Anzac Day is commemorated on 25th April each year, with memorial services held all across Australia - including the Dawn Service and National Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra. After the Dawn Service, at 6:30am, there is also an informal service to honour to the memory of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service personnel who have fought for Australia since 1901. The service is held at a quiet, bushland memorial behind the Australian War Memorial.
To get there, visitors need to walk behind the War Memorial to the entrance to The Mount Ainslie Summit Track - Kokoda Memorial Trail in Remembrance Nature Park on Treloar Crescent. At the beginning of this walk, there is a plaque explaining the history of the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War. Just a few minutes walk up into the bushland you will see a turnoff on the left-hand side, with a simple sign indicating the "Aboriginal Plaque". Take this short, quiet walk to a small clearing and plaque, to honour those who have fought for our country.
Look for the Aboriginal Plaque sign, just a few minutes into the Mount Ainslie Summit Track
Research has shown that soldiers of indigenous background have fought in every war since 1901. The final numbers are unclear, however, as the enlisting forms from early wars didn't ask for a soldiers heritage, so researchers have had to scour through the records to look for physical descriptions. According to the Australian War Memorial, the "the best current estimates are that about 1,000 Indigenous Australians...fought in the First World War (though the real number is probably higher)". It was hard for people of indigenous background to enlist after 1915 and some were rejected because of their race. By 1917, as volunteers started to dwindle, the rules were slightly relaxed and indigenous Australians were able to apply - but only if one parent was European. Soldiers of indigenous background went on to earn medals for gallantry in the field, including 4 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 17 Military Medals. For many, it was the first time they were treated equally. Sadly, on their return home, they faced the same prejudices that were there when they left and were not allowed into RSL clubs or offered assistance by Legacy.
In World War II, although Australians of non-European descent weren't encouraged to enlist, it is thought that between 3,000 - 6,000 Aboriginal and 850 Torres Strait Islander people served in defensive positions all around the world. This included Reginald Saunders, who became the first Aboriginal commissioned officer and also a Captain in the Korean War. It also included a full unit of indigenous soldiers, the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, who were formed to defend the top of Australia from the Japanese. As a sign of the times, they were paid only a third of the wage of other soldiers and it took until 1986 for them to be back-paid by the government. For a full description of indigenous participation in each war, see here.
Captain Saunders leading his company in Korea during March 1951. Image: Wikapedia and the Australian War Memorial Collection Database (ID number P01813.703)
Inspection of Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, Thursday Island, 1945. C202332. Image: The Australian War Memorial Facebook
The Memorial itself is a simple plaque on a rock, just a short walk down the narrow, unsealed trail. It sits halfway up the bank and blends into the natural surroundings. If you sit on the benches provided and listen, you soon hear the sounds of rosellas in the trees, kookaburras laughing in the distance and the gentle creak of the undergrowth as wildlife moves all around. The setting is calm, peaceful and serene. It is a quiet place to reflect on the men and women who enlisted to protect their country and the sacrifices they made.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemorative Ceremony starts at 6:30am on 25th April and is hosted by members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association (ATSIVSA).
The Ceremony is a time to honour the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who fought for this country and to respect their memory. In 2017, over 300 people attended the ceremony, including veterans from Darwin and soldiers from the New Zealand Defence Force, who recalled the shared history of Maori, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in war. All Australians - and anyone from around the world - are encouraged to join them.
Aircraftman Brodie McIntyre with his didgeridoo at the Aboriginal Memorial, Mt Ainslie. Image: Australian War Memorial website