Bringing Their Spirits Home: Aboriginal Soldiers in World War Ⅰ

6 March, 2023

35,000 kilometres is a very long way to travel.

That’s the distance Joe Flick clocked up, to complete his work with the Winston Churchill Trust on a project called “Bringing Their Spirits Home”, to increase the recognition of World War Ⅰ Aboriginal soldiers in Australia and internationally.

Joe received a Churchill Fellowship in 2019 to further document and photograph the burial sites of Aboriginal soldiers who died during World War Ⅰ in the United Kingdom, France and Belgium.  He is a proud Gomeroi/Yullaroi man from Collarenebri in NSW and a long-time staff member at the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.

His quest began a decade ago while accompanying an under-15’s Indigenous rugby league team to France. The chance sighting of a small Aboriginal flag inside a tiny museum at Villers Bretonneux in northern France set Joe on a course that would see him visit the region many times, meet many hundreds of people, and stand at the gravesides of thousands of Australian soldiers, both Aboriginal and non-Indigenous.

“That first visit started it all, and I knew I was guided by my Pop, Michael (Mick) Flick over the coming years. Pop served in the 29th Battalion in World War Ⅰ and passed in 1963. I didn’t know exactly what the journey would be, how long it would take, or how many people I would meet along the way. So, I committed to go wherever I was guided and do whatever needed to be done,” he said.

In the years since, Joe has visited France and the UK five times, spoken with NSW Aboriginal families, some World War Ⅰ historians, liaised with many officials in Australia, the UK and France and looked over maps, books, and websites for insight and knowledge into the final resting places of Aboriginal soldiers who never came home to Australia.

Villers-Bretonneux became a focal point of Joe’s work as it is home to the Australian National Memorial, which holds the names of more than 10,000 Australian soldiers who died in France in World War Ⅰ, with no known grave. 19 Aboriginal soldiers’ names are on the Memorial wall alone. Not all those lost in France are memorialised there.

Joe’s most recent trip was significantly delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and international lockdowns. He was excited and relieved to be finally able to make the two month 35,000 kilometre journey, in November and December last year (2022).

“It was a frustrating and confusing time for everyone, with lockdowns around the world in 2020 and more lockdowns in NSW since. My focus was on staying safe, being there for my family and community, and continuing my work both with NSWALC and my personal journey for “Bringing Their Spirits Home.”

This time round, Joe travelled extensively across France, Belgium and England. He visited the graves of 68 Aboriginal soldiers and thousands of Australian soldiers, found the names of 23 Aboriginal soldiers with no known grave and performed ceremonies beside many graves across the three countries. A highlight was playing the clapsticks, reciting the Ode and placing a wreath at the Menin Gate in Belgium.

Those small ceremonies are particularly poignant. Joe says he found a perfect combination of respect, solemnity and commemoration.

“When I visited each grave, I would drape the Aboriginal flag over the headstone, remove the flag, say Yaama Karoo and read out each soldier’s details. Then I would place a flower wreath and small Aboriginal and Australian flags on the grave and recite the Ode of Remembrance. I’d then play the clapsticks for each year that they lived and walked with us. It was always very emotional, hearing the clapsticks echo across their last resting place and onward to the Dreamtime. And finally, I’d play a recording of the Last Post and thank them for their service.”

He didn’t visit the graves alone. “Several friends made sure that I was able to travel to each of the identified graves and memorials in France, England, and Belgium. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to complete my journey and I thank them all for their kindness.”

Joe’s host family provided his ‘home away from home’ and treated him to a colourful French Christmas with them, a bugler from the Irish Guard played the Last Post at the Tidworth Military Cemetery in England, and many dozens of flag bearers attended services to pay their respects. His daughter Tessa carried the Aboriginal flag at the head of the Remembrance Day March in Villers Bretonneux, and also accompanied him to England for the Remembrance Sunday Service at St Lawrence Church in Stratford Sub-Castle in Salisbury, where Joseph Knight from Bourke is buried. Tessa spent the first two weeks of Joe’s journey walking alongside her dad.

Officially, the Mayor of Harbonnières supported local services, as did representatives from the French Army, the Franco-Australia Musee, the Australian Ambassador Gillian Bird from the Australian Embassy in Paris, Director of the Sir John Monash Centre Rebecca Doyle and multiple dignitaries, to name a few. In Australia, the Governor General, the NSW Governor, and the Director of the Australian War Memorial were supportive of Joe’s work more broadly, to encourage greater community awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans and the roles they played in World War Ⅰ.

Though for Joe, his ultimate goal was to fulfil the calling he felt in that tiny French museum all those years ago in 2013.

“Standing by the soldiers’ graves, or at their memorial plaques, I’ve told them that their mob love them, remember them, miss them, know where they are buried and hold them in high regard. Many families can now feel more at ease on the final days, and foreign resting places, of their loved one,” he said.

“My fellowship for the Winston Churchill Trust was to make use of the already completed research to visit, document and thank those fallen soldiers for their service to this country. To put things right. And although this part of my project is complete – the bigger journey continues.”

Keep an eye on the Winston Churchill Trust website for Joe’s final report on “Bringing Their Spirits Home’, which will be released in coming weeks. If you are interested in applying for a Fellowship, applications are now open for 2023 at

The map of Joe’s project “Bringing Their Spirits Home” is an overview of his journey across France, Belgium and England in November and December 2022, with many individual stops in each area listed. Copyright NSWALC.

All images are copyright to Joe Flick or Georges Meunier and are used with permission.


We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners of the lands where we work as well as across the lands we travel through. We also acknowledge our Elders past, present and emerging.

Artwork Credit: Craig Cromelin, from a painting he did titled, "4 favourite fishing holes". It is a snippet of his growing years on the Lachlan River, featuring yabby, turtle, fish and family.