My Country by Nicki Letts
They will be proud of this.
Boys come over here,
you’re wanted – they said.
An adventure too grand to miss.
Creating the Centena
A young man stands at the enlistment desk:
Name? Charles Gordon Naley
Birthplace? Mundrabilla Station
Aside from a small scar, he’s declared fit and is appointed to the Western & South Australian H Company, 16th Battalion of the 4th Brigade.
The date is 17 September 1914. War was declared just seven weeks ago.
Some 101 years later in 2015, I come across Private Naley’s story at the National Anzac Centre in Albany, Western Australia, when a guide hands me a card introducing the man whose experience I’ll follow through the war. My group of four is told that, statistically, only one of us will survive. Two hours later, I’m surprised how emotional I am to discover that my soldier, Private Naley, was one of the lucky ones.
But in the weeks that followed, a single question nags me: why did he want to fight in the first place?
You see, Naley was Aboriginal. He was born on the Nullarbor, a long desolate stretch of Australia, to a local Mirning Aboriginal woman and one of the white station owners, William. Yet, according to the Commonwealth Defence Act, men who were not “substantially of European origin or descent” were prohibited from enlisting. Just another in the long list of rights that Aboriginal people did not have.
Naley was one of the thousands of Aboriginal men who answered a call that wasn’t to them, to fight for a king and country that didn’t recognise them. He hid any clues that might give away his Aboriginal identity, switching his names and lowering his age.
That’s the first question I asked Michael Laing, his grandson, when I was privileged to speak to him during my research. Was it patriotism? The wage? The hope for equality on his return? Michael doesn’t have the answer, but he tells me, “It could be because grandfather saw all his whitefella mates going off to fight. He probably wanted to be part of the adventure.” I think he’s onto something.
Less than two months after enlisting, Naley left Albany’s shores in the convoy bound for Gallipoli, Australia’s baptism of fire. He was one of only 55 Aboriginal men known to have served in Gallipoli and only two known to survive. The irony is that, in the trenches, Aboriginal soldiers like Naley ¬experienced equality for the first time. Mates are mates on the battlefield, especially when there’s a job to get done.
Surviving the war, Naley returned home to Australia with his new English wife, ready to start a family. In a cruel twist of fate, he died in 1928, possibly due to complications from being gassed in France. But his story is not forgotten – thanks to his grandson, it’s told every day at the National Anzac Centre. Naley represents the many Aboriginal soldiers who, despite not being seen as Australian citizens, answered the call and defended their country. For whatever reason he decided to fight, I believe he’d be proud of his legacy.
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