2016 Premier’s ANZAC Spirit School Prize Essay – Private Miller Mack

Source: Charlotte Matthias. Uploaded 14 July, 1916


P10608.010On the 5th August 1914, The Advertiser read, “The world is at War.”  Private Miller Mack of Point McLeay, among 416 809 other Australians, 400-500 of those being indigenous, enlisted to protect their country.  These men and women created the first reputation of this newly formed country, the Anzac Legend.  This was the defining legacy from WWI in which the Australian essence of mateship, endurance, resilience, courage and sacrifice which has become entrenched deeply within our culture and reputation.  It is the collective voice of 416 809 gallant individuals, however an under-privileged, missing voice is that of the Aboriginal diggers including Miller Mack.  Although aboriginal soldiers are not widely recognised as a part of this legend, it could be said that they were at the core.  Therefore, Mack’s contributions have not been sufficiently acknowledged and his sacrifices not sufficiently commemorated.  He died for his country, but his voice is still missing.

Miller Mack was born in 1894 to indigenous Ngarrindjuri parents John and Margaret “Pinkey” Mack (nee Karpany).  He grew up at the Point McLeay Mission founded by Reverend George Taplin.  Point McLeay was the most prosperous aboriginal mission in Australia, complete with a church and a school.  Mack was exposed to an education and took advantage of the opportunities presented to him.  He worked as a labourer and was not married.  During this time Australia was a deeply racist country and the aboriginal people were regarded as an ‘underclass’ as they were not counted in the Australian Census.

Mack enlisted with a hope for change, a chance to prove the equality of aboriginal people and Europeans and to push for better treatment post war.  Also, becoming a soldier gave him an opportunity for greater financial gain and travel.  Conversely, at enlistment some aboriginal Australians withdrew the truth about their heritage because of the ‘Defence Act, 1903’ passed by British Parliament, for the Australian colonies.  Legally, the first Australians were bound to aboriginal reserves with their lives governed by the ‘State Protectors of Aborigines’ who were appointed to look after their rights, monitor their property and shield them from inequity and injustice.  The ‘Protectors’ exercised social control of aboriginal people, including power over their earnings.  Throughout WW1 by claiming that they were not aborigines, the soldiers hoped to avoid the ‘Protectors’ control of their army pay.  However as the war went on the government became desperate and allowed any man willing to fight to enlist.

Mack endured extreme hardship, both physically and mentally whilst at war.  He was deemed fit for service (aged 22, 5ft8, 144 pounds), and after training at Mitcham Camp was assigned to the 50th Infantry Battalion, the first South Australian battalion to see active service.  He embarked on the journey to England aboard the “AFRIC” on the 9th January 1917.  Miller’s innocence and vulnerability was highlighted when he carried gum leaves with him as indigenous people had a unique spiritual connection with their land.  Their laws and spirituality are intertwined into their culture and formed with significant relationship to nature.  The English winters were particularly harsh on Mack who had only known the warm South Australian climate, and he therefore suffered chest problems and was hospitalised.

It came as a relief for aboriginal soldiers in that the division between the two races evident in civilian life was broken in the trenches.  The misconceptions and negative stereotypes that surely many non-aboriginal digger had in their minds when they joined would have quickly disappeared when they were living, eating, laughing and dying with these fellas.  It could be said that the demolition of this division led to the formation of the Anzac legend.  From the mateship between the two races during the war, a nation of camaraderie and friendship was officially formed.

Post recovery from illness at his training camp, he and fellow soldiers travelled to Flanders, Belgium.  Here the 50th Battalion fought in the Messines Battle, deemed the ‘greatest mining attack’ in what was the largest man made explosion in human history.  Commanded by the British General Dir Herbert Plummer, nineteen ‘mines’ were exploded beneath the German trenches between Messines and Wytschaete.  Instantly 10 000 German troops were killed.  The noise was audible in Dublin and in the Prime Minister’s office in London.  Private Mack and the rest of the 50th Battalion rushed across the craters supporting the 2nd phase of the attack.

A night attack followed with Mack and his fellow soldiers capturing more enemy trenches.  The success of this battle immensely boosted the confidence of the Allied forces.  However, Mack was one of the 157 Allies affected by phosgene gas, experiencing pulmonary oedema, skin lesions, blurred vision and burning sensations to the throat and eyes.  He was evacuated and sent back to England on 17th July 1918 with severe bronchial pneumonia.  In late September of 1919 he was shipped back to Australia and discharged as medically unfit.  Upon arrival on the 22nd November, he was hospitalised at Torrens Park.  He then returned back to Point McLeay to see his family, however, his health continued to deteriorate and was later diagnosed with tuberculosis.  He died on the 3rd of December 1919, aged 25 and was buried in the Australian Imperial Force section of the West Terrace Cemetery.  To commemorate his war service Mack was awarded the British Was Medal and the Victory Medal.

Nationwide, the sacrifice of the aboriginal solders has not been valued to the same extent as white Australians.  Those who contributed when Australia’s identity and character was born were excluded from the post war celebrations, even though they were at the core of the establishment of the Anzac legend.  The first indigenous member of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service, Marj Tripp stated that indigenous soldiers “returned as second-rate citizens the minute they got off the boat”  They were not acclaimed as heroes; they had no citizen status; they were marginalised with ‘strict white control’ and some found their children had been taken forcibly to mission schools.  In the army, the colour of a man’s skin was of little significance but after the war the discrimination was no different to pre-war Australia.  Aboriginal people were not permitted to enter a hotel to have a drink with the mates with whom they had served; the Anzac Day marches honoured white Australians only; and harsh racial disparity saw the aboriginal diggers not receive veteran’s benefits.  They had served Australia in distant places but with no right to vote, their voice was not heard.  Miller had served for Australia thousands of miles away and gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country however was never truly given the respect and honour he deserved, because of the colour of his skin.

In addition to the heartbreak felt by Mack’s close-knit community after his death, they also had to comprehend the lack of recognition he and the other indigenous diggers received.  Carol Lefevre, author of ‘Quiet City’ started, “He lay in an unmarked grave at the West Terrace Cemetery and he, like his service to the nation was dishonoured and almost forgotten.”  After the war, Miller’s family wrote letters to the press drawing attention to the continuation of discriminatory practices which they felt should have ended after the war.  However, when queried by state protectors, the commonwealth made it clear that war service did not change the status of these men under the Protection Acts.  Doreen Katinyeri, the great niece of Mack recalls, “I think about all that crying I had to listen to when I was a little girl.  The old ladies would sit together and howl for days before Anzac Day and a couple of days after.  My mother always blamed the Protector for the death of Miller.”  Like many families of indigenous Anzacs, Millers’ questioned whether or not the sacrificing of his life for a country which failed to acknowledge his service, was worth the pain they later endured.

Eric Bogle wrote about the Ngarrindjuri soldiers, including Miller Mack in his song ‘Lost Soul, the lyrics read:  “Why did you come here, Ngarrindjuri man?  To fight and die here in this cold and alien land, you owed them nothing, yet your life you freely gave.”  In 1920, when news of Mack’s nameless grave reached the editor of ‘The Register’, donations were received to give Mack an appropriate memorial.  He was remembered as “kind and manly, endearing himself to us all and when he went we felt we had lost a dinkum pal.”  He still has no headstone.  The qualities he possessed remind the Ngarrindjuri people that he was a genuine representation of the true Anzac spirit.  His contribution and the contribution of every indigenous digger helped Australia establish a fierce national character, which many Australians today, feel proud to be associated with.  Although Miller Mack’s voice was not loud, it deserves to be heard.

Read the PDF version of the essay below:

Private Miller Mack – Charlotte Matthias