Indigenous soldiers played a key role for Australia in the First World War.

Indigenous soldiers played a key role for Australia in the First World War.

Life sentences: Indigenous soldiers of the Great War

To mark the centenary of the First World War, Australian Dictionary of Biography research fellow DR SAMUEL FURPHY recalls the lives of five Indigenous soldiers of the Great War.

Often overlooked in the annals of the First World War, the stories of Indigenous Australians who served their country in the defence forces are among the most touching recorded.

One such soldier, Albert Knight, was the second of three brothers to enlist when he volunteered in 1915.

Serving on the Western Front, he was "a bombing specialist and a noted scout".

In September 1918, during an attack on the Hindenberg line, he "advanced over 200 yards in the open under heavy fire, located the enemy weapons, and had them destroyed by artillery," according to his biography.

Awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal, he returned to bush work around Bourke and died in 1973.

Orphaned as a two-year-old in northern Queensland, Douglas Grant was adopted by an employee of the Australian Museum.

He was raised in Lithgow and Sydney and worked as a draughtsman and wool classer.

In January 1916, he enlisted but he was discharged due to regulations that prevented Aborigines leaving the country without government approval.

So he enlisted again and eventually embarked for France.

As a prisoner of war "he became an object of curiosity to German doctors, scientists and anthropologists".

Among those decorated soldiers who did not return from Europe were two Aboriginal Victorians, Harry Thorpe and William Rawlings, who were killed in action on the same day.