Once Were Warriors – Indigenous ANZACs and a Family Connection.

Being an avid historian of the Gallipoli Campaign and Australian history in general, I find it heartening to explore the alternative stories of ANZAC. On a recent trip back to Australia to visit my family and expose my young daughter Jasmin to her Aussie roots, I came across a fascinating story from my Brother-in-law Bill. This particular story left me sad but very proud.

Bill’s family were moved off their home on the Mission in Victoria’s Lake Condah in the Western District and sent to Camp Pell in Royal Park, Melbourne. Of course Camp Pell has it’s own Anzac history from WW2. Camp Pell became a hub for ‘forced assimilation’ of indigenous people into mainstream white society. We all know about the shameful ‘Lost Generations’, children scooped up by often evangelistic agents from their parent’s arms and fostered out to white families.

So Bill was telling me this story about how his Uncle Allan used to sneak away from home and take them as kids by horse cart to the local pub. Also, that he had served in WW1. Well a bit of research later and I discovered  that Allan, his brother Joe and their Father had all signed up! Mind you, along with the hundreds if not thousands  of indigenous Australians to do so, they did so illegally! Aboriginals were not permitted to serve in the Australian forces until 1949. Don’t forget that shamefully Aboriginals were still counted as ‘fauna’ in our census until 1967….. How quickly we forget.

Allan McDonald served in the Victorian, 8th Light Horse and more importantly served with them at Gallipoli. One off 55 Aboriginal men in fact. In 1933 there was a movement in Cairns to stop Aboriginal children from attending schools with white kids. As a result, James Bennett, formerly of the 15th Battalion AIF wrote this in the newspapers at the time…..”

“I have stood shoulder to shoulder with half castes in Hell’s pit, [Hell’s Spit] on Quinn’s Post, and seen them die like the grandest of white men and other little stunts I can mention. Cairns Post, 28 January 1933 “

Allen McDonald went on to serve with the Light Horse in Palestine, survived the war and returned to Australia. His squadron faced the Turkish machine guns at The Nek. But Allen stoically survived with his mates.

Joseph McDonald, Uncle Joe, his brother wasn’t so lucky. Joe served with the 21st Battalion, 6th Brigade of the AIF, then later with the 58th Battalion on the Western Front, he was promoted to Sergeant but was wounded and eventually had his leg amputated. Joe was a decorated war hero. Sadly……. and  I mean tragically, on his return, and some years later, Joe was found hanged in a Police cell where he was arrested for being drunk. At the time Aboriginals weren’t treated to any kind of worthwhile investigation. However the size of the cell, and the circumstances only added to the mystery… This story from the family’s history…

“Uncle Joe was supposedly hung by the lace he used to strap on his artificial leg to his stump. It certainly wasn’t what you’d call a strap, yet the mark left around his neck was a quarter inch thick and stretched from one ear to the other.  Even stranger was the  staple used to attach the lace was only 3 feet, 8 inches from the cell floor, yet Uncle Joe was 6 feet tall with only one full leg. If he was in a very drunken condition, how did he manage to manage to hold himself horizontally to hang himself?…… Since we have become aware in the last few years in Australian gaols, his hanging has been a lot harder to accept”

Reading up on this history and having a family connection, albeit my Brother-in-law’s indigenous history has brought a tear to my eyes. Even researching these guys I found very little digital record of them.

Indigenous Australians were not legally allowed to serve our country until 1949. Joe and Allen’s nephew went on to serve with distinction in WW2 and even played for Essendon Football Club. All these guys fought and survived horrific wars and did so ‘illegally’ and yet to this day very little is written about them.

I want to thank Bill and his family for helping me get this information together and hopefully present it to you, in the hope that you feel the same proud respect that I have. In this 21st century it seems we still need to look back with some shame at the treatment of these fellow human beings, who served us so well, only to return to a country that despised their very existence.

I hope that if you read this post, that you too will feel as I do. Hopefully it will help us to right the wrongs of Australia’s dark history.






  1. Peter murray


    What men they were, role models for all Australians. Such courage yet such disgraceful treatment too. A dark part of our nations history and we must follow through with respect and appreciation for their contribution. As an officer for many years, I served in Malaysia and Vietnam. One of our best senior NCOs was Ted Blacker. I say again, one of our best. I had no idea of his origins but hindsight, his dark complexion and facial features reveals all. His early life must have been tough but he did not disclose it. He encouraged young soldiers through hardships and fought their battles for him. I am proud to have served with Aboriginal men and possibly women whose ancestors were true warriors. We must reconcile then with pride advance.

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