I'm reading
Soldiers and aliens
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Pass it on
I'm reading
Soldiers and aliens
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Soldiers and aliens
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
20 May 2020

Soldiers and aliens

Dumbo Feather alumna June Factor shares the introduction to her latest book.

Written by June Factor

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Discussed in this Story

“Modern warfare is a potent generator of memories,” wrote the historian Catherine Merridale. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that contemporary historians have found ways to access and disseminate war memories on a scale previously unimaginable. Oral history has played a significant role in this process.

But not all memories are equal. As in other spheres of life, groups on the periphery have little voice or visibility. My latest book is an attempt to restore to public memory a part of our history largely forgotten: the experiences of men like my father, many recent immigrants and refugees, who willingly or reluctantly joined the Australian army and found themselves in the military’s Employment Companies (also called Labour Companies).

At the core of this book are the experiences of the participants: the ‘aliens’ whose military task was the hard physical labour needed to maintain the war effort and support the fighting forces. They were a heterogeneous lot: Asians and Europeans, scholars and peasants, musicians and factory workers, Communists and royalists, Jews and Catholics, animists and atheists. Diverse in nationality, and in their capacity to undertake demanding physical work, fastidious or rough-and-ready, they lived in tents and huts in crowded proximity.

A strong bond of solidarity developed from the men’s broadly common circumstances, the work they performed, and their widespread commitment to contribute to the defeat of the Axis powers. Each Company was a community of about 300 to 500 men, with subgroups as small as a tent full of friends or as large as a national, religious or language cohort. As well as work there was sport, gambling, dances, concerts, political debate and hunger strikes – when, according to the painter Yosl Bergner, in the 6th Employment Company ‘we had home-cooking in our tents and ate more than ever’. A camaraderie among ‘the boys’ (as many of the Europeans called themselves) generally ensured fundamental stability when political or personal enmity erupted.

To write this book, I have had the good fortune to sit at kitchen and dining-room tables in many homes, talking to the old about their youth. Some of the men wrote memoirs, and some families have kept letters, photos and other documents from those long-ago days. As well, there is a wealth of material scattered in the War Memorial, the National Archives and various other record depositories. These rich sources, together with the writing of historians, have provided layers of knowledge and understanding, and added the perspectives of politicians, military officialdom, media, supporters and opponents to the central voices of the approximately 5,000 Employment Company men who created a multicultural force in the Australian army, long before the word ‘multicultural’ had entered the Australian lexicon.

June Factor

June Factor is convenor of the Befriend a Child in Detention Project. She is a writer, editor and folklorist, and an Honorary Senior Fellow at The University of Melbourne.

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