QUEST FOR A PAST: Norman Kirby honoured, but family searches for his name

Dubbo man Mark Daniels with memorabilla about his great uncle's war service. Photo: REID JERMYN
Dubbo man Mark Daniels with memorabilla about his great uncle's war service. Photo: REID JERMYN

DUBBO man Mark Daniels wants to find a cenotaph listing for a relative recognised for gallantry during the First World War.

Indigenous soldier Lance Corporal Richard Norman Kirby survived the horrors of Gallipoli and went on to win a Distinguished Conduct Medal on the Western Front in France.

"His bravery is well documented but we have been unable to find his name on any local war memorials or rolls of honour," Mr Daniels said.

"We have looked in Dubbo - where he was born; at Quambone - where he grew up; and surrounding areas like Warren and Gilgandra.

"The family has donated my great uncle's medals, photographs and official documents to the Australian War Memorial. We hope Indigenous liaison staff in Canberra may be able to help us locate his name on a cenotaph somewhere else in Australia.

"If my great uncle has not been included on any memorial we hope the situation can be rectified."

Mr Daniels did not know anything about his Indigenous heritage until about 10 years ago.

"It was not something my father spoke about," he said.

When Mr Daniels was a young boy his great aunt had a photograph of a young man in military uniform above her fireplace.

"I would look at it but didn't understand the significance," he said. "One day it was mentioned that the soldier had won the Victoria Cross. In later years I found the honour had been a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

"I wanted to find out more and discovered a wealth of information, including military documents, medals, official certificates and a letter from Buckingham Palace signed by King George V."

A studio portrait of distinguished conduct medal recipient Richard Norman Kirby.

A studio portrait of distinguished conduct medal recipient Richard Norman Kirby.

Richard Norman Kirby was born in Dubbo in 1891 to Samuel Charles and Katherine Kirby.

Samuel immigrated to Australia from Britain. Katherine, an Indigenous Australian, was born at Warren and grew up on Haddon Station. The family moved to Quambone where the tall, well-built Richard worked as a horse breaker and trainer.

He stepped forward for war service on July 30, 1915. According to official records Kirby was a single 24-year-old labourer from Eden via Quambone. His religion was listed as Church of England.

Kirby embarked from Sydney on board the Argyllshire on September 30, 1915 and joined A Company of 20th Battalion at Gallipoli in November 1915. He went on to serve as a Lewis gunner in France and Belgium.

Kirby was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions during an attack on Rainecourt, East of Amiens, on August 11, 1918.

"Part of the company was held up by heavy machine gun fire from the left flank which caused several casualties," the official citation said. "Kirby rushed the post single-handedly and although wounded by a machine gun bullet succeeded in capturing and holding the two machine guns, which were manned by 14 of the enemy, until the remainder of his section came up to his assistance. By this act he set a fine example of bravery and coolness to the remainder of his section."

Documents held by the Australian War Memorial reveal Kirkby was hit in the temple while in a trench.

He was unconscious for about an hour before coming to and telling a mate he thought he was "pretty right".

He died from his wounds on August 20, 1918, and was buried at St Sever Cemetery Extension, Haute-Normandie, France. He was 27.

War memorial records said Kirby was "one of the best - well thought of by officers and men alike".

Kirby's older brothers Robert and George enlisted on April 22, 1916. George, 40, and Robert, 43, left Sydney on the Aeneas on September 30, 1916. They both served with 54th Battalion.

George was gassed on October 17, 1917, and returned to Australia on December 16, 1917. Robert came home on May 12, 1918.

According to war historian Peter Londey, more than 1000 Indigenous soldiers fought in the First World War.

They came from a section of society with few rights, low wages and poor living conditions.

"Most Indigenous Australians could not vote and none were counted in the census," Mr Londey, a former staff member at the Australian War Memorial, said. "When war broke out in 1914, many Indigenous Australians who tried to enlist were rejected on the grounds of race; others slipped through the net.

"By October 1917, when recruits were harder to find and one conscription referendum had already been lost, restrictions were cautiously eased. A new military order stated: 'Half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.'

"This was as far as Australia - officially - would go."

Once in the AIF, Indigenous soldiers were treated as equals. They were paid the same as other soldiers and generally accepted without prejudice.

Mr Londey believes loyalty and patriotism encouraged Indigenous Australians to enlist.

Some may have been keen to prove themselves the equal of Europeans or to push for better treatment after the war.

"For many Australians in 1914 the offer of six shillings a day for a trip overseas was simply too good to miss," Mr Londey said.

"Discrimination in areas such as education, employment and civil liberties, worsened during the war period. Only one Indigenous Australian is known to have received land under a soldier settlement scheme, despite the fact that much of the best farming land in Aboriginal reserves was confiscated for soldier settlement blocks."

Mr Daniels is filled with emotion when he talks about his family's war history.

"I am proud of what my great uncles did for our country," he said. "Their mother, Katherine, was a widow when her sons joined up to serve their country freely and nobly.

"Richard, the youngest, was the first to go. He went into camp at Liverpool before he was drafted to the front in the capacity of a sharpshooter. George and Robert went into camp at Dubbo awaiting their chance to join the baby of the family.

"A newspaper report from the time praised the Kirby boys, as they were known in the Quambone district... (it said) the brothers were the most representative trio that could be picked from their neighbourhood. They were all crack rifle shots and their horsemanship was described as being 'Australian'.

"The newspaper said the brothers were bushmen 'of the very best type'. Robert had the reputation of being one of the best buckjumpers in the 'whole west'.

"The newspaper wished good luck to the boys and better luck to 'their brave mother who can see them go and veil her tears in pride'."

Prime Minister Tony Abbott paid tribute to Richard Kirby and his brothers during his Closing the Gap speech in federal Parliament earlier this year.

Mr Abbott read aloud Kirby's citation for gallantry and described his actions as remarkable.

"That was a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not even counted in the census," he said. "Yet despite so many slights and mistreatments, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served our country with distinction. Returning home, they were denied the same entitlements as their mates. The door was shut on every day but Anzac day."

Mr Abbott said the Parliament owed it to Lance Corporal Kirby and his brothers, "to build the Australia that they fought for, that they hoped in, and that they shaped, which is both free and fair."

Mr Daniels plans to travel to Europe on the 100th anniversary of the ending of the 1914-18 war. "I would like to see where my great uncle is buried," he said. "That would mean so much to me."