It all began more than one hundred years ago, when on the 4th of August 1914 Great Britain declared war on Germany. Australia joined the war alongside Britain. At the time Australia did not have a large land army and relied on volunteers to create the first Australian Imperial Force (AIF). From all over the country people signed up to join the fight.
But there is one group that stands out and remained largely forgotten in Australia’s military history. There were many Aboriginal Australians who answered the call to fight. The research into Aboriginal Anzacs remains an ongoing process. But what is known is important and at this time of remembrance and we must ask important questions about their contribution, treatment and reasons for joining.
As to how many Aboriginal signed up to fight for Australia, the number ranges from 300 to over 1000. The real number is most likely over 1000. At the start of the war many had been rejected from recruitment offices as ‘too dark’ as Sections 61 and 138 of the 1903 Defence Act exempted people ‘not of European descent’. There were cases of Aboriginal who still managed to enlist by claiming to be Maoris, Indian, or who were just written off as ‘dark complexion’. Some military officials did not care about race as long as they were willing to fight.
This changed when firstly in July 1916 at Pozieres, France, the AIF suffered 23 000 casualties and secondly Billy Hughes’ Government failed to pass the two conscription plebiscites, on the 28th October 1916 and 20th December 1917. Because of these, restrictions on Aboriginals were eased.
My research shows that Aboriginal Anzacs were present in every major conflict the AIF fought in Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Middle East. Aboriginals were also rewarded for their service. Aboriginals who were awarded the Military Medal (MM) are Augustus Peg Farmer, Glamor Garr, Frederick Prentice and William Reginald Rawlings. There were also those who were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) William Irwin, Albert Knight and Harry Thorpe.
Once in the AIF Aboriginals were generally treated as equals and were paid the same amount as their white comrades. This was better than on the home front where they came from a society of few rights, low wages, and poor living conditions. Aboriginals generally served in ordinary units under the same conditions as the other soldiers and formed friendships with White soldiers. However in the post-war world the same prejudice and discrimination remained.
What did fighting for Australia mean to them?
I have found there are five main motivations as to why Aboriginals signed up to fight.
First, like many of the young Australian white men who signed up to fight, Aboriginals saw it as a chance to see the other side of the world with their mates. Aboriginals also wanted to leave the boredom and restrictions in the reserves to learn skills that could be useful for the future. For many in 1914 the offer of 6 shillings a day and a trip overseas was a good opportunity. Some men supported their families by allotting their pay directly to them.
Second, there had been a history throughout the nineteenth century of Aboriginals fighting against White settlers. Signing up to fight for Australia was a way of redeeming themselves in the eyes of White Australia. An example is Granny Lovett’s family who belonged to the Gunditjmara (‘Mara) people and had five sons who fought in France, Gallipoli and Palestine. In the 1840s the ‘Mara fought the British settlers and its possible her father and/or grandfather was involved.
Third, loyalty and patriotism towards Australia and/or the British Empire could have encouraged the enlistment. Joining the war effort could demonstrate their duties of ‘citizenship’ as well as a history of a proud warrior tradition.
Fourth, many Aboriginals were also fighting for their children’s future to better their chance in society. This was shown by an Aboriginal man John Kickett, who wrote to Mr. Griffiths, a member of the WA Government complaining how his four children were not allowed to attend school at Quairading. Kickett wanted his sons to be treated fairly because one of his older sons was fighting alongside five members of his tribe in France.
Lastly, there were some Aboriginals who saw the war as a chance to prove themselves the equal of Europeans, and a grateful government would reward them. Enlistment was viewed as a way to receive the ‘vote’, strive for education, equal employment opportunities, contribute to the national defense effort, be part of the national identity and respect from the white population. However, they would quickly be disappointed.
Despite this, over twenty years later, Aboriginals were to be called again on to fight for Australia in a world again at war.
Attwood, Bain and Andrew Markus. The Struggle for Aboriginal Rights: A Documentary History. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 1999.
Huggonson, D. “Aborigines and the aftermath of the Great War.” Australian Aboriginal Studies Number 1 (1993): pp. 2-9.
Huggonson, D. “The dark Diggers of the AIF.” Australian Institute of Political Science, Australian Quarterly Vol. 61, no. 3 (1989): pp. 352-257.
“Indigenous Australians at war: A brief history of Indigenous Australians at War.” Australian Government: Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
“Indigenous Australians at war: Memorials.” Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies.
“Indigenous Australia at war: Why did they Join?” Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies.
“Indigenous Australian servicemen: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have fought for Australia, from the Boer War onwards.” Australian War Memorial. https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/aborigines/indigenous/
Jackomos, Alick and Derek Fowell. Forgotten Heroes: Aborigines at War From the Somme to Vietnam. South Melbourne: Victoria Press, 1993.
Stasiuk, Glen. “‘Warriors then…Warriors still’: Aboriginal Soldiers in the 20th Century.” In History, Politics & Knowledge: Essays in Australian Indigenous Studies, edited by Andrew Gunstone. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008, pp. 191-206.