In a perfect world, Michael Bell would do himself out of a job. The Indigenous Liaison Officer at the Australian War Memorial works to ensure that all First Nations soldiers are recognised for service to their country.
That’s why the War Memorial’s Last Post ceremony on Thursday (7 July), when the story of Private Walter Parker was told, was such a good day for Mr Bell.
It was the day Private Parker was officially recognised as the first Indigenous soldier to die while serving his country overseas.
Director of the Australian War Memorial Matt Anderson said that including Private Parker’s name on the Roll of Honour and his sacrifice had now “reset our understanding and knowledge of Indigenous service in the Boer War”.
The recognition follows years of “dedicated and tenacious research” by staff and volunteers, Mr Bell, a Ngunnawal/Gomeroi man, said.
Mr Bell said it had taken some of the best research minds in the country to confirm Private Parker’s contribution.
“Using his service and sacrifice for his country can help us work towards reconciliation,” Mr Bell said.
“There is no greater recognition for someone than when they pay the ultimate sacrifice.”
Although there are no known surviving photographs of him, Mr Bell said research showed Private Parker was well-known in his local community at Gingin, Western Australia, where his mother was a traditional Noongar woman.
“It looks like he was very willing to serve his country,” Mr Bell said.
“Research shows that like many other Aboriginal volunteers, Private Parker made at least two attempts to enlist in the First Western Australian Contingent but was unsuccessful.
“Not to be deterred, he tried again and was finally accepted into the Fifth Contingent of the Western Australian Mounted Infantry.”
The contingent shipped out from Fremantle, Western Australia, en route to South Africa on 7 March 1901.
On arrival in Durban on 28 March 1901, the Fifth and Sixth Contingents were combined, returning to Australia the following year.
But Private Parker didn’t return.
He died of typhoid at Standerton, in the Mpumalanga region, on 22 January 1902.
“Aboriginal enlistment and service in the Boer War have been the source of much speculation, arising from the time of transition from colonies to Federation,” Mr Bell said.
“The Memorial has now identified 10 Aboriginal men who served, nine of whom returned.
“As with all other service and conflicts, the potential for these numbers to increase is evident, suggesting that the current total of 10 does not represent all who served.”
Mr Bell said his goal was simple: “We just want recognition for the Indigenous men who defended the country that took so much from them, regardless of whether it was Tobruk, Kokoda or South Africa. We just want them to get the recognition they deserve – something they didn’t get at the time.”
He was also keen to change the image that all Diggers were young white men and to “focus on the service, not the myths”.
Mr Bell said he also hoped such research would help elicit recognition for other Indigenous soldiers, despite the fact so many served such a long time ago.
“We hope sharing Walter Parker’s story will shine a light on his service and encourage other families to come forward with their own stories,” he said.
“It’s a long way back when their service happened … but it’s a lot like a mosaic. Without all the tiles, we will never understand the true picture.”
The full story of Private Walter Parker is available on the Australian War Memorial blog.
More information on the Australian War Memorial’s Indigenous Service records is available on the website.