Book of Remembrance

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The legacy of Indigenous Australian service in the First World War has long been overlooked, in part due to wartime policies that initially restricted service to those of ‘substantially European’ descent. Australia had been settled on the legal fiction of terra nullius, which ignored the rights of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who had inhabited the land for thousands of years. Indigenous Australians were not recognised as full citizens until 1967. As a result, attestation papers rarely explicitly referred to a soldier as ‘Indigenous’. Some recruits were rejected because of their race, but other enlistment papers refer obliquely to a recruit’s ‘dark complexion’. 

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As a Dominion of the British Empire, Australia was automatically included in Britain’s declaration of war, but it fell to the Australian people to determine what form this support would take. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was formed on 15 August 1914 and large numbers of Australians came forward to enlist. The AIF would remain an all-volunteer force for the duration of the conflict. 

Among the volunteers for the AIF were at least a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They volunteered for countless reasons: patriotism, a fair wage, or the hope of greater equality upon their return to civilian life. Many would lose their lives on the battlefields. Projects such as Philippa Scarlett’s Indigenous Histories website have worked to reclaim lives otherwise missing from the historical record, using stories that have been preserved by descendants, or recovered through careful historical investigation. Identifying a soldier’s Indigenous heritage has become historical detective work, relying on a mixture of contemporary records and cultural knowledge.

One way of recovering these lives is from the material remnants left behind. Considering autograph books, for example, as a historical source has inadvertently brought the war service of Staff Nurse Marion Elizabeth Leane Smith, an Australian Aboriginal woman, into the archives of the Australian War Memorial. 

Autograph books have faded in popularity since the early 20th century, but they were once commonplace, particularly among young women. Their signatures, messages, poems and drawings provide an unexpected resource for historians. They are both personal and national history, neither a private diary nor a record intended for public consumption. Instead, they occupy a space in between. Autograph books once owned by Australian nurses, now held in the archives of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, are filled with inscriptions from friends, colleagues and patients determined to record their presence. 

The first page of Staff Nurse Gertrude May Skyring’s autograph book locates the service of an Australian nurse on the Western Front within a far broader colonial world. Originally from Enoggera, Queensland, Skyring was stationed at the 1st Australian General Hospital in Rouen, France. The signatures in her autograph book reveal connections that extended across the breadth of the British Empire, then at its zenith, as she came into contact with British and colonial forces, medical staff and civilian populations. 

Among the signatures on the first page of Skyring’s autograph book is a Marion E. Smith, who gave her address as ‘The Home Farm’, Fredericton Junction, Sunbury County, New Brunswick, Canada. While Smith enlisted from Canada, she is the only known Australian Aboriginal woman to have served in the First World War. Smith was a Darug woman, a people whose traditional country is located in what is now Sydney, and her family history reflects the complex realities of Indigenous experience in the early 20th century. 

Her grandmother was Lucy Leane, of the Cabrogal tribe, who described herself in 1893 as the ‘only surviving Native Woman of the Georges River and Liverpool District’ in New South Wales. 

Marion Smith was born in Liverpool, New South Wales in 1891, but her immediate family moved to England shortly thereafter and subsequently to Canada in 1906. These moves allowed them to escape growing concerns about what would later become known as the ‘Stolen Generations’, as mixed-race Indigenous children were removed from their homes to be raised by white families. Instead, by moving to Canada, Smith was able to pursue a medical education. She trained as a nurse in the United States, at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts and in 1913 joined the Victorian Order of Nurses in Montreal.

The details of Smith’s military service sketch an outline of her life. On 7 March 1917, she volunteered with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve and embarked for France. As with countless others, we do not know why she chose to enlist, but her nursing career reflects a devotion to service. By the end of that year Smith was serving with No. 41 Ambulance Train, working to bring in the wounded from advanced dressing stations. On these ambulance trains as few as three nurses and three doctors were responsible for transporting up to 500 patients, still covered in the mud of the battlefields, to hospital. Despite the challenging work, Smith’s supervisor referred to her as ‘most capable in every way’. She later served with the Italian Expeditionary Force and with the University War Hospital in Southampton. Her own account of these experiences, if it ever existed, has been lost.

In May 1919 Smith returned to ‘The Home Farm’ in New Brunswick. She later married a returned serviceman, Victor Walls, and the couple moved to Trinidad. With the advent of the Second World War, Smith served as the commandant of the Red Cross in Trinidad and was awarded the Distinguished War Service Medal for her actions. She died in New Brunswick in 1957.

Other members of the Leane family served with Australian forces across the battlefields of the world wars. Their descendants have worked to ensure that this legacy of service is remembered and to bring it to the attention of historians and the Australian War Memorial. It was these family histories that connected the strands of Smith’s story.

As with many of the others included in the pages of these autograph books, Smith has no other written record in the archives of the Australian War Memorial. This is the first record in her own words. Her signature is inscribed alongside the names of those with whom she and Skyring were serving, who came from across the British Empire. Each signature is a promise of remembrance exchanged between each writer and the owners of these autograph books, affirming their existence as individuals in the middle of a global conflict. 

Alexandra McKinnon is a historian currently based in Melbourne. 

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