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Ethnic Anzacs: the untold story of diversity in the trenches

24 April 20150 comments
Billy Sing

Billy Sing

Most Australians are familiar with the story of the Anzac and the grit and determination shown by young Aussies fighting and dying for their country.

But many Australians are unaware of the ethnic diversity present in the ranks of the first Anzacs.

It is estimated that around 30 per cent of Anzac soldiers were born overseas. Granted, most of these men were of Anglo-Saxon descent, however there were many from culturally and ethnically diverse countries.

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the Australian landings
at Gallipoli this week, the true picture of diversity in the trenches of WWI has emerged.

An interactive map produced by the National Archives shows WWI diggers came from around 60 countries outside of Australia and the United Kingdom.

There are records of Anzac soldiers who were born in countries such as China, Uzbekistan, Chile, Russia, Malaysia, India, Guatemala and Greece.

Many foreigners emigrated to Australia starting in the gold-rush years and continuing throughout the late 1800s.

Many of the immigrants during the gold-rush were of Chinese descent, and they paved the way for men of Chinese origin to enlist and fight for Australia.

Exact numbers of Anzacs of Chinese descent are unknown, due to the military policy that only allowed enlistment from men of European descent. However this policy was slackened as the war went on.

Head of military history at the Australian War Memorial Ashley Eakins told recalled stories of a couple of inspirational Chinese Anzac soldiers.

One such soldier, Billy Sing, was an elite sniper for the Anzac army.

“He ended up being the most outstanding sniper on Gallipoli,” Mr Eakins said.

“Billy Sing became a legend and we’re not even sure how many Turkish soldiers he accounted for in his time there, but he was certainly a very effective sniper. He then went on to the Western Front and even displayed his skills there for a while.”

However Sing faced great hardship upon returning to Australia, due in part to the anti-Chinese sentiment of the time. This, coupled with the injuries he sustained at war caused him to die in poverty, his service largely forgotten.

Another stand-out soldier of Chinese descent was Caleb “Charlie” Shang, who rose through the ranks to become a soldier held in high regard.

“He found his mark in the AIF as a runner, a message runner, and a very brave signaler, and also as a sniper on the Western Front,” Mr Eakins said.

“He served in a number of battles and, indeed, became the most highly decorated Chinese soldier that we have any record of, and in fact one of the most highly decorated Australian soldiers. He won the Distinguished Conduct medal not once but twice.”

Following the war, Charlie Shang moved to Queensland, where he married and worked for the rest of his life.

Another subsection of the Australian community that has been underrepresented in the Anzac legend is the service given by Indigenous Australians.

It is now estimated that over 1300 men of aboriginal descent fought in World War I.

When war broke out in 1914, many Indigenous Australians attempted to enlist, but were rejected on the grounds of their race.

By 1917, recruits were becoming harder to find. This, coupled with a failed attempt to bring in conscription, led the military to ease enlistment restrictions based on race.

The new order allowed men of up to 50% aboriginal heritage to enlist.

There is a question of why Indigenous Australians were so keen to fight for the country that had been inherently racist towards them; however there are a number of factors that may have influenced their decision.

One reason may have been the equal treatment that they received.

As aboriginals, these men were treated poorly by white Australian society. Aboriginals of the time received few rights, very low wages, and endured poor living conditions. They did not have the right to vote and were not counted in the census.

Some men were forced to walk great distances to various recruiting stations, hoping to find a sympathetic medical officer who would approve their enlistment.

However, upon joining the army they received equal treatment, an occurrence that was for many the first of their life.

They received the same amount of pay as other soldiers, and were generally accepted without prejudice.

Many Indigenous Australians saw enlisting as a chance to prove their worth as equals to the white man, and hoped it would provide the opportunity to push for better rights following the war.

And for some, simply the prospect of being paid 6 shillings a day to travel overseas was too tempting to pass up.

However, the hope of improved rights and liberties upon returning from duty was never realised, and for many the climate of racism in Australia had worsened.

The Soldier Settlement Scheme, in which returned servicemen were allotted a piece of land by the government, was not afforded to discharged Aboriginal soldiers.

There is only one recorded case of an Aboriginal soldier receiving land in the Soldier Settlement Scheme, while much of the best farming land on Aboriginal reserves was confiscated by the government to use for other soldier settlements.

Furthermore, the names of Aboriginal soldiers were omitted from war memorials, and some were not permitted to join in Anzac Day marches or inside RSLs.

To help tell the story of Aboriginal soldiers in World War I, Wesley Enoch and Tom Wright from the Queensland Theatre Company have written a play, titled Black Diggers.

Black Diggers is the story of the Indigenous Australians who chose to fight for their country, and hopes to bring to attention a story of bravery and courage that has become a forgotten part of the Anzac legend.

Black Diggers is showing at the Melbourne Arts Centre from April 22-26, and for two nights at the Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo, from May 1-2.

Another immigrant community that played a role in the formation of the Anzac legend was that of the Greeks.

Today Australia boasts a huge and thriving Greek community, and for some their forefathers played a direct role for the Anzacs in WWI.

Historian Jim Claven says that 57 Anzac soldiers were born in Greece, eight of whom fought at Gallipoli.

The story of soldiers of Greek descent is not a well-known one, due to the majority of Greek immigration to Australia happening post-World War II.

The story of one particular soldier named Georgios Papas sticks out in the mind of Mr Claven.

“He received a Distinguished Conduct medal for gallantry at Gaba Tepe. He was awarded that because he was wounded retrieving (other) wounded people under heavy gunfire. And later on, not long after he’d got his mention in dispatches, he was badly wounded and returned to Australia and was discharged,” he said.

While Anzac Day is a time to reflect on the sacrifices that Australians have made to their country, and to appreciate the peaceful nation that Australia has become, it is also a time to remember the Anzacs whom history has forgotten.

Multiculturalism has long been a vitally important part of Australian culture, and it is important to tell the story of those who came from across the world to defend the country that they settled in and decided to call home.

Much like the country today, the Anzacs of old represent a diverse cross-section of society, and deserve recognition for their services.

Robbie Wallis
AMES Staff Writer