‘Too Dark for the Light Horse’
Australian recruitment officers were instructed to accept ‘only British subjects substantially of European origin or descent’ in 1914, rejecting hundreds of applicants of indigenous or ethnic blood who offered to serve their country.
The process was often subjective and records inaccurate but about 1000 indigenous Australians served in Gallipoli and on the Western Front.
Among them were Maryborough’s Harry Aldridge II, son of an Aboriginal woman Lappy Tanner and Harry Aldridge, son of English pioneer Edgar Aldridge. Harry Aldridge II would serve with distinction at Gallipoli and in France at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm, where he was wounded.
Many of Australia’s finest soldiers came from recruits not ‘substantially of European origin or descent’. They included the notorious sniper Billy Sing and Caleb Shang of Cairns, whose attempts to enlist early in the war were rejected by recruitment officers because of his Chinese parentage.
As the need for new soldiers became more critical, bans on persons of non-European descent were eased. In January 1916 Caleb’s brother Sidney was accepted; in June Caleb was finally enlisted.
He returned from France after the war as Queensland’s then most decorated soldier, awarded two Distinguished Conduct Medals and a Military Medal. He was cited for ‘never-failing example of fearlessness, resource and initiative’ and for excelling with ‘wonderful powers of endurance, intrepidity and utter contempt for danger’.
In the risky role of runner in France, he had run ‘continuously for four days through barrages and fire-swept areas, carrying water, food and ammunition to the front line. He attacked enemy snipers in broad daylight ….. he constantly volunteered for dangerous patrols ….’
Shy and small of stature, Caleb Shang was greeted on the wharf at dawn by a band and 3000 cheering citizens when he returned to his home town of Cairns in March 1919.
New Zealand was less inclined to take notice of British doubts about recruits of ‘substantially non-European origin or descent’. Maoris had already fought with the New Zealand forces in the Second Boer War after recruiters chose to ignore British military policy of disallowing ‘native’ soldiers. The Maori Native Contingent, forerunner of the Maori Battalion, fought with distinction at Gallipoli and later on the Western Front as part of the New Zealand (Maori) Pioneer Battalion.
Australian Diggers of Aboriginal blood faced humiliating experiences when they returned to Australia after serving in the war. On the front line they had been treated as equals; at home they were subjected again to class barriers, forcibly resettled on to mission reserves, unable to drink in bars with their former comrades and unable to vote for another 50 years. They were ineligible for the soldier settlement program.
Accounts of indigenous Australians’ experiences in The Great War are collated in the book Too Dark for the Light Horse: https://www.awm.gov.au/sites/default/files/education/box/03_res_book.pdf
Black Diggers, Tom Wright: