Benjamin Combo a soldier who was desperate to serve

BENJAMIN Combo was “very black”, army recruiting officers noted when they threw him out of the army after barely three weeks in 1916.

A few months later the Aboriginal horse-breaker turned up in Albury.

He took the oath again to serve his king and country, notwithstanding colour, prejudice and racism.

Off he went to war, sailing with the 3rd Infantry Battalion from Sydney on the troopship Benalla.

Alas, the 27-year-old lad from Queensland fell ill on the long voyage that skirted South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

Pte Combo died of pneumonia on board the ship after it had left Dakar, West Africa, and was buried at sea.

Albury didn’t forget him, however, and he is officially counted as among the city’s war dead of 1914-18.

He has a bronze plaque among 200 surrounding the Albury War Memorial.

Army records show Pte Combo first signed up for the Australian Imperial Force at the Bendigo recruiting office on December 13, 1915, days before Gallipoli was evacuated.

“Signed up” is not quite right, as he struggled to print his name in rough capital letters.

An army doctor added on the form the words “half-caste Aboriginal”.

However, when Pte Combo got to the Bendigo AIF Camp, a major not-iced his skin colour and swiftly sent a message to headquarters stating: “He is very black for a half-caste — is it correct to enlist him?”

A more senior officer quoted Pte Combo’s description as a half-caste and ordered him dischar- ged on January 4, citing he broke the rules by “not being of direct European descent”.

He was also docked a day’s pay for being “absent without leave” on January 3.

Someone then took a red crayon and scrawled across the original enlistment form “cancelled”.

Pte Combo must have had a sense of humour because he chose to enlist again on the 13th of the month — this time in Oct-ober in Albury.

He honestly stated the reason why he was discharged previously but was duly accepted and assigned to NSW-based 3rd Infantry Battalion as a driver (probably of horses), leaving Sydney in Nov- ember.

The ship carried alm-ost 1600 soldiers bound for the Somme Valley in France and around Ypres in Belgium.

Pte Combo was born at Dalby, on the Darling Downs, and his parents had died.

Post-war the army took trouble to find his next of kin, and eventually found his brother Bertie living at the Barambah Aboriginal settlement at Murgon, Queensland.

No personal effects were returned to the family.

All Bertie received were Benjamin Combo’s British War Medal, a memorial scroll, the usual message from King George V and a memorial plaque.

He is listed on the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour.

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