I The AIF: Composition and Contribution

Foreign-Born Soldiers in the AIF: Australia’s Multinational Fighting Force

Karen Agutter

In the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Charles Bean stated that the percentage of members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) from stock other than British was negligible.1 However, an examination of contemporary sources indicates that these non-British soldiers represented a broad cross-section of the increasing number of nationalities that had settled, permanently or temporarily, in Australia before the war.

Despite the representation of multiple ethnicities within the AIF, their contribution to the war has been largely considered within the rubric of Anzac. Elena Govor’s Russian Anzacs (2005) for example, considers the complex story of these men and the hardships they faced during and after their service, but ultimately aims to include them in the wider national story of the Anzac legend—to claim a place for them as a part of the increasingly popular movement of the Australian soldier as an “exemplar of the national character.”2 Perhaps more pointedly, Jeff Kildea’s work on the Irish in the AIF claims the part that these soldiers played “in building that most enduring edifice of Australian national identity, the Anzac tradition.”3 Similarly, John Williams’ German Anzacs (2003) (although predominantly addressing descendants of earlier German and Austrian settlers rather than German-born) highlights the desperate situation many of these families found themselves in

K. Agutter (*)

University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA, Australia e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

K. Ariotti, J.E. Bennett (eds.), Australians and the First World War, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-51520-5_2

but also emphasises the contribution these men made to Australia and the allied victory.4

This chapter does not seek to locate foreign-born soldiers in a multicultural discourse in an attempt “to recover a kind of multicultural history of Anzac.”5 Rather, it aims to open a discussion about the experiences of foreign-born soldiers in Australia’s first AIF, not in terms of specific collective ethnicities or nationalities, nor in their contribution to the Australian legend of Anzac, but rather as an extension of the prejudicial and racist Australian society enshrined in the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), which saw even European-born migrants as ‘aliens’ and nonwhite. Through an examination of the war service dossiers of non-British soldiers, I will consider the broader question of what it was like to be a foreign-born soldier—of allied, enemy, or neutral status—in the AIF. I also examine how different national and cultural backgrounds affected experiences of attestation and service to show that while some foreign- born soldiers appeared to thrive, for many of these men their time in the AIF was traumatic, and reflected in the main the xenophobia which dominated white Australian society at this time.6

In many ways this chapter runs parallel to discussions on Indigenous Australian servicemen, in particular the work of Philippa Scarlett, who examines the interaction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous soldiers.7 It also sits beside Eirik Brazier’s consideration of Scandinavian- born diggers in the AIF, which recognises the challenges these men faced in the years before the war when increasing numbers of European arrivals in Australia represented a considerable threat to Anglo-Saxon homogeneity, and where fear of the foreigner, already well entrenched before the war, was accentuated by the hostilities.8

Collectively, these foreign-born men were present in sufficient numbers in the AIF that their experiences need to be specifically acknowledged. In this way we can give due consideration to the true multinational nature of the Australian fighting force, and promote the foreign-born soldiers who served within its ranks from the pages of immigration history to make them an integral part of the Australian experience of war.9

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