Struggling to be involved in the Struggle: Aboriginal Voluntary Defence of the Nation in World War Two.

In 1942, Sendy Togo and his two accomplices travelled from their home town of South Grafton to Sydney in order to complete their enlistment in the second A.I.F. Having already passed preliminary tests at the country centre in Murwillumbah, the men were keen to fight for their country. How shocked they were to receive the news that their willing service was neither necessary nor desirable. Here we have the curious case of the army who in the middle of a war refused fresh recruits. Sendy certainly could see no sense in the situation; “I am anxious to serve Australia but, without any examination or explanation I am being sent back”. But you see, Sendy and his friends were Aboriginal men. For this reasons alone they had to fight for the right to die for one’s country.

This was just the start of the complex and remarkable nature of Indigenous war service to Australia.

 sendyAbove: Sendy Togo extracted from Aborigine Sent Home By Army,” Sunday Sun, January 4, 1942.

The rights of an Indigenous Australian during World War Two (WWII) were seriously restricted. Not even being recognised as part of the nation makes the stream of volunteers from Aboriginal communities a riveting event to research. The lack of rights however was recognised and raised as a concern for Aboriginal enlistment. Rather prominent members of the community such as William Cooper were pushing for citizenship rights before enlistment. Cooper summed up the situation “He (Aboriginal men) has no country and nothing to fight for but the privilege of defending the land which was taken from him by the white race without compensation or even kindness.” This is not to mention the treatment of Aboriginal veterans from World War One (WWI) who were not even allowed to be served a drink in a pub. Despite this, Aboriginal Australians supported the involvement of Australia in the war itself. In fact the Australian Aborigines League was one of the first to condemn German persecution of Jews during Kristallnacht. But contending with the lack of citizenship was not the only obstacle to overcome. For example the military issued orders officially rejecting the service of capable, able-bodied Aboriginal men and women!

Although exempt from conscription the Defence Act outlined that those who were British subjects could freely volunteer. In fact the Australian Military, Regulations and Orders no.177 made during WWI provided the only restriction of enlistment based on race which required an enlistee have one parent of European origin. As an army order it did not have the legal ground of the Defence Act. So from these origins the grounds for restricting Aboriginal enlistment remained shaky In May 1940 a memo on the official military stance on the racial makeup of the army was posted. Enlistment of non-Europeans and aliens was “neither necessary not desirable.” White Australia claimed itself as the sole defender of the country.

The bombing of Darwin on the 19th of February 1942 however, signified that war was knocking at Australia’s front door and it was not the time to be saying ‘no’ to able volunteers. Cracks appeared in the practice of the 1940 declaration which claimed that Aboriginal volunteers were not necessary or desirable. Aboriginal enlistment peaked between 1942 and 1943. Officials grappled with the value of aboriginal service verse their prejudices towards their aboriginality. For example in a letter to the Western Mail in 1941 a soldier outlined what he considers to be the foolishness of removing a capable Aboriginal soldier Jack Blurton. Blurton was told to leave the training camp Blackboy Hill Camp (along with all other men enlisted with Aboriginal descent) after an Aboriginal man returned to the camp with an unspecified disease and fears were sparked about having Aboriginal men in the army. The writer of the letter notes that there could be “no finer Australian enlisted”.

Though records of race were not kept for enlisted soldiers and thus we can only estimate the extent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander participation at 3000 serving in the official forces whilst another 3000 worked as civilian labourers (Robert Hall, 1992). When considering the percentages, the scale as well as the battle to even enlist is impressive. Torres Strait Islanders represented the largest group from a single population in Australia to serve, even more than white Australians. The official stance against enlistment by Aboriginal people however, silenced this history until well after the granting of citizenship rights in 1967.

 P02140_005_150Above: Aboriginal soldiers from their special all volunteer platoon at No 9 camp, Wangaratta, Victoria, retrieved from

At the outbreak of World War Two Indigenous Australians had a number of options with which they could proceed. Although the challenge of a lack of citizenship rights was legitimately presented, the enthusiasm to serve was not diverted despite official orders restricting the racial makeup of the Australian forces. The desire of Aboriginal Australians to serve far outweighed the attempts of the army to create barriers to service. The conflicting needs of the military too ultimately allowed volunteers to slip through the cracks and prove that the digger legend also includes Aboriginal Australians.


Hall, Robert. “Aborigines, the Army and the Second World War in Northern Australia.” Aboriginal History 4 (1980): pp.73-96.

Hall, Robert. “Finding the Black Parts of the Digger Legend: A Guide to Archival Sources on the Aboriginal and Islander Contribution to the Second World War.” Aboriginal History. 16 (1992): pp.58-72.

  1. Cooper to the Minister for the Interior AA. 3 January 1939. A659, 40/11858 Australian Archives.

War Cabinet Agendum, 24 February 1940, NAA: A2671, 45/1940, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

“Indigenous Australian Servicemen.” Australian War Memorial.

The Argus. “Deputation Not Admitted.” December 7, 1938.

Sunday Sun. “Aborigine Sent Home By Army.” January 4, 1942.

Western Mail. “Something Wrong Somewhere.” March 27, 1941.


The Swinging Sixties, political protests and traditional motherhood: The success of the ‘Save Our Sons’ campaign in Australia.

There’s a familiar saying that if you can remember the sixties, then you weren’t really there. When many people think of Australia in the 1960s, they picture an era of protests, sexual exploration and counter revolutions staged namely by the baby-boom generation that began reaching maturity and exercising their influence against restrictive legislation, morals and social issues within Australian society.

students   Love_Not_War_Sign
Student protests,

While it was certainly a socially turbulent era of Australia’s history, consisting of large-scale protests and public demonstrations, this assumption that the 1960s social movements were largely organised by youth and student movements denies a wide variety of other demographics that played a substantial role in protesting social concerns. What many don’t associate with the Swinging Sixties is the thousands of mothers who left the security of their homes and entered the public sphere, publicly protesting Australian ant-conscription legislation.

This group of mothers called themselves ‘Save Our Sons’ (or SOS for short).

Save Our Sons protesting in Melbourne,

SOS was founded as a non-political and non-religious movement in May 1965 by Joyce Golgerth of Sydney, who claimed the organisation intended to motivate mothers to discuss opposition to the Government’s conscription legislation that compelled twenty-year old males, not even legal allowed to vote, to serve overseas in Vietnam. The group successfully created monthly newsletters and staged various protests throughout the Vietnam War period, which included organised petitions and rallies, letter writing, peaceful demonstrations, silent vigils and the distribution of educational leaflets at Army Barracks or railway stations that promoted the rights of conscientious objectors and draft resistors.

SOS Vigil
Save Our Sons holding a silent vigil in Sydney,

Throughout history, women have used their validity and status as both mothers and carers to protest issues of war and violence. During the 1960s several global organisations, bound by the notion of motherhood, attempted to successfully organise political campaigns, however to little avail. So, how did SOS successfully concise their campaign in Australia when no other global organisation was as effective?

Another Mother for Peace founders with two Congressional Representatives,

The U.S. women’s organisation ‘Another Mother for Peace’ (AMP) largely consisted of middle-class mothers and successfully reached a height of over 20,000 members by the late 1960s. However, David Krieger argues despite their high membership numbers the AMP campaign remained unsuccessful due to their inability to ‘ignite’ and their ineffective means of only supporting letter writing as a means of protest. In contrast, Michael Caulfield’s The Vietnam Years describes the potency of the SOS protests as housewives ‘stood there in their hats, gloves and sensible shoes… brandishing their blue and white banners with slogans hand-printed on their aprons’. These mothers had left their homes in a new form of public protest that challenged both the status quo and threatened previously defined gender roles. While SOS also partook in letter writing, it was these public representations that SOS successfully brought an air of respectability and influence to civil protests that had not been seen before.

conscription protest, c. 1968
(Save our Sons silent protest outside Addison Road Military Depot, c. 1968,

The Mothers’ Union (MU), founded in Britain, was similarly identified as conservative, middle-class and mainstream in the sense that the organisation appealed to mothers because of the groups distance from political and feminist affairs. Despite the initial appeal, the failure of MU in Britain can be compared to the success and support received by the Australian Labor Party on the issue of conscription, without SOS maintaining any formal political attachments. SOS’s ability to promote an independent position strengthened the focus on member’s commonalities as women and mothers, without intentionally conflicting on any political or religious grounds.

The U.S. ‘Women Strike for Peace’ (WSP) were formed namely by white, middle-class, college-educated and politically informed women and mothers who maintained a strong and acctive public presence. Despite initially protesting the Cold War and nuclear warfare, by 1965 Amy Swerdlow (an active participant in WSP), confirmed the WSP retained solid opposition to conscription and began heavily protesting the drafting of U.S. soldiers. Although some WSP women utilised conventional sentiments of motherhood to influence social outcomes, many of whom had sons eligible to be drafted, their resistance to formal membership and radical critiques of a wide variety of social issues eventually led to a period of strong activity, followed by a state of little or no change eventually losing numbers and momentum as issues changed, were ratified or became irrelevant.

(Women Strike for Peace protest in New York, c. 1969,

John Murphy’s Harvest of Fear states SOS’s silent vigils, embroidered sashes, respectably dressed middle-class women and the women’s use of language faithful to liberal democracy and rational argument presented the SOS organisation as ‘distinctly genteel’. This strategy of coordinating a coherent image reveals significant awareness of the way SOS desired to be portrayed and was important in representing a modest yet determined use of public space that eventually drew positive and progressive television and newspaper reports from the media, successfully projecting the women as passive yet concerned mothers.

This successful use of  language and symbols that distinctly reflected motherhood was integral to the success of the organisation. Despite the knowledge that SOS was by no means a universal experience, the organisation was able to succinctly transfer their own understandings of motherhood into the public sphere in order to form a powerful and resilient identity that successfully protested the male dominated issue of conscription.

Suggested Further Reading

Caulfield, Michael. The Vietnam Years: From the Jungle to the Australian Suburbs, Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2007.

Curthoys Ann. ‘Shut Up you Bourgeois Bitch: Sexual identity and political action in the anti-​
Vietnam War movement’ in Damousi, J. & Lake, M. (eds) Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century, London: CUP Archive, 1995.

McHugh, Siobhan. Minefields & Miniskirts : Australian Women and the Vietnam War, Sydney: Doubleday, 1993.

Murphy, John. Harvest of Fear: A History of Australia’s Vietnam War, Sydney: Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd, 1993.

What can we learn about Indigenous history through film? Teaching Indigenous history through Rabbit Proof Fence, Australia and The Sapphires.

“Aboriginal achievement is like the dark side of the moon, for it is there but so little is known.”    Ernie Dingo.

Australian cinema has produced films that represent key aspects of Indigenous history at a time when that history was being questioned and debated. Teaching Indigenous history through film provides an excellent medium for expressions of reconciliation, reflection, education, commentary of a (past) society and the experiences of both individuals and groups. Films depicting historical narratives provide a unique insight into avenues of Indigenous history previously overshadowed and neglected.

Contemporary Australian films, Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce2002), Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008) and The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) engage with specific historical processes that reflect 21st century public debate such as child removal, Indigenous treatment, land ownership, frontier violence, racism, cultural and gender bias. Each of these historical narratives are confronting and forward, as they reiterate and educate the avoidable existence of these historical processes in Australia’s past and present. These films depict the historical experience of Indigenous people and reflect upon their status within the particular context.

Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) is the first film to explore the historical process of the Stolen Generation. The film translates the local historical event of the Stolen Generation into a powerful and empathic experience that challenges preconceived notions of history and its affiliated ideologies. The 1997 Bringing them Home Report was inspiration for this film. Release of this report sparked powerful debates on the forced removal of children and the history surrounding it.

Director Philip Noyce describes Rabbit Proof Fence as a vehicle for Australian history. The film explores not only history that is known, but also reveals history that have been denied or forgotten. Noyce methodically shifted through verified Indigenous testimonials and oral histories to create a historically accurate film. Many of the histories gathered offset the official (white) version of history that had previously dominated national history. The message that there are always numerous and unavoidable versions of the same history is reiterated throughout the film.

Rabbit Proof Fence symbolises the damaged relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The setting of the film (1930s) was a prominent decade in Australian history. This era was shaped by transformation and hardship as illustrated by the Great Depression. Life post the Great War saw the continued evolution of the distinctly white national identity, separate from the traditional British identity and ignorant of traditional landowners.

Australia (2008) follows a simple romantic narrative. Set on the eve of the Second World War in the Northern Territory, the film follows the Australian adventures of an Englishwoman, her husband, local Drover and the Indigenous population of the area. The setting and context enabled the director Baz Luhrmann to “bind the historical romance to what really is the greatest scar in the history of this country: the Stolen Generation.”

Australia falls into the cinematic and historical category of a post Mabo film. Post Mabo films register Indigenous ownership of the land through the reassessment of settler and Indigenous relations via the recognition of the 1992 High Court decision to overrule the founding myth of terra nullius. These films are best understand not only within the realms of what is directly represented, but also within the concept of what is not said and shown.

The symbolic shift from the Howard government refusal to apologise, to Kevin Rudd’s official apology in 2008, is cleverly woven into the narrative of the film and is a reflection of what is not said and shown. The emphasis on the unyielding and entwined histories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians throughout the narrative signifies the progression and subsequent unification of the nation. Similarly, the title of the film determinedly attempts to act as a voice for the entire unified and reconciled nation and its people.

The Sapphires (2012) is about four Indigenous women, who are discovered by a talent scout and form a musical performance group called The Sapphires. The women travel to Vietnam in 1968 to sing for the troops during the war.

The film illustrates the suppression of Indigenous people and women of the 1960s as it follows the journey of growing empowerment of four fiercely determined women, despite unavoidable barriers such as dispossession. This film acknowledges the strong relationship with the land and importance of family kinship within the Indigenous culture.

The Sapphires discusses the aftermath of the Stolen Generation, rather than the actual removal of children. The difficulty of reconciling with Indigenous family post removal and cultural assimilation is an emotion that contemporary audiences are inspired to consider, in addition to the historical events of child removal.

The powerful message of the continued existence of the Stolen Generation is reiterated through the character Kay. Ten years prior, Kay’s light colour skin made her a worthy candidate for removal and subsequent assimilation into white culture. Throughout the film she struggles with her multiethnic identity, comparing the very different upbringings of her and her cousins.

The historical context of The Sapphires houses the progress of racial relations in Australia. One year prior the arrival of The Sapphires in Vietnam, the 1967 Referendum ordered for several amendments to be made to the constitution. Prior these changes, Indigenous people were classified as flora and fauna and could not obtain Australian citizenship. Director Tony Briggs continually reflected on the historical context and momentous occurrence of the amendments throughout the film.

These films extend far beyond a centre of entertainment, each enriches the history that inspired the narrative through the education and debate of Indigenous history.

Further references


Australia, dir Baz Luhrmann. 20th Century Fox. 2008.

Rabbit Proof Fence, dir Philip Noyce. Miramax Films. 2002.

The Sapphires, dir Wayne Blair. Hopscotch Films (Australia). 2012.

Youtube links 


Collins, Felicity and Davis, Therese. Australian Cinema After Mabo, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Government Publications 

Commonwealth of Australia Bringing Them Home. Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, 1997.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples, House of Representatives, Canberra, 13 February 2008.

Journal articles 

Davis, Therese. ‘Beyond good/should/bad: Teaching Australian Indigenous film and television’, Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 24 (5), 2010.

Simpson, Catherine. ‘Shifting from landscape to country in Australia, after Mabo’, Metro, 165, 2010.

Newspapers and magazines 

Keirstead, Thomas. ‘Using Film to Explore History’, Japan Digest, 2002.

Murray, Kevin. The Sapphires Stay at Home, Arena Magazine, 123, (4) 2013.

Trends of popularity of Anzac Day and the Anzac Legend throughout the twentieth century

Anzac Day has been commemorated every year since the landing of Australian troops at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. The trends of the popularity of these commemorations have varied throughout the course of the twentieth century. Throughout the inter-war years Anzac Day was seen as an opportunity to remember those who served in the war and a reunion for returned soldiers. [1] Popular opinion towards Anzac Day began to decline in the post-war period and was continued until the beginning of the 1980s. In the 1950s and 1960s, this decrease was mainly attributed to ideas that Anzac Day was one for veterans to get together for a drink. [2] Throughout the 1960s and 1970s on the other hand, anti-war movements were one of the key causes to decline in interest and popularity. [3]

Additionally, throughout the course of the twentieth century the idea of the Anzac Legend was also subjected to fluctuations in popularity. In the 1940s the Anzac legend was viewed with great pride and was said to demonstrate how imperative the Australian forces were in regards to the outcome of the war. [4] During the post-war period up until the beginning of the 1980s, the Anzac legend was subjected to immense criticism due to protests against things such as the raping of women during war, and the large public demonstrations in opposition to Australia’s forces involvement in the Vietnam War. [5]

The 1980s saw dramatic changes in the attitudes and popularity towards Anzac Day and the Anzac Legend. The 1980s saw an increase in media coverage, spectators and participants of Anzac Day marches and celebrations. [6] The numbers of younger people attending and participating in marches with their families or in place of family members who were deceased or could no longer attend increased in the 1980s. [7] Additionally, the 1980s saw the release of a number of film productions concerning Anzacs and the First World War. Two of the most influential were Gallipoli (1981) and Anzacs (1985).

Gallipoli (1981) is one of the most influential films in Australian history. It is currently ranked number 16 on the All-time Australian box office record. [7] The film follows the Australian Gallipoli campaign, particularly the experiences of two young men, Archy Hamilton and Frank Dunne. The film focuses on Australian troops and officers battling with both the enemy and British officers. Gallipoli appeals to the audience in three main ways. One, the struggles experienced by soldiers. Second, the making of the Australian icon, the Anzac Legend, and lastly, it highlights the anti-British sentiments. The negative ideas towards the British were captured in the film where Frank is running in an attempt to halt a very dangerous attack authorised by the British aimed to distract enemy forces. The failure of Frank directly results in the death of his best friend, Archy, which again reinforces the idea of British incompetence.

Anzacs (1985) in contrast to Gallipoli was a television mini-series which aired on the Nine network. This series had the ability to reach a much larger audience. Anzacs followed the First World War campaign of one particular battalion from the landing on Gallipoli until the end of the war on the Western Front. The characters in this series all have their own stories and they all come from various backgrounds and represent different social classes. This production also emphasises anti-British ideas with the soldiers constantly showing disrespect towards British officers.

The release of these films during the 1980s facilitated the increasing debates surrounding the suitability of Australia Day being referred to as Australia’s ‘National Day’. These debates were centred on the idea that Anzac Day would be a more suitable day because it is the one that all Australian’s understand what exactly it is they are commemorating. [8] At the same time, Australia Day was being criticised and labelled as ‘Invasion Day’ by Indigenous people as well as many non-Indigenous people. [9]

Since the beginning of the 1980s, Anzac Day has increased immensely in popularity with Anzac Day marches and services being broadcast in its entirety on live television and increasingly larger attendance figures at specialised events. Government officials and Australian Prime Minister’s as well as large numbers of predominantly younger Australian’s frequently attend Anzac services at Gallipoli and France. It has become so popular that it is viewed as one of the most important topics to learn in the history classroom. The teaching of Anzacs and Anzac Day receives more government education funding than any other topic in the Australian history curriculum. [10]

The impact and popularity of the film Gallipoli (1981) is still evident in current Australian society. This is obvious when observing that this film is included in the Anzac section of the Australian curriculum. To demonstrate further, this film is the only form of popular culture included and it is required to be viewed and analysed as part of the curriculum.

The late twentieth century saw a massive increase in the popularity and national significance of Anzac Day. This is still evident and possibly even more significant in twenty-first century Australia.


[1] Blagg, Sub-Lieutenant Michael C. “Anzac Day.” Sabretache 47, no. 1 (2006): pp. 9-11.

[2] Thomson, Alistair. Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[3] McKenna, Mark. “Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s national day?” In What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010. pp: 110-134

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, “Fighting Tradition.” April 26, 1940.

[5] Damousi, Joy. “Why do we get so emotional about Anzac?” In What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010. pp. 94-109.

[6] Thomson, Alistair. Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[7] Thomson, Alistair. Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.


[9] Australian newspaper 23rd April 1980 quoted in Mark McKenna, ‘Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s National Day?’ in What’s Wrong with Anzac: The Militarisation of Australian History, ed. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010): pp 110-134.

[10] McKenna, Mark. “Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s national day?” In What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010. pp: 110-134

[11] Clark, Anna. History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2008.