Australian Indigenous service during World War I

 

Many Indigenous Australians served overseas during World War I. At first, racist regulations prevented them from joining the army. Restrictions were relaxed in 1917 because the British Empire needed reinforcements.

Seven men in army uniform sitting on bare ground surrounded by canvas tents and clothing draped over a wooden picket fence with an old stone building in the background.

Members of the 6th Australian Light Horse Regiment (6ALH) cleaning their kit during a training exercise at Grafton, New South Wales, before serving overseas. Indigenous serviceman 3662 Private Harold Arthur Cowan (also known as Arthur Williams) is shown fourth from left without a shirt. AWM P02229.001

During World War I, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) reflected Australia's ethnic make-up.

More than 420,000 men volunteered for the AIF during the war. Most of them were of British origin. But just as men of other nationalities could be found across the country, so too could they be found in the AIF. Culturally diverse people brought their own accents, cultures and habits to a predominantly Anglo-Saxon force. Being mostly European, they blended in.

Discriminatory enlistment standards

When the war began in 1914, the Defence Act 1903 (Cwlth) prevented Indigenous Australians from entering military service. Most recruiters rigidly stuck to the rule in their military recruiting handbook:

Aborigines and half-castes are not to be enlisted. This restriction is to be interpreted as applying to all coloured men.

But over the years of war, many Indigenous men were accepted into the AIF.

Fewer and fewer Australians were willing to enlist as war went on and casualty lists lengthened. This widespread view was reflected in the defeat of conscription referendums in 1916 and 1917.

Faced with rapidly declining numbers, the Australian Government began to relax the conditions for enlistment. First, it changed the physical requirements (age, height, chest measurement) to broaden eligibility. Then it introduced legislation to accept enrolments from Indigenous Australians of mixed race.

The new standard for enlistment in the 1917 Military Order 200(2) was:

Half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin. NOTE — All previous instructions on this subject are cancelled.

The relaxed standard made it easier for Indigenous Australians and people from other cultural groups to enlist in the AIF.

Some freedom in service

Hundreds of Indigenous Australians - and perhaps several thousand - enlisted in the AIF. For the only time in their lives, many men found themselves free from the discrimination that affected their everyday civilian lives.

In 1919, a Queensland nurse recalled that there was:

no discrimination on the battlefield and certainly none in the military hospitals

More than a decade after the war, another veteran wrote of 'a Queensland aborigine' who had:

become his brother, and was his brother still

Reasons for joining up

Some people might have seen enlistment as an opportunity to prove themselves the equal of Europeans. Perhaps they hoped for improved treatment and equality after the war. We can only assume that like many soldiers, they seized the opportunity to earn extra money, travel overseas and do their duty for the country.

Wartime service and illness

Sapper John Fitzgerald was a Ballardong Noongar man, born at York, Western Australia, in about 1889. This was only 58 years after British settlers first moved to the York area.

As a young man, Fitzgerald worked as farm hand at  Quairading, about 70 km east of York. He enlisted in the AIF in 1917, at the age of 28.

Man standing in full army uniform and felt slouch hat with hands behind his back, looking to the right of the camera

8275 Sapper John Fitzgerald photographed in Melbourne before he embarked for Europe aboard SS Indarra on 26 November 1917. In France, he served with the 2nd Australian Tunnelling Company from May 1918 to May 1919. AWM P11745.001

Like most soldiers in the AIF, Fitzgerald's war service records are marked by illness. On a train from Italian port of Taranto to France, Fitzgerald was diagnosed with measles. Until medical advances in the mid-1900s, this was a serious illness in adults that caused many deaths. Over 5 months, Fitzgerald received treatment in Italy, France and England.

When he recovered, Fitzgerald rejoined his unit in May 1918. He worked on the Western Front with the AIF Tunnelling companies in France. While there, he was treated several times for influenza.

Fitzgerald returned to Western Australia in 1919. He was granted a special exemption from the personal restrictions of the Aborigines Act 1905 the second time he applied. When he died at the young age of 46, the Last Post was played at his burial.

Brave men recognised on their merit

We have many examples of outstanding combat bravery that Indigenous members of the AIF brought to the battlefield.

Private (William) Albert Knight was a Kurnu Barkindji man born at Toorale Station near Louth, about 160 km south-west of Bourke, New South Wales. As a young man, he worked as a farm hand . Knight and two of his brothers enlisted in the AIF. In September 1918, Knight was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ in an attack on the village of Bony.

Private William Reginald 'Bill' Rawlings was a Gunditjmara man born near Purnim, Victoria, in about 1890. As a young man, he worked as a horse-breaker. Rawlings was one of many men from Framlingham Aboriginal Station who enlisted in the AIF. In July 1918, he was awarded the Military Medal for leading a bayonet charge at Morlancourt, France. Rawlings was killed in action on 9 August 1918 and buried at Heath Cemetery, Harbonnières.

Private Harry Murray was an Iman Wardingarri man born at Hornet Bank Station, Queensland, in about 1884. His Aboriginal mother died when he was young. His father, a part-Indian Scottish settler, George Poultney Malcolm Murray, had worked in the Native Police before becoming a police magistrate in 1872. As a young man, Murray worked as a stock and station hand near Taroom, about 40 km east of his birthplace. In the AIF, he was assigned to the 11th Light Horse Regiment. Murray served in the victorious Battle of Samakh in 1918 and returned home a veteran in 1919.

Such bravery was judged on the merit of these brave diggers' actions and not the colour of their skin.

Research into Indigenous service

We are working towards finding out more about the contributions of Indigenous men and women, but it remains a difficult task.

Different social norms and discrimination against Indigenous peoples throughout our history has left an incomplete historical record. This is why the full contribution of Australian Indigenous soldiers may never be completely understood.

Thankfully, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in World War I and later conflicts now receive the recognition they always deserved.


Last updated: 10 May 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), Australian Indigenous service during World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 30 September 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/personnel/indigenous-service
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