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.