My 4th son sleeps in Palestine
"Best current estimates are that about 1,000 Indigenous Australians – out of an estimated population of 93,000 in 1901 – fought in the First World War (though the real number is probably higher)"
Source: Australian War Memorial, "Our Work: Aboriginal service during the First World War" (as at 11/10/2017)
The Australian War Memorial estimates that close to 1% of the Aboriginal population enlisted to fight on behalf of Australia.
To enlist, Firth attested an oath in support of King George V, "that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King in the Australian Imperial Force". He also was content to say of his birth that he was a "natural born British Subject".
The Australian War Memorial's project on Aboriginal service during the first World War admits "It is not known what motivated Indigenous Australians to join the Australian Imperial Force (AIF)". Racist attitudes of the time did not value the Aboriginal contribution, and steps were later taken to to prevent Aboriginals from enlisting at all.
Indigenous Contribution to WW1
As a trooper in the 1st Light Horse Brigade, Ernest was involved in movements of Britain's Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), operating in Egypt and Palestine (now Israel). We annually mourn the devastation of Gallipoli, unaware of a bright moment in the campaign where the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade helped to win back the strategic water-supply town of Beersheba from the Ottoman Empire. In a bold horse-mounted charge against enemy machine-guns, Australian soldiers helped to wrong-foot the Ottoman defenders, a success which led to a series of British assaults on remaining positions. Ernest was killed in action during one of these battles, to take the town of Tel el Khuweilfe - which ended in an Ottoman withdrawal.
Guns of the Inverness Royal Horse Artillery in action at Tel el Khuweilfeh. Horse lines are in the background. Source: AWM B02627
Ernest's brothers Bertie and Charles, who also saw action abroad as soldiers, survived the war.
Historian Phillipa Scarlett notes the cost borne by the Firth family in her article THE ABORIGINAL FIRTHS: AN UNUSUAL ANZAC CONNECTION:
The war certainly changed life for the brothers and their family. In January 1921 in a poignant letter to Senator Pearce, Minister for Defence included with papers in Ernest’s service record, their mother summed up the current state of her family.
Thanking you very much for war book as my 4[th] son sleeps in Palestine Egypt My yung son CA Firth in New Zealand yet cant get home for want of money My yungs [youngest] son FWB Firth been [?] sick in Sydney poor boy I and his father is old.
Ernest James Firth, 4th son of Patrick & Mary from Pilliga, enlisted with Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in Liverpool on 1 September 1915, to fight on behalf of Australia in WWI.
On his enlistment papers, his occupation is noted as 'Labourer', but information provided by his family after his death describe his calling as 'Drover', and this connecdtion with horses surely factored into his assignment to the 11th Reinforcement of the 1st Light Horse Brigade. Firth weighed in at 74kg, 179cm tall, with 'dark' complexion and eyes, stating his religion as Roman Catholic.
Ernest James Firth, 1886-1917. This photograph appears in the collection NSW servicemen portraits, 1918-19 - Ernest James Firth, held by the State Library of NSW, and used by permission.
By his determination to enlist despite all obstacles, we must take seriously the thought that Ernest Firth saw that the futures of indigenous peoples and settlers lay together. But that togetherness has been slow to come - we need a better togetherness. Can we be the generation that makes it? We believe that with God's help, we can.