Experience in Service

Many foreign-born people who did manage to become part of the AIF experienced instances of racism while in service, no doubt at least partly borne of the prevailing attitude of xenophobia in the Australian community. Australia’s restrictive immigration policies and history of exclusion of, and hostility towards, many migrants, especially southern Europeans, had resulted in an established racial hierarchy and well publicised negative stereotypical representations of many nationalities.29 Newspaper reports regarding recruitment acknowledged these entrenched stereotypes. The Sydney Morning Herald, for example, reported on the “useful” recruits (that is, the British-born) who were then joined by what were described as the “allies” and the “bantams.”30 The paper went on to elaborate that:

After these useful recruits came quite a series of Allies. The first was an Italian who could not write. Next time a Dane, who had lived for years out here... Three Scandinavians, big and blonde, wanted to join the forces ... Our other Allies were represented by a Russian.31

This somewhat light-hearted description had a much more sombre expression in the wider community. Racial tension and xenophobia quickly escalated after the declaration of war with attacks on people of foreign appearance, especially against the so-called ‘olive peril’ of Italians, Greeks and Slavs. From 1914, life for many migrants in Australia was very uncomfortable. The uncertain position of Greece and Italy in the early months of the war placed added pressure on these groups in particular. Following riots in Kalgoorlie, the Greek community declared in a telegram to the governor-general that they “live in continual terror now even of our lives.”32

The attitude towards Greeks in Australia translated to the AIF. Greek- born George Couros, for example, had arrived in Australia in 1910, having served almost three years with the Greek Army before his migration. In 1915 Couros naturalised, giving as his reason a desire to join up.33 He enlisted on 25 August 1915, but requested to be discharged while still in training camp at Liverpool. He outlined his reasons in a letter to the commanding officer:

When I enlisted with the Australian forces I wanted to do my share in the defence of the British Empire, under the Flag in which I found every protection, freedom and justice. Unfortunately for me the attitude of my native land, Greece, has of late been very prominently before the eyes of the Australian public. In consequence I have been made the subject of unpleasant attacks by some of my comrades to an unbearable degree. If the attack was only confined to words I would not so much mind, but at times the developments ar [sic] such that I am afraid that serious consequences may result. Under the circumstances I herewith appeal to you as my Superior Officer to kindly consider my position and grant me my discharge.34

Couros was granted his discharge in December 1915.

Norwegian Hans Johnsen had a similar tale. He enlisted in July 1915 and within six weeks asked for a discharge on the basis that, because of his accent, he was treated with great suspicion by the men and was subject to persecution.35 His compatriot, Private Preston Andriassen, of the 1st

Pioneers, after three years of service with the AIF, deliberately disobeyed orders in order to be court-martialled. Andriassen’s statement reads:

I am a Norwegian and have been accused on various occasions of being a German and on one occasion I was apprehended and held... The reason why I absented myself from draft was in order that I would be arrested so that I could put my case forward.36

Xenophobia, racial stereotyping and a general lack of understanding of foreign-born enlistees is also evident in the language of service records and Red Cross reports. Those of foreign birth are described, for example, as “very dago with dark curly hair.”37 Or, in the case of Swiss-born Albert Schlumpf, so little was known of the man that on his death in France, after eighteen months of service, he could only be described by his battalion members as a Swede, or possibly a Norwegian.38

Language and cultural differences quickly distinguished foreign-born soldiers from their fellow servicemen and obviously made service difficult for many. Within a year of his attestation, Italian-born Alessandro Rozzamari, one of a very small group of Italian enlistees, requested a transfer to the Italian Army stating he would be “much happier with my own countrymen for my knowledge of English is very limited.”39 Another Italian-born enlistee, Private George Fejino, absconded in France after a year of service. At his subsequent court-martial Fejino explained his absolute misery at being in a foreign army with little knowledge of English.40

The problem of language often comes across in the courts-martial records of foreign-born soldiers in the AIF. Spanish-born Private Miguel Campos of the 19th Battalion, who enlisted in October 1916, was regularly under charge. It is difficult to know if the charges of instigating a disturbance, using insubordinate language, being absent without leave, and ultimately being charged with attempted desertion resulted from his problems with language and/or his position in the battalion. The court- martial report outlined his sentence of five years’ imprisonment and noted rather frankly that as a consequence of his “nationality and way of speaking English his presence in the front line is not desirable.”41 It seems that in at least one instance, lack of English benefited the foreign-born soldier. Danish-born Hans Peter Jensen, also accused of desertion, had his charge downgraded to absence without leave because of his broken English and the fact that both witnesses and the court found it extremely hard to understand him.42 Nevertheless, one can only imagine how rudimentary or limited knowledge of English impacted on the service of some of these men, and subsequently influenced the impression they made on their fellow Australian servicemen. Would Italian Tesia Tomaso have been described as “dull and absent minded,” “probably a malingerer” and “stupid, does not understand the simplest orders given” had English been his first language, or if the strong negative opinions of Italians had not been so well established within the wider Australian society?43

For foreign-born soldiers with strict cultural requirements around food, service in the AIF was virtually untenable. Indian-born Mohamed Gool was discharged a month after attestation at his own request on the grounds that he was unable to eat the food that was supplied to him. Gool had stated on attestation that he was a “Mohomedan” and was apparently informed, “suitable rations would be issued.”44 Clearly, they were not. Similarly, Hazara Singh became ill after losing three stone in weight, he said, as a result of his difficulty eating beef owing to his caste rules.45 The successful enlistment of these men, and of Gurbachan Singh discussed above, was unusual. The majority of Indian-born soldiers not of British descent were rejected outright as a consequence of being insufficiently European, or attested and were then later discharged. At least two soldiers of Indian descent, Desanda and Sirdar Singh, managed to get as far as Egypt before they were discharged. Their files tell of the urgency of their return to Australia and their discharge notes read “[c]onsidered inadvisable to retain Troopers Singh Desanda and Singh Sirdar... owing to peculiar conditions existing this theatre,” although this was deliberately altered in 1920 to read “By Discretion of Authorities.”46 The definitive reason for their discharge remains unknown.

 
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