Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Carter, Roland Wenzel (1892–1960)

by Peter Monteath and Sandra Kearney

This article was published online in 2020

Roland Wenzel Carter (1892–1960), soldier and community leader, was a proud Ngarrindjeri man and dedicated leader who made a significant lifelong contribution to the Ngarrindjeri community in South Australia. He was born on 28 February 1892 at Goolwa, South Australia, eldest son of Ngarrindjeri parents Jeffrey Carter and his wife Rose, née Rankine. His early years were spent at Raukkan, known to Europeans as Point McLeay Mission, on the south-eastern shore of Lake Alexandrina. The mission had been established by the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association in 1859 and in 1916 the South Australian government took over its management. Roland was educated at the mission school until the age of fourteen. He later worked as a labourer at the mission and was a member of its Congregationalist Church.

On 18 July 1915 Carter enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in World War I (WWI) and, notably, he was the first Ngarrindjeri man to enlist. According to the 1909 Commonwealth Defence Act, enlistment in the AIF was confined to men who were ‘substantially of European descent’ but this was not always rigorously adhered to. Carter was one of more than 1,300 Indigenous Australians enlisted in WWI. His attestation paper described him as being five feet six inches (168 cm) tall and as having a ‘dark’ complexion. The day before he left for Keswick Barracks, Adelaide, the Point McLeay community presented him with a silver mounted razor strop and a safety razor. The local football club gave him a fountain pen and the mission superintendent’s daughters a pocket Bible. His departure the next day was accompanied by cheers from the proud community.

A member of a reinforcement group for the 10th Battalion, Carter was sent to Egypt in September 1915. In April 1916 he was transferred to the 50th Battalion and sent to France. The 50th was raised as part of the doubling of the AIF; approximately half of its recruits were veterans from the 10th Battalion, the other half being fresh reinforcements from Australia. On 16 August 1916 Carter was wounded at Mouquet Farm, part of the battle of the Somme. His most fateful action was on 2 April 1917 when he participated in an assault on Noreuil, a French village fortified by the Germans. He was one of eighty men captured by the Germans after receiving a serious gunshot wound to his left shoulder. His injury was treated at an army hospital at Valenciennes, France. Later he was moved to prisoner of war (POW) camps at Limburg, Zerbst, and Wünsdorf in Germany.

The camp at Wünsdorf was called the Halbmondlager (Crescent Moon Camp). It had been set up to accommodate Muslim prisoners from the armed forces of the British, French, and Russian armies in the hope that, by bringing them together and treating them well, the Germans might persuade them to change sides and fight a jihadist war against their former colonial masters. Carter was one of two Indigenous Australian POWs at the camp; the other, whom Carter met, was Douglas Grant, a Ngadjon/Ngadjan man from the Bellenden Ker Ranges, Queensland. When Carter arrived at Wünsdorf, the camp was providing German anthropologists with the opportunity to interrogate and study POWs from diverse backgrounds. The prisoners were photographed, their portraits painted, and their voices recorded. The photographer Otto Stiehl captured Carter’s image.

Carter reported that he was generally well treated at Halbmondlager, where he shared Ngarrindjeri methods of healing with German doctors at the camp. In January 1918, in a letter home to his mother, he wrote: ‘I am getting good treatment here. Last Friday I went in the town to see the moving pictures. All the Native prisoner of War went. We have Church here every other Sunday’ (SLSA 76/1/230). In later life, when reflecting on his experiences, he recalled that sometimes the Germans teased him by asking: ‘Why are you fighting here? Why didn’t you stay at home?’ (Wilson, pers. comm.). When the war ended he was sent to Sutton Veny, England, for medical assessment before being repatriated on HMAT Derbyshire, arriving on 20 April 1919. He was discharged on 12 June and returned to Point McLeay Mission.

The following year, on 5 February 1920, in the church vestry at Point McLeay, he married Vera Isobel Rigney. They had eight children: Mervyn Havelock Wenzel, Phenella Letty, Melva Isabel, Edmond Wilton Havelock, Lorraine Muriel, Irene Clarice, Bruce Cedric, and Melva Linda. An active member of the Point McLeay community, Carter performed a solo voice performance in 1925 at the unveiling of a memorial window for four of the sixteen Aboriginal men from Point McLeay who had enlisted and died in WWI. He and other ex-servicemen in the community had raised the necessary funds to commemorate their loss. In 1939 he addressed vice-regal visitors at the community’s centenary celebrations; he also organised concerts, football matches, and school functions. He and Vera were members of the Parents and Teachers Association of the Point McLeay school and he was a member of the Returned and Services League of Australia (1937–57).

One of the anthropologists who had observed Carter as a POW in Germany was Leonhard Adam. In 1929 Adam published an article based on information gained from Carter and Grant entitled ‘On Customs and Law of Some Australian Tribes. A Personal First-Hand Account from Two Aboriginals.’ Following the introduction of anti-Semitic laws in Germany in the 1930s, Adams fled to England. Sent to Australia in 1940 and interned at Tatura, Victoria, until 1942, he made contact with Carter in 1947. Carter was glad to reconnect with the anthropologist, writing: ‘Dr L. Adams[,] My Dear Friend[,] You will no doubt be surprised to … get this letter from me after such a long interval, don’t think for one minute that I have forgotten you because I haven’t’ (UMA 1994.0060).

After the war Carter had continued working as a labourer, but his gunshot wound affected his ability to work full time. He received treatment in 1928 and 1929 and was afterwards declared fit for light work. With work scarce he took what he could find. While carting wood in June 1929 he reinjured his shoulder, but the Repatriation Commission refused to take any responsibility for the condition. The wound continued to bother him during the 1930s and 1940s and his health declined ‘very rapidly’ (NAA D363) during the 1950s. He suffered the loss of Vera to tuberculosis in 1954. Survived by at least two sons and three daughters, Carter died on 2 July 1960 of a stroke at Tailem Bend District Hospital, South Australia, and was buried at Raukkan.

Carter's legacy continues through his descendants and community, and has captured the imagination of contemporary storytellers. In 2015, ahead of the one hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, he was one of twenty-one Ngarrindjeri soldiers commemorated with a special mural at Meningie, South Australia. The 15-metre-long artwork pays tribute to all Ngarrindjeri diggers in WWI, recognising them as proud soldiers who fought for a country that did not acknowledge them as citizens. In 2018 the story of Carter and Adams’s forty-year friendship was the topic of a play Mewei 3027 by the Ngarrindjeri playwright Glenn Shea, the title of which combines the Ngarrindjeri word for ‘soul’ with Carter’s service number.

 

This article was co-written by Peter Monteath and Sandra Kearney on Kaurna and Peramangk land.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Adam, Mary-Clare, and Robyn Sloggett. ‘Roland Carter and Leonhard Adam: Friendship in the Preservation of Ngarrindjeri Knowledge and Cultural Heritage.’ Australian Historical Studies 49, no. 1 (2018): 44–62
  • Chronicle (Adelaide). ‘Honouring Soldiers.’ 18 September 1915, 44
  • Kartinyeri, Doreen. Ngarrindjeri Anzacs. Adelaide: Aboriginal Family History Project, South Australian Museum and Raukkan Council, 1996
  • National Archives of Australia. B2455, Carter R. W
  • National Archives of Australia. D363, H12622
  • Pegram, Aaron. ‘Under the Kaiser’s Crescent Moon.’ Wartime 76 (2016): 32–37
  • State Library of South Australia. SRG 76/1/230, Papers Relating to No. 3027 Private R. W. Carter
  • University of Melbourne Archives. 1994.0060, Adam, Leonhard (1891–1960)
  • Wilson, Lorraine. Personal communication.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Monteath and Sandra Kearney, 'Carter, Roland Wenzel (1892–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/carter-roland-wenzel-29706/text36778, published online 2020, accessed online 14 July 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020