Equals at war but not at home

Headshot of Liam Croy
Liam CroyAlbany Advertiser
John Mason (back row, second from left) In camp at Blackboy Hill.
Camera IconJohn Mason (back row, second from left) In camp at Blackboy Hill. Credit: State Library of WA

At the Battle of Beersheba, Private John Mason was an equal alongside his fellow Anzacs.

As the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade mounted one of of the world’s last successful cavalry charges, his colour did not matter — only his courage and capabilities.

The indigenous man from Albany later wrote a poem, The Great Beersheba Ride.

His story is one of dozens told in No Less Worthy, a book launched in Canberra last week which documents 135 indigenous West Australians who volunteered to fight in World War I.

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Many of the men were raised in Albany or surrounding Great Southern towns.

The charge of the Australian light horse in October, 1917 is etched in the histories of Australia and modern-day Israel.

Facing a well-established Turkish defensive line, members of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments were ordered to capture the town of Beersheba in southern Israel.

Some were killed by machinegun fire on approach, but many vaulted the trenches, dismounted and engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.

The audacity of the attack caught the Turkish soldiers off-guard and allowed a group of Australians to gallop into town.

It was a stunning victory which enabled British Empire forces to break the Ottoman line in Gaza one week later.

John Mason.
Camera IconJohn Mason. Credit: Western Mail, June 1917. State Library of WA

Pte Mason had already been shot in the leg before he got to Beersheba — and he was shot in the leg again about six months later.

He enlisted for the war in Katanning in June, 1915 and saw it through to the end.

But as reported in No Less Worthy, his indigenous heritage caused problems for him back in WA in 1938.

“A question arose from the Anzac Club in Perth regarding John’s ethnicity and whether he could join the club as he was not exempt from the 1905 Act,” it says.

“In correspondence, the Commissioner of Police stated that “… as he fought for his country... he is deserving of every consideration that can be extended to him... to join the ANZAC Club’. By 1940 there was no indication that John was ever granted membership.”

Launching the book, WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said it also told the stories of men who volunteered to fight for their country but were rejected on grounds of race. They include William Harold Smith from Albany, who enlisted in September, 1914 only to be discharged because he was “not of substantially European origin or descent”.

“This book is the result of years of solid research, dedication and detective work by WA’s Aboriginal History Research Unit which delved deep into little-known State archives and other sources,” Mr Wyatt said.

“The book has led to a doubling of the known number of Aboriginal volunteers in WWI with links to WA.

“Just as importantly, it sets a national standard and provides a blueprint or template to inspire other States to follow in bringing to light the lost stories of their Aboriginal servicemen and women.”

As well as detailing service histories, the book highlights the added challenges indigenous soldiers faced returning home after the horrors of war.

“For those who survived the horror of the battlefield, the equality they experienced while fighting shoulder to shoulder with their non-Aboriginal mates was not always accorded to them on their return home,” Mr Wyatt said.

“Denied equal rights, their transition to civilian life was doubly traumatic.”

Excerpt from The Great Beersheba Ride

The Bed'uins in their humpies, who rise before the sun,

Were sleeping, calm and peaceful, when we made the final run.

Full sixty miles by break of day around the Turkish flank,

Our guns blew their reveille on the south Beersheba bank.

A gallant charge by men on foot, a reckless race on horse,

And "The Anzacs have Beersheba" went ticking o'er the morse.

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