NACCHO ANZAC day tribute:Our black history: Lest We Forget Aboriginal veterans


About 1000 Aboriginal men  served in World War I.

They fought for an Australia and a British Empire that denied them rights at home, including freedom of movement, the vote, control of their own finances and custody of their children.


In August 1916, Private Douglas Grant departed Australia on a troop carrier bound for the United Kingdom. Like thousands of other young Australian men, Grant had signed up for the AIF and wound up fighting in the trenches on the Western Front in France.

The Germans captured Grant in June 1917 and he spent the rest of the war as a POW. The Germans recognised he was quite intelligent, so they put him in charge of Red Cross parcels. In one letter to the Red Cross, Grant wrote: ”Could I also get a copy each in book form the poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Lawson, and Robert Louis Stevenson, or some books of Australian life … something in which to pass away a few leisure moments which are generally filled with longing for home sweet home far across the sea.”

At the end of the war Grant was repatriated to the UK and then returned to Australia. There is one other critical detail of interest about Grant’s war story: Douglas Grant was an Aborigine.

Grant’s story is one of about 1000 Aboriginal men who served in World War I. These men came from all states and territories, and they served in all theatres of war including Gallipoli, the Western Front and Palestine. Like non-indigenous Anzacs, they too experienced the horrors of war, died on foreign soil, were maimed, suffered shell shock and lived in foreign POW camp


They also forged the bonds of mateship with non-indigenous servicemen. They fought for an Australia and a British Empire that denied them rights at home, including freedom of movement, the vote, control of their own finances and custody of their children.

Even the AIF initially refused to accept Aboriginal servicemen; early in the war the government decreed that men ”not substantially of European origin or descent” would not be permitted to enlist. Grant was almost refused permission to travel overseas until his adopted white father pulled some strings with the NSW Aborigines’ Protection Board.

Other Aboriginal men managed to skirt the rules and enlist by pretending to be Italian or Maori (which, while not European, was acceptable). The majority of Aboriginal soldiers enlisted later in the war, when the manpower shortage and failure of the conscription referendums led the government to loosen its restrictions.

Why Aborigines chose to fight for a country that had denied them rights is a difficult question to answer, and of course each man had his own reasons to serve. Some signed up because they saw the AIF as an employment opportunity with a steady wage that was higher than they could earn in civilian life. Others joined for the sense of adventure, as it was an opportunity to leave the mission or reserve.

Many others hoped that by serving in the Australian military they would be rewarded with civil rights after the war. Sadly these men’s hopes were crushed. When they returned from overseas, their service was widely forgotten. Aboriginal veterans and their families continued to face inequalities including segregation, no right to vote and unequal wages.

State welfare departments quarantined veterans’ benefits and denied Aboriginal veterans access to soldier settlement schemes. Being a veteran did not even protect Aboriginal fathers from having their children removed.

The Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (present-day RSL) had a mixed record with indigenous ex-servicemen. Some RSL branches advocated for equal rights for Aboriginal veterans, while others refused to admit Aborigines into their branches.A friend of Grant remembers: ”He became a sadder, progressively more dejected figure as each April the 25th went by. One day, in the late ’40s, I saw him sitting under a tree … ‘I’m not wanted any more,’ Grant told me. ‘I don’t want to join in. I don’t belong. I’ve lived long enough’.”

During and after World War II this process repeated itself, affecting even more indigenous Australians. At least 4000 Aborigines and 850 Torres Strait Islanders served in the war. This time women also served, and thousands more participated as civilians in the war effort. Indigenous men and women in remote areas across the Top End patrolled the coast, rescued crashed Australian and American pilots, prepared for guerilla defence against Japan, worked in army labour camps and even captured the first Japanese prisoner of war on Australian soil.

They, too, would be forgotten after the war and denied benefits, which the government only began to rectify from the early 1980s.

Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women continued to serve Australia. They were in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. They have served on peacekeeping missions in places as diverse as Somalia, Cambodia, Solomon Islands and Rwanda. They have also served in units patrolling the Top End in the Pilbara, Northern Territory and far north Queensland.

Anzac Day is a time when all Australians pause to remember the sacrifices service members have made to defend this land. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributions to defence of country are part of that history, and they, too, must be remembered, honoured and thanked.

This is not about special treatment; it is about remembering that among the ranks of the Anzacs and the many other men and women who defended Australia, some of them were black.

Dr Noah Riseman is a senior lecturer in history at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. He is the author of the book Defending Whose Country? Indigenous Soldiers in the Pacific War.

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One comment on “NACCHO ANZAC day tribute:Our black history: Lest We Forget Aboriginal veterans

  1. Did you know…?

    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have fought for Australia in every war since Federation and as early as the Boer War.
    The Australian Defence Force officially repealed its discriminatory policy excluding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from service in 1949.
    During World War II, the Australian Army employed whole Aboriginal communities in Northern Australia in defence work, including construction, army butcheries, farming, hospital aids and general labour. Employees were given rations, housing and sanitation, worked fixed hours and had access to medical treatment in the army hospitals.
    Famous Australian poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) joined the Australian Women’s Army Service and was trained as a wireless operator.

    Meet… The Lovett family

    The Lovett family occupy an impressive position in Australian military history as one of the largest volunteer family groups to serve on the side of the British Empire. Overall, twenty members of the Lovett family, including two female members, have served Australia in both war and peacekeeping missions, from the Western Front to East Timor. Not only did all twenty members survive their service, but four of the Lovett brothers served in both World War I and World War II.
    The Lovetts are Gunditjmara people from Victoria’s western districts. Known as the “fighting Gunditjmara”, they fought British Settlers in the Eumarella War in the 1840s. Decades later, during World War I, five Lovett brothers voluntarily enlisted to fight with the Australian armed forces on the side of the British Empire, despite not being recognised as Australian citizens. Like many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their applications were nearly rejected because of their Aboriginal status however they were eventually accepted because they were not “pure blooded blacks”. Find out more about the Lovett family.

    Some quick statistics
    Over 3000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women are known to have enlisted in World War II.
    Over 800 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Soldiers are known to have served in World War I. The true number is likely to be much higher.
    There are up to 7000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans and war widows in the Australian community today.
    More than 800 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians currently serve with distinction in the Australian Defence Forces.

    Take action…

    If you’re in Canberra, attend the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemorative Ceremony after the Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial.
    If you’re in Sydney, attend the Coloured Diggers March on Anzac Day in Redfern. The March begins with a Welcome to Country at Redfern Park at 1.35pm.
    If you have stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have served for Australia let Gary Oakley at the Australian War Memorial know.
    Listen to Freedom Called, a song written by Dave Arden and Paul Kelly about Aboriginal servicemen and women in World War I and World War II.
    Watch Percy’s War, a documentary about Percy Pepper, an Aboriginal man from Victoria who served in World War I.

    All images courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. Photo 1: Special platoon of Aboriginal soldiers in Wangaratta, 1940. Photo 2: Private Samuel Alexander Peacock Lovett, 6th Reinforcements, 2/5th Battalion, and his niece, Aircraftwoman Alice Lovett. Photo 3: George Leonard and Private Harold West, 14th Reinforcements to the 2/1st Battalion, embarking at Sydney.
    Reconciliation Australian would like to thank the Australian War Memorial for their assistance in developing this factsheet.
    Reconciliation Australia is the national body promoting reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.

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