Private George Combo stood with solemn dignity for his studio portrait; a soldier on his way to war. Wool uniform, knee-high leather boots and cap.
The indigenous labourer from Mogil Mogil in NSW enlisted with the Light Horse on 21 May 1916 but was transferred to the 29th Battalion, 11th Reinforcement five months later.
His information has been unearthed from the National Archives of Australia following a request from his great niece, Valerie Gruenberg, of Russell Island. Her grandfather, William Burney, also served in World War I.
George was one of an estimated 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who volunteered to serve in World War I, despite the Defence Act of 1903 prohibiting enlistment. They were forced to conceal their heritage until the Act was revised in 1917 following heavy losses on the Western Front.
As civilians Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island men endured low pay and poor living conditions and were denied the vote. But once enlisted, they received equal pay (6 shillings a day for an overseas posting) for their service.
On 3 November 1916 George travelled from Sydney to Plymouth on board the HMTS Afric. His battalion then travelled to France in March 1917.
According to the Australian War Memorial’s website: “the only large battle in 1917 in which the 29th Battalion played a major role was Polygon Wood, fought in the Ypres sector in Belgium on 26 September”.
Shortly after the start of this battle, on 1 October, George was shot in the right thigh and repatriated to England where he was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Dartford.
George’s mother, Fanny Combo, was notified of her son’s injury via a pro forma letter sent to Mission Station in Collarenebri where she lived.
George soon recovered and re-joined his battalion on 5 December 1917.
“Unlike some AIF battalions, the 29th had a relatively quiet time during the German Spring Offensive of 1918 as the 5th Division was in reserve for a lot of the time.”
“When the Allies took to the offensive again, the 29th fought in a minor attack at Morlancourt on 29 July, and then in August and September took part in the great advance that followed the battle of Amiens, “ according to the Australian War Memorial website.
It was during this advance, on 1 August 1918, that George was again wounded. He recovered, was transferred to the 32nd Battalion on 3 February 1919 and returned home. On 28 September 1919 he was discharged from the AIF.
There is a small clutch of documents from 1949 following George’s death. The secretary of the Returned Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia wrote to AIF Base Records to confirm his wartime service in an effort to secure funeral expenses from the Repatriation Department. The letter noted George “died under very poor circumstances”.
The Australian War Memorial’s website confirmed that, sadly, despite receiving equal treatment as enlisted men, indigenous soldiers were greeted with “the same prejudice and discrimination as before” when they returned to civilian life.
Dianne McKean – QANZAC100 Team