If you were an eagle soaring above the Simpson Desert in Western Queensland during December 1915, you might have spied a solitary trail of dust down below as Peter Craigie’s horse carried him through the powder-red land toward Adelaide to enlist in World War I.
The then-21-year-old Pitta Pitta, Wankamadla/Wankajutuni man trekked over 1,300 kilometres from the outback town of Bedourie, bringing with him masterly droving skills and a sharp right hook, born from a love of boxing.
He would become one of more than 1,000 Aboriginal soldiers to fight for Australia in The Great War.
Like so many Indigenous veterans who returned home after fighting, he would be denied the same entitlements as white soldiers and his name would become a footnote among the history pages.
But thanks to a piece of memorial stone under a gum tree, a theatre performance and a picture book, the name and the story of Peter Craigie will now never be forgotten.
Journey to the front line
Born in 1894, Peter’s mother was a Pitta Pitta and Wankamadla/Wankajutuni woman known only as Bunny.
His father was Scottish station owner James Craigie.
One of eight children, Peter was raised on the red dirt country of Roxborough Downs station in Western Queensland and lived a droving life with his family.
Back then, First Nations peoples were subject to harsh, discriminatory regulations such as the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act (1897) in Queensland.
His great grand-niece Trevina “Shorty” Rogers, a Pitta Pitta, Wangka-madlha and Wangkangurru woman, said this may have spurred him on to join the war.
“I don’t know why he went to war. I can only guess,” Ms Rogers said.
“Is it because they were under the Act? Aboriginal people had to endure such hardships under the Act — owned by white men, separated from their families.
On December 30, 1915, Peter became soldier 2099A of the 15th Reinforcements for the 9th Light Horse Regiment.
Months later, on March 16, 1916, after marrying Muruwali (Daisy) Cusack in Adelaide, Peter boarded the HMAT Anchises, bound for Suez, Egypt.
He reported for duty at the Tel El Kebir training camp on April 15, but was hospitalised with measles, according to war records.
Two weeks later he was transferred to the 5th Divisional Base Depot Artillery Reinforcements and left Alexandria aboard the HMT Ionian, headed for Marseilles, France.
Drivers took pride in job
For the next two years, Peter was a battalion driver deployed to several front lines while also carting critical supplies and ammunition to and from major centres in Etaples and Rouen, war records showed.
For Peter, it was the thought of his country that kept him going.
“He was always a strong man, a very good boxer who could look after himself both in and out of the ring,” Olive Bohning, the eldest of Peter’s surviving daughters, told a local newspaper in 2016.
In June 1918, after attending the 5th Divisional Gas School, Peter was transferred to the 32nd Infantry Battalion and deployed to the front line, east of Amiens, France.
Craigie’s droving legacy
Over a year later, not long after the armistice signalled the end of the war, Peter finally set his sights on home.
Returning to the vast plains of country Queensland, he and Daisy settled in Dajarra in the north-west.
They continued their families’ droving legacies and raised 10 children.
However, the effects of being gassed in the war took a crippling toll on Peter, who suffered various illnesses.
While droving a mob of bulls from Camooweal to the Top End in 1946, Peter collapsed beneath a tree.
He died soon after in Cloncurry, in May 1946, 27 years after returning from the war.
Reviving, celebrating a great story
Dimmed by passing decades, Peter’s story, like so many, faded into the background with only embers of his legacy kept alive in archived war records.
In 2018, his family worked to erect a memorial in his honour.
A chalk-white stone now stands steadfast beneath the shade of a silver smooth gum tree in his hometown, the once bustling droving hub of Dajarra.
It honours all drivers in WWI who often hailed from bush towns.
“It’s a wonderful thing, it’s history. It’s our story, and it’s told to everyone,” Ms Rogers said.
While the memorial offered tangible recognition of Peter’s war efforts, it wasn’t until a travelling theatre troupe visited Dajarra, that his story was brought to life.
Family-run charity theatre company The Storey Players were road-tripping through outback Australia when they stopped in Dajarra to perform and conduct workshops for the locals.
“The more Trevina told us of his story, the more I thought, this is really a story that needs to be told so that young people can really understand this aspect of our history that tends to be covered up,” company founder Simon Storey said.
Now, Peter Craigie is honoured in a theatre production called The Forgotten Warrior, performed in remote communities, schools and youth detention centres right around Australia.
Moreover, Ms Rogers has just completed a picture book in her native Pitta Pitta language, illustrating the history of her country, the Craigie family, and their stories.
“When you start hearing them use the language in everyday speech, it just fills your heart, knowing that this language, this culture, and its people, they’re being revived and there is so much hope with this new generation.”
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