Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsREBECCA WHEATLEY: Wesley, you've mentioned that line before about, once you've faced death together, you could face life together.

Skip to 0 minutes and 13 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: Mm-hmm.

Skip to 0 minutes and 14 secondsREBECCA WHEATLEY: Could you talk a little bit more about the relationships between non-Indigenous and Indigenous servicemen when they're actually over in the front line?

Skip to 0 minutes and 21 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: Look, I don't think there was much. Well, look, there are stories of racism. There's one particular story of-- where a non-Indigenous man was being racist to his black counterpart and that the whole platoon or unit ended up bashing this racist up.

Skip to 0 minutes and 41 secondsREBECCA WHEATLEY: Yeah. Yeah.

Skip to 0 minutes and 42 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: You know, the sense of the discipline and mate-ship was very clear. There are also stories of how there were just no differences. The differences that you were experiencing at home because of whatever kind of social structures were in place all disappeared so that you could actually work together over there. It's interesting. One of the actors in the show, Uncle George Bostock, who's-- he's 73-- 74 now. And he served in Vietnam, and he talked of a very particular story, too, of-- where he was in charge of a unit of men, and there was a racist. And that in the army, you're self-disciplining.

Skip to 1 minute and 16 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: The rest of the unit said to this racist man, "If you don't take the orders that this black man tells you, we are going to shoot you the first time-- the minute we engage the enemy. The first time someone tries to shoot us, we will shoot you first. And your family will never know. It's all right." But if you're the weak link, if you're not following orders, you endanger everyone's lives.

Skip to 1 minute and 38 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: And when the stakes are that high, racism is just-- well, you're just intolerable.

Skip to 1 minute and 42 secondsREBECCA WHEATLEY: Yeah.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: You just can't do it.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: You actually have to work together, and I think that's what-- well, I think-- that's what I think a lot of the soldiers felt-- that they were very much part of this unit together.

Skip to 1 minute and 56 secondsREBECCA WHEATLEY: Hmm.

Skip to 1 minute and 57 secondsLAURA JAMES: They needed it to work.

Skip to 1 minute and 58 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: Well, if it didn't work, they all died.

Skip to 2 minutes and 0 secondsREBECCA WHEATLEY: It's a huge cost.

Skip to 2 minutes and 1 secondWESLEY ENOCH: Yeah. And you actually rely on each other in a way that maybe it was-- racism is a luxury--

Skip to 2 minutes and 7 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: --that you can have when you're at home. But when you're facing death every day, you can't--

Skip to 2 minutes and 13 secondsLAURA JAMES: No place for it here.

Skip to 2 minutes and 15 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: You can't have racism. No place for it here.

Skip to 2 minutes and 17 secondsREBECCA WHEATLEY: Yeah.

Skip to 2 minutes and 18 secondsLAURA JAMES: One of the characters in your play makes the comment that, "You can't put history back in the bottle, mate," and it's such a great line.

Skip to 2 minutes and 24 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: Mm-hmm.

Skip to 2 minutes and 24 secondsLAURA JAMES: We were wondering, in the context of aboriginal war service, if you could elaborate on what this means.

Skip to 2 minutes and 30 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: I think it's a double-edge. There's two sides to that particular bit. One is, look. We can't forget the past. We can't forget the colonial past and the problems that we've experienced as Indigenous Australians, nor can you forget that we have served.

Skip to 2 minutes and 46 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: That you cannot undo the great sacrifice that Indigenous Australia has brought to World War I as well, that the history is played out. And any part of forgetting of it should be stopped. For me, there's something around-- because World War I and the Gallipoli mythology and legacy is so strong that there's-- it's always been-- I don't know. We forget about the diversity.

Skip to 3 minutes and 17 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: We forget about the working-class stories. We forget about Indigenous service. We forget about what it meant for a whole lot of Chinese Australians who were here. We forget that, in fact, Japan was our ally in World War I. We conveniently forget the diversity of our story because we were nation-building at the time. You know, some call World War I the "blooding of the nation"-- this idea of going out there and then creating heroic figures and creating big narratives that we could build a nation on. And I think those narratives have-- well, they've been with us for over a hundred years.

Skip to 3 minutes and 54 secondsAnd now, a hundred years on, we can go back and pick it all apart and see the diversity of that narrative.

Skip to 4 minutes and 1 secondWESLEY ENOCH: And see that there were desertions.

Skip to 4 minutes and 4 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: See that there were kind of terrible, terrible pain that these men brought back with them, and it then shows in the breaking of marriages, the beating of wives and children, the shell-shock, the walking wounded throughout the country. But we, for whatever reasons, conveniently forgot all of that. We forgot that there was diversity, and we-- well, we shunned the idea that there was a real cost in lives, but also in lives that were lived after the war. So for us, I think this whole idea of this centenary and this commemoration is also a moment where we can look at ourselves and, for me, insert the Indigenous story into that narrative, which was always there.

Skip to 4 minutes and 53 secondsREBECCA WHEATLEY: Mm-hmm.

Skip to 4 minutes and 53 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: It just was hidden behind these nation-building hopes.

Skip to 4 minutes and 56 secondsREBECCA WHEATLEY: Yep.

Skip to 4 minutes and 57 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: And put a black face in Gallipoli. That's pretty amazing.

Skip to 5 minutes and 1 secondLAURA JAMES: Yes. The one small section of a larger story.

Skip to 5 minutes and 4 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: Exactly. Well-- and Australia is a collection of small narratives-- some being promoted, some being shunned.

Skip to 5 minutes and 13 secondsWESLEY ENOCH: But this centenary is a wonderful moment of bringing them all to an even keel and say, oh, look at them all. And aren't we proud of all of those stories?

Skip to 5 minutes and 21 secondsLAURA JAMES: Definitely.

Skip to 5 minutes and 22 secondsREBECCA WHEATLEY: Mm-hmm.

You can’t put history back in the bottle

Watch Wesley Enoch discuss racism and equality in the ranks and the search for diversity in the history of Indigenous servicemen.

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This video is from the free online course:

World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

Monash University