‘There was no colour bar in the trenches’

Research By Professor John Maynard on Episode 5

Douglas Grant is one of the better known Aboriginal servicemen of the First World War. His life was the stuff a Hollywood film director could only dream of.

As a young ‘full-blood’ baby he was ‘saved’ by the chief taxidermist of the Australian Museum in Sydney Robert Grant after his family were ‘killed by a punitive expedition of white settlers and native police, apparently launched from the colonial outpost of Cairns’.[1] Robert Grant and his wife legally adopted the boy. Douglas was raised on equal footing with Robert Grant’s other children living in Annandale, received a good education and later qualified as a draughtsman and woolclasser. During the First World War, he followed several of his workmates and volunteered for the army in 1915. After enlistment, he sat the ‘Sergeants examination successfully, his previous training with the Cadet movement being of

a great advantage’. It was noted he was ‘a wonderfully accurate rifle shot, and at the Rutherford Military encampment just before leaving Australia, hit the “running man” 30 times with consecutive shots at 1,000 yards’ [2] When about to leave Australia for overseas active service Grant was discharged because of regulations preventing Aborigines leaving the country without government approval. Highlighting the ingenuity of many other Aboriginal men he managed to quietly re-enlist and finally embarked for France to join the 13th Battalion.[3] He was wounded in the first battle of Bullecourt, captured by the Germans and would spend the rest of the war as a prisoner of war in the Wittenburg and Wünsdorf Zessen camps. At the camp Grant, would become an exotic curiosity for German doctors, scientists, and anthropologists. The Germans recognized Grant as a well-educated leader with great organizational and administrative abilities.

He was nominated by other prisoners to act

and speak on their behalf. He became President of the British Help Committee

and organized and supervised the essential

food parcels, comforts and medical supplies

for many Indian prisoners. [4] One of the German scientists described him ‘as an unmistakable figure’ and that the other prisoners afforded him great respect for ‘his honesty, his quick mind, and because he

was aggressively Australia’.[5]

At the wars’ end Grant was repatriated to England and he visited his foster parent’s relatives in Scotland where his racial features combined with a richly burred Scottish accent attracted widespread interest. He was known as the black Scotsman. A newspaper account states that Douglas Grant was met at a station in Scotland by a Rolls Royce owned by his Scottish Uncle. The ‘nobleman must have been a little bit surprised to see a coal-black nephew, but he introduced him to his wife and daughter as their nephew and cousin, [and] took him home in the Rolls Royce’.[6]

On his return to Australia Grant returned to his position as a draughtsman with Mort’s Dock & Engineering Company in Sydney. Despite ‘enjoying a degree of celebrity as a war hero’[7] Grant was unsettled by his war time experiences and headed back to Lithgow. He took a position in a small arms factory and became active within the local community and was on the surface ‘immensely popular’.[8] He became the Secretary of the Lithgow Returned Soldiers League and conducted a weekly “Diggers Session” on the commercial radio station.[9] It was whilst in Lithgow that Grant began to speak out on issues facing Aboriginal people, including the recent and notorious Coniston Massacre:

The shooting of 31 [A]borigines in Central Australia is damning in the extreme. It shows the utter lack of the law and order and protection that is theirs by law of the same government whose officers shot these unfortunate natives. [10]

Despite never having lived on a mission and reserve and having grown up in a privileged home environment, Grant displayed an uncanny understanding of the current situation:

It seems to me that the missions have been made a sideshow for a thoughtless and curious public, and I emphatically say that the laxity by the Government officers at these missions and elsewhere is the cause… [Aboriginal] people left to their own resources their land bartered and sold.[11]

He declared that when his people ‘called for justice, they are answered with the lash and the gun’.[12] Grant was again in the news when later the same year he was incensed over the actions of a Condoblin football team drawing the ‘colour-line’ and refusing to play against an Aboriginal team in the local cup. Grant declared that the ‘colour line was never drawn in the trenches’.[13]

Grant returned to Sydney in the early 1930s and he descended into alcoholism. The loss of his step family left a hole in his life too difficult to fill. Despite having been at one time a friend of the likes of poet Perce Cowan and writer Henry Lawson, Grant found that acceptance in the wider community was now a thing of the past. At one point, he was a clerk and also patient at the Callan Park Mental Hospital. He lived on site and designed a replica of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Grant had also put forward an official application to be considered as the architect of new cottages to be built for the Aboriginal community at La Perouse contending that ‘because he was an [A]borigine he knows and understands the needs of his people’.[14] He later lived at the Salvation Army Old Men’s Quarters at La Perouse. He had lived a lonely life across the last decade of his life until his death in 1951. It was a sad descent for such an outstanding man and soldier.

[1] John Ramsland & Christopher Mooney, Remembering Aboriginal Heroes, Brolga Press, Melbourne, 2006, 4.

[2] The Australian Aborigines Advocate, 31 August 1917: 4

[3] Christopher D. Coulthard-Clark, ‘Grant, Douglas (1885?-1951), Bede Nairn & Geoffrey Searle (eds.) Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983, 76-77.

[4] Ramsland, 2006: 7

[5] http// accessed 12 February 2017

[6] The Register (Adelaide), 3 October 1925: 9

[7] John Ramsland, 2006: 11

[8] The Sun (Sydney) 10 March, 1923: 2

[9] Clark, 1983: 76-77

[10] The Lithgow Mercury, 8 February 1929: 3

[11] The Lithgow Mercury, 8 February 1929: 3

[12] Ibid. 3

[13] The Mercury (Hobart), 24 June, 1929: 6

[14] The Riverine Herald, 2 September 1930: 3