Barmah Anzac pilgrimage honours Indigenous soldiers in WWI Light Horse enactment

 Indigenous soldiers in WWI Light Horse enactment

Descendants of Indigenous diggers have paid tribute to their ancestors at Anzac celebrations across the country, as calls for recognition of First Nations soldiers continue.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains the names and images of people who have died, but published with the descendants’ permission.

It was the first time that Aboriginal riders joined the Light Horse memorial parade in the tiny border town of Barmah, Victoria on the banks of the Murray River.

Former stockman and Wangkangurru man Uncle Raymond Finn has made it his mission to highlight the sacrifices of First Nation soldiers and their military service to Australia.

It was the first time that Aboriginal riders joined the Light Horse memorial parade in the tiny border town of Barmah, Victoria on the banks of the Murray River.

Former stockman and Wangkangurru man Uncle Raymond Finn has made it his mission to highlight the sacrifices of First Nation soldiers and their military service to Australia.

Mr Finn is at the forefront of bringing the contributions of Indigenous diggers to life through World War I re-enactments when wars were fought on horseback.

He says some Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) clubs still exclude Indigenous people and history on Anzac Day.

His re-enactments are about honouring untold stories of Indigenous diggers and their sacrifices for Australia.

“That’s a cause close to my heart,” Mr Finn said.

“We’ve been in all wars and I don’t know why they can’t give us that acknowledgement. I just can’t understand it.”

He and Verna Pappin made history riding in the Barmah parade together.


Uncle Raymond Finn
Uncle Raymond Finn is dedicated to sharing the stories of Aboriginal soldiers.(ABC Alice Springs: Xavier Martin

Mr Finn grew up in the outback South Australia town of Oodnadatta and his grandfather Jack Ludgate fought in the Light Horse Regiment in Palestine, which battled Turkish and German forces in WWI.

He said it was “a privilege” to honour the 11th Light Horse on Anzac Day, which was made up of First Nations soldiers from Queensland and SA.

Mr Finn’s delegation also commemorated prominent Indigenous activist William Cooper and his son Daniel Cooper, who died in battle in WWI.

Daniel Cooper served in the 24th Australian Infantry Battalion.

He was one of 46,000 Australian soldiers who lost their lives on the Western Front in WWI. He is buried in a military cemetery in Ypres, Belgium.

The Barmah march took place on Yorta Yorta country — the Coopers’ ancestral land.

“What a better place to honour Mr Cooper and Daniel than at this place in Barmah,” Mr Finn said.

“And having the family here — it’s a great honour for me too, to meet them.”


Private Daniel Cooper

A portrait of Daniel Cooper, William Cooper’s son, in his military uniform.(Alick Jackomos collection, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra

Honouring ancestors

William Cooper’s great-great grandson, Michael McDonogh, drove 700 kilometres with his mother Barbara McDonogh from Sydney to attend the Barmah march.

Mr McDonogh believes he is the first descendant to march for Daniel Cooper.

“It’s been a pilgrimage that I had to make and I’m glad I made it today on this special Anzac Day,” Mr McDonogh said.


Military Record of the burial of Daniel Cooper
Michael McDonogh carried a photo of the grave of Yorta Yorta soldier Daniel Cooper at the ceremony.(ABC Shepparton: Rosa Ritchie)

In 2009, in his grandmother’s belongings, he found the original photo of Daniel Cooper’s grave that was issued by authorities and sent to his next of kin in Australia.

“[I] couldn’t believe what I was holding,” Mr McDonogh said.

“Since then, I’ve been carrying it around, showing it to anyone and everyone — as many people as I can — before I have to donate it to the Shrine of Remembrance to have it protected forever.

“That photo to me is the most treasured family heirloom I have now in our possession.

“And I think it shows the real cost of sacrifice and the real contribution that Aboriginal people have made to this country.”

He carried the photo along with an Aboriginal flag during the march.

The photograph is the only war memorabilia the family has of Daniel Cooper.

“I know now that he was entitled to at least two medals — one for serving and one for dying,” Mr McDonogh said.

“None of us have ever seen them.

“William Cooper was so distraught that he may have never received them.”

Mr McDonogh is investigating the medals and will have them reissued if they have been lost, or, if they were never awarded, he plans to have the omission corrected.


Barbara and Michael McDonogh,

Mother and son, Barbara and Michael McDonogh, visit William Cooper’s grave at Cummeragunjah Cemetery.(ABC Shepparton: Rosa Ritchie)

Mr McDonogh is supportive of the proposed Voice to Parliament and says the role of Aboriginal people in Australia’s military history should be discussed more widely and taught in schools.

“I do believe that they have been overlooked,” he said.

“With total recognition in the constitution, it would be a step forward to finally acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were here first.”


Michael McDonogh
Michael McDonogh plans to donate Daniel Cooper’s original grave photo to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.(ABC Shepparton: Rosa Ritchie)

Ms McDonogh agrees that more education is needed to teach non-Indigenous people about Indigenous wartime service throughout history.

“It was never mentioned in school — not a thing,” she said.

Aboriginal activist fought for Jews

A prominent Yorta Yorta man and Indigenous rights activist, William Cooper spent his life campaigning for equal rights from the late 1880s into the 1930s.

In 1936, he founded the Australian Aborigines’ League to lobby state and federal governments.

He arranged a Day of Mourning on January 26, produced a petition calling for Aboriginal representation in federal parliament and inspired generations of activists working for justice for Indigenous Australians.


William Cooper
William Cooper established the National Aborigines Day in 1940, the precursor to NAIDOC Week.(Supplied: Victorian State Parliament)

Today, the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Melbourne has a plaque honouring Cooper for the way he fought against the persecution of Jewish people.

After he learned of the horrors of Kristallnacht in 1938, Nazi pogroms against the Jewish population in Germany, Mr Cooper led a group to the German consulate in Melbourne where they delivered a letter protesting against the violence.

In what became one of the first protests in the world against the actions of the Nazis, Cooper walked from his home in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy to the consulate.

It is considered to be the only protest of its kind in the world at the time, according to the National Museum of Australia.

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