Douglas Grant was one of around a thousand Indigenous Australians who served with the First AIF. But in many ways this was not his war. So-called ‘full blood’ Aborigines were not permitted to serve in an army where recruits were required to be British subjects or ‘of predominantly European descent’. Nor was Douglas actually a citizen of the country he fought for. Aboriginal people in early twentieth-century Australia were not permitted to vote or marry or work without special permission from the government. Their lives were managed on missions and reserves. Their land, their language, and their culture were taken from them.
Born on the Atherton Tablelands, Douglas was taken from his Indigenous family by a white man Robert Grant. Life with a white family was thought to offer opportunity. Douglas received a first-class education, trained in a technical school, and qualified as a mechanical draughtsman. But Douglas always stood out, with his thick Scottish accent, his strong labour political views, and his love of the classics.
When war broke out, Douglas believed it was his duty to enlist. He joined the AIF in 1916, but after training with the 34th Battalion, was barred from leaving Australia because of his Indigenous descent. Robert Grant stepped in. A special dispensation was granted, Douglas was allowed to re-join his battalion and make his way to France.
Private Grant experienced barely two months of trench warfare in France, before being wounded. He was struck by a shell at the Battle of Bullecourt and taken prisoner by the German Army. But even as a prisoner Douglas stood out. He was sent to Berlin to be studied by anthropologists and scientists. This Indigenous man was seen as something of a curiosity.
Upon his return to Australia, Douglas appeared to readjust to civilian life. He became actively involved in numerous soldiers’ associations, maintained a wide and diverse social network, and even hosted his own radio slot. But during the years of the Great Depression, Douglas struggled to find work. He wrote one letter after another to the Repatriation authorities pleading for assistance.
In 1931 he was admitted to Callan Park Mental Hospital. But the hospital could not break Douglas’ spirit. In the 1930s, Douglas Grant was a pioneer of the civil rights movement and advocated the cause of all Australia’s veterans.
Upon his release from Callan Park in 1939, Douglas moved into a Salvation Army home in Sydney. He was never able to find steady work, marry, or successfully negotiate the space between black and white Australia. Douglas Grant died ‘in loneliness and obscurity’ in the Prince Henry Hospital, La Perouse in 1951. After his death, a close friend remarked that his life was ‘not a story that we have much to be proud of. A good brain wasted and a useful citizen frustrated.’