Private Douglas Grant, 13th Battalion, was born into a traditional Aboriginal community in the Bellenden Ker Ranges, Northern Queensland, in the early 1880s. In 1887 his parents and much of his Aboriginal community were killed but no records were kept regarding the circumstances. Grant was adopted by a white family.
He enlisted in 1916 and with the intervention of his foster father, was accepted for active service overseas. He was wounded and captured by the Germans at Bullecourt in 1917 and remained a prisoner for the duration of the war.
After his capture, Douglas spent two months in France with the other Bullecourt prisoners, who were used as forced labourers for the German Army. Owing to his dark complexion, Douglas ended up at the German camp for Muslim prisoners at Zossen in the German state of Brandenburg, where he supervised the distribution of comforts to Indian prisoners as a member of the British Help Committee.
Douglas’ role in distributing comforts was an extremely important one. Not only did the parcels lift the men’s spirits with much-needed essentials, but the system also provided the opportunity to accurately record who had been taken prisoner and where they were held. This vital information could make a huge difference for families at home in Australia who were waiting for news of their “missing”.
A highly educated man, Douglas returned to a society that was ruled by the White Australia Policy, and he struggled to find work during the Depression. He was hospitalised with severe depression at least once, and never found steady work, and did not receive benefits such as the Soldier Settler Scheme, and was subjected to racial discrimination because of his heritage.
He struggled with alcoholism but continued to be an active member of various soldiers’ associations, and was politically active in arguing for rights for Indigenous men and for returned soldiers. He died alone and in obscurity in 1951.
- Research prepared by Drs Aaron Pegram, Meleah Hampton and Lachlan Grant, Military History Section, Australian War Memorial, 28 March 2019.
Private Douglas Grant 13th Battalion, AIF Wünsdorf-Zossen Germany, 1918
Colourised photograph by Benjamin Thomas