Herbert Lovett, a proud Aboriginal man, fought for his country in two world wars, as did three of his brothers. But when he returned home, he was barred from the land he had traditionally owned – and forced to watch as it was divided up among white veterans. Of the many injustices he endured, this is the one that rankles most with Herbert's son, Johnny. "He gave so much and got so little in return," says Mr Lovett, 64.
The shabby treatment by Australia of its indigenous soldiers – who volunteered to fight abroad despite not being recognised as citizens at home – is keenly felt by his family. The Lovetts, from rural Victoria, have a military record unrivalled throughout the Commonwealth, with 21 of them having served in theatres of war, including Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and all having survived.
Now Johnny Lovett is battling to persuade the government to rectify what he calls a "very big moral wrong". He wants compensation for the land on which others grew rich, and for the opportunities that his family – condemned to a life of grinding poverty – missed out on.
Nearly 70 years after the Second World War, Australia has yet to recognise fully the contribution of Aboriginal servicemen and women to the nation's defence. An estimated 4,500 are believed to have fought in the two world wars, yet their names are missing from the memorials found in nearly every city and country town, and from the history books.
Not only were they denied veterans' benefits and excluded from the "soldier settlement" scheme, under which blocks of land were made available for demobilised soldiers to buy or lease, but on their return from war they faced the same discrimination meted out before they joined up. They still could not vote, or buy property, or marry non-Aborigines. They were not allowed to drink in pubs, and were turned away by veterans' clubs.
The Lovetts, who belong to the Gunditjmara language group, come from the Lake Condah area of Victoria – land that was theirs before Australia was colonised. They fought a 22-year war against white settlers, gaining a notoriety that led to them being dubbed the "fighting Gunditjmara". Later, the Aborigines of the area were confined to a mission by colonial authorities, who drained the lake.
It may seem paradoxical that, having lost their land, the Lovetts subsequently volunteered to fight on behalf of those who had taken it. But Johnny Lovett says of his father, who grew up on the mission: "By then, Dad considered Australia as being his country, and if there was a threat to his country, he had to join forces with non-Aboriginal people to defend it."
Herbert and four of his brothers – Edward, Leonard, Frederick and Alfred – fought in the First World War. Herbert was a machine gunner on the Western Front. When the Second World War broke out, they all – apart from Alfred, who was too old – enlisted again, and were joined by their younger brother, Samuel.
Afterwards, hearing that the Lake Condah mission was to be divided up for soldier settlement, Herbert applied to the Victorian government for a block of land. "He never received a response," says Peter Seidel, a Melbourne lawyer who has taken up Johnny Lovett's case. "He had to work on other people's farms to support his family. The injustice in that is incredible."
Mr Seidel is preparing a submission to the federal Department of Veterans' Affairs, arguing that the Lovett family deserves compensation. He notes that Herbert was able to join up in 1917 only because he had some white blood – then he was denied land because of his Aboriginality. "On any view, that is a very sad indictment on the state of Australian race relations over the period of two world wars."
In the army, says Johnny Lovett, his father "experienced an equality that he didn't experience in civilian life ... When he came back from the war, he was back to being black". The brothers were even refused service in the Lake Condah pub, having turned up in uniform – although, according to family lore, they proceeded to eject the barman, lock the door, drink their fill, then shoot the remaining bottles.
The Lovetts were among several Lake Condah families that sent dozens of their young men – and some women – to war. The army's first indigenous officer, Captain Reg Saunders, came from the area. Scandalously, Aboriginal recruits were given only a third of the regular pay, while some received nothing but a few sticks of tobacco. When Frederick Lovett, Herbert's brother, returned home, he lived in a tent with his family, having also failed to secure a block of land.
Some things have changed. Aboriginal people finally became citizens in 1967. In 2000, the Canberra office block housing the Department of Veterans' Affairs was renamed the Lovett Tower, acknowledging the family's extraordinary contribution.
But it was not until 2007 that nationwide ceremonies were held to honour Aboriginal veterans, who still have no war memorial. On Anzac Day, when Australia remembers its war dead, some indigenous old soldiers hold separate marches.
Meanwhile, the Lovetts continue to distinguish themselves. Johnny Lovett was one of four men who fought a successful court action to secure "native title" over Gunditjmara traditional lands, where they can now hunt and fish. Iris Lovett-Gardiner, Frederick's daughter, was awarded a doctorate in her seventies for a thesis on the Lake Condah mission. Nathan Lovett-Murray is a professional Australian rules footballer. Ricky Morris, Frederick's grandson, served with Australian peacekeeping troops in East Timor.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies