mission based in Kabul from June 2016 to February 2017.
“My time in the army made me who I am today, it taught me respect, and taught me to be proud of who I am and my culture,” Matthew says.
“I had an opportunity to see the world, I got to see the best and the worst in people. My time in Afghanistan opened my eyes, it made me appreciate our beautiful country Australia.
“I think what I take most out of the army is the mates I’ve made, a type of brotherhood that you can’t find anywhere else, colour and gender doesn’t matter in the ADF, we all wear green.”
Since leaving the Army in March 2019, my son has stayed active with the Army Reserves.
He was recently deployed to Kangaroo Island in February to fight the 2020 fires that devastated three-quarters of the island.
Private Matthew Oakley and his partner, Anzac Day 2017, the year my son returned from Afghanistan & Private Oakley’s service medals 2017. Permission granted by Caroline Oakley 2017.
The war had a great effect on the place of indigenous people in Australia. Large numbers of men and women joined the services or worked in war industries and received greater training, pay and social contacts than many had had before. As Oodgeroo Noonucal, the poet and political activist and signaller in the AWAS said, ‘There was a job to be done … all of a sudden the colour line disappeared.’ For many non-indigenous Australians, this was their first real contact with Aboriginal Australians.
Lastly, I also want to acknowledge the Aboriginal women who became nurses and for those who lived on the Cummerajunga mission, bordering New South Wales and Victoria. These wonderful women knitted socks and scarves for all army personnel overseas.
Lance Corporal Kathleen Jean Mary Walker & Corporal Helen Annie McDonald. Source: Australian War Memorial
R.I.P. We shall never forget