Centenary: Aboriginal Anzacs?

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.

Contribution

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.

Treatment

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.

Bibliography

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.

http://www.dva.gov.au/benefitsAndServices/ind/Pages/at_war.aspx

“Indigenous Australians at war: Memorials.” Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies.

http://www.aiatsis.gov.au/collections/exhibitions/iaaw/memorials.html

“Indigenous Australia at war: Why did they Join?” Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies.

http://www.aiatsis.gov.au/collections/exhibitions/iaaw/why.html

“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.

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8 comments on “Centenary: Aboriginal Anzacs?

  1. lukewyld says:

    Hi Michael,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog! I can tell a lot of thought and research has gone into it. I quite liked how you not only provided the facts regarding Aboriginal Anzacs but you were also able to expand on them. I thought adding in the names of the soldiers who were recognised for their contributions personalised the blog and brought the facts to life. It was also extremely interesting to read why the Aboriginals decided to enlist.

    With regards to the treatment of serving Aboriginals, do you know if there were any reasons for their equal treatment? It seems odd considering their treatment elsewhere.

  2. nathanfallon says:

    Michael, I think this is such an important area of research, one which I have experienced is often dismissed. The dominant historiography surrounding WWI enlistment, and I think arguably, Australian military enlistment in general, is overly homogenous, lacking account for the disparity in context between Indigenous and Non-Indiegenous Australian enlistment. I am really glad to see someone take on this issue and consider not just service motivation but also in a related sense, what Indigenous servicemen sought to achieve by their participation. There are should be no generalisations made here, as even in Indigenous enlistment there is great variance, but it is interesting to note the idea of citizenship rights and how that played into the motivations for enlistment. I wonder whether in your research you came across the work of Noah Riseman? Whilst he looks at Torres Straight Islander service in WWII, similar issues are raised to what you have discussed above. I think this is a topic worth discussing, and what a relevant moment to bring this up. I think there has been a dominance of ‘whiteness’ as the normative racial category within Australian military history, a normative discourse which I think has the effect of excluding the nuance of Indigenous service. Thanks for shining a light on an important topic.

    Here is a book that if you haven’t already, is really worth a look. Noah Riseman, Defending Whose Country?: Indigenous soldiers in the Pacific war (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012)].

  3. mushakoff says:

    Fascinating stuff. Judging by the fact that these soldiers were only awarded DCM’s and MM’s I assume that Aboriginal Soldiers could not become Officers, which makes sense considering the stigma against them.

    Also found it really interesting that another indigenous population, New Zealand’s Maoris, were considered far more suitable/racially superior in terms of enlistment.

  4. tranto94 says:

    Hey Michael,
    thanks for the interesting read and shedding light on an often neglected topic! You’re right that unfortunately not much is said about the contributions of the Aboriginal Australians to the war effort in the First World War. I find it jarring how that, as you said, since Australia did not have a large army and as such required volunteers to fill up the AIF, they were still so selective in their recruitment and only changed their stance after suffering staggering losses in 1916. I also find it interesting how though they were discriminated against, at least some of them chose to enlist to fight ‘for King and Country’. The part where you talked about how they received equal treatment from their white comrades reminded me of instances from other wars were a discriminated minority found more respect in a war zone than in their own homeland, namely African-American soldiers during the Vietnam War. It really makes you think about how in war and other life threatening situations barriers are often broken down as all people are susceptible to the dangers they’re exposed to in those kind of environments.

    • tranto94 says:

      The fact that even a century after the beginning of WWI there is not much known about the Aboriginal ANZACs reflects the extent of which their contributions were neglected. Good job in exploring such an unfortunately obscure topic!

  5. mferguson53 says:

    I really enjoyed reading the reasons you suggested that Aboriginal men enlisted in the war. When considering the topic I often thought that there would have been very little motivation to fight with men you had been fighting against in your own country and I guess that would have been the case for many. But the motivations you suggested indicate that many felt the same as the Europeans enlisting, however they just weren’t treated or remembered in the same way!

  6. John Richards says:

    Glamor Garr was not indigenous. His father was a US Citizen of Filipino Heritage, and his mother was Welsh.
    http://www.territorystories.nt.gov.au/handle/10070/235594

    • Hello, first I’m happy that a member of aiatsis has taken the time to read my blog post. I did not know that Glamor Garr was not an indigenous Australian. I took the information from the Garth O’Connell who wrote about Indigenous Australians at War on the aiatsis website. But I did not look at the disclaimer at the bottom at the page or do more research through other government sites. Still thanks for telling me this and taking time to look at my blog.

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