Today’s blog post explores the war service of an Aboriginal Queenslander who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force.
The extract below from an open letter published in the Townsville Daily Bulletin, 24 Oct 1916, brings to the fore the subject of this blog post: Private William (Billy) Elsdale. Believed to be the first Aboriginal digger to die during action in France, Billy’s sacrifice is acknowledged in this letter from W P Vance to Anthony Ogden:
“I read in the papers some queer British names amongst those volunteering from Australia, Ah Chay and Ah Foo. Britishers these, yes, more British in spirit than many who bear old English names and Billy Elsdale, aboriginal half-caste, killed in France, and hundreds of our men with German names, more British than many of our own race.”
It is estimated that over 1000 Aboriginal Australians enlisted for the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War, although many were rejected on the grounds of race. Billy Elsdale found himself accepted and he enlisted on 10 September 1915, at the age of 28.
A recipient of exemption from the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 since 1910, Billy gained employment in 1913 as a police tracker. Working under the command of Sub Inspector Graham of Charleville, Billy was described by Graham as “25 years old … 10 stone 9 lbs … and a good horsemen and bushman”.
However, Billy wanted to enlist, and his AIF enlistment papers offers some insight into the man. The Army Medical Officer wrote the term “Half cast” for Billy’s “complexion” on his certificate of medical examination. At just over 6 feet, Billy was taller than average. He had black hair and brown eyes, and his religious denomination was Roman Catholic. For his next of kin, Billy nominated his friend, Jack Cockrane of Charleville, instead of his parents. Billy pledged with an “X” to truly serve his Sovereign Lord the King, in the Australian Imperial Force, for the duration of the war.
In this letter to the Commissioner of Police, the Charleville police announced “Tracker Billy” left on 10 September 1915 “with other recruits for the training camp” of the AIF, and that he was “a good all round man and a fine horseman”.
As Billy journeyed to war, the government in Australia sought to enforce the ban on Aboriginal Australians joining the AIF. A letter from Commandant Lee of the 1st Military District to Mr Peter Joseph McDermott in the Chief Secretary’s Office argues that:
“the following instructions were promulgated on 23rd September last year : with reference to applications for the enlistment of aboriginals, full blood, or half-caste, please note that it is not considered advisable that [Aboriginal Australians] … be enlisted for the Australian Imperial Force”.
Over in Alexandria, Billy’s battalion disembarked on 5 March 1916. After training, the 9th Battalion joined the 47th Battalion at Serapeum on 23 April. The 47th Battalion sailed on the Calodonia from Alexandria to Marseilles arriving on 9 June. The 47th Battalion finally arrived on the Western Front and took up position in July 1916.
On 7 July 1916, Billy was killed by a sniper at Fleurbaix, France.
Billy’s casualty form in his military service papers records his initial burial site in 1916 as La Boutilliere Cemetery, near Laventie. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website records Private Billy Ellsdale (note the variant spellings – Elsdale/Ellsdale) of 47th Battalion rests at Rue-David Military Cemetery, Fleurbaix which confirms Billy’s body was exhumed, and reinterred. His death was registered under the name Ellsdale by the Registrar’s General in Queensland in 1922. His parent’s names were not included on his death registration. Read more about Queensland death registrations of First World War soldiers here.
In 1923, David Hugh Elsdale of Bell, near Dalby wrote to the Australian Army records office to claim Billy’s war medals (the Victory Medal and the British War Medal), and Billy’s war gratuity. Traditionally, the recipient was the deceased’s nominated next of kin. We learn from this form from Billy’s intestacy file how David proved his kinship to Billy: in answer to the question – what are your reasons for believing [Billy] is your son? David Hugh Elsdale replied under oath “I knew that he enlisted in active service”.
Finally, seven years after Billy was killed in action on the Western Front, David received the Victory Medal and the British War Medal, plus the Memorial Scroll and the Memorial Plaque. The next of kin memorials include the words “Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten”.
Thanks to Tilly Geary, Community and Personal Histories, Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, for providing the research leads for this post.