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Aboriginal People and Military Participation

In the years following the Boer War, all British dominions amended or introduced legislation to reform their military structures, considering (among other things) the eligibility of Indigenous peoples for military service.10 In Australia, amendments to the Defence Act in 1909 introduced compulsory military training for men aged twelve to twenty-five, but Section 61(h) included an exemption from both compulsory training and wartime conscription for “persons who are not substantially of European origin or descent.” This provision did not identify Aboriginal people specifically, nor did it explain whether exemption from compulsory service precluded voluntary enlistment. This ambiguity was resolved in 1914 when a military recruiters’ handbook explicitly stated, “Aborigines and halfcastes are not to be enlisted.”11 The Australian regulations contrasted with those of other settler societies, including New Zealand, Canada and the United States, where Indigenous people could enlist, and were more in line with those of South Africa.12

Given the strong response of white Australians to the call to arms in 1914, there was little need for recruiters to ignore this regulation, but some medical examiners certainly did. As a result, there were Aboriginal people present at the earliest engagements of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), including the Gallipoli landings of 25 April 1915.13 Some Aboriginal communities had particularly high rates of enlistment, such as the Ngarrindjeri in south eastern South Australia, the Gunditjmara in western Victoria, the Cape Barren Island community in Tasmania, and the Barambah (later Cherbourg) Mission in Queensland. Aboriginal people were able to circumvent the regulations by finding a sympathetic recruiter or one struggling to meet quotas; in other instances, Aboriginal volunteers were able to pass as either Italian or Maori.14 Like all soldiers, their motivations to enlist were complex, ranging from the pragmatic (a decent wage) to the idealistic (loyalty to ‘King and Country’). An often professed motive was a desire to assert equal status with white Australians, or at least a right to better treatment by government authorities.15

In May 1917 the Australian regulations were altered, allowing recruiters to sign up ‘half-castes’ provided that “one of the parents is of European origin.”16 Winegard argues that the new regulation resulted at least in part from a series of directives from the British War Office in October 1915, which had comparable effects in other British dominions and colonies.17 The delay in implementing these directives in Australia is significant, however, and suggests a more ingrained racial prejudice, and a strong commitment to white Australia. In 1916 a South Australian recruiting poster explicitly characterised the Australian forces as white: “Now is the hour to show the world that you are ‘White’ Australians in very truth.”18 Aboriginal soldiers were sometimes used in recruitment propaganda: in May 1916, for example, the Mayor of Lithgow referred to an Aboriginal solider, Michael Curran, to shame the “many eligible slackers still in the district” who thought of little but “smoking cigarettes and holding up lamp-posts.”19

Various scholars have argued that resistance to Aboriginal enlistment weakened as a result of the manpower crisis of late 1916, but manpower alone seems an inadequate explanation.20 An important influence was surely the successful service of Aboriginal soldiers who had managed to evade earlier restrictions. Shortly before the new regulation was announced, the Director-General of Recruiting had publicly stated that concerns about integration of Aboriginal soldiers into the AIF had proved unfounded.21 Aboriginal people’s capacity to serve had also been asserted by some bureaucrats, including Archibald Meston, a former Protector ofAborigines, who in June 1915 offered to lead a force of “50 to 100 North Queensland aboriginal warriors” to the front. When the Commonwealth Minister for Defence rejected his proposal, Meston provocatively forwarded the offer to Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War.22 Similarly, the Chief Inspector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, J.T. Beckett, viewed military service as conducive to his broader aim of remaking ‘half-caste’ youths into model citizens; in his 1915 report he explained that “as regular soldiers an honourable future would be assured them.”23

The revised recruiting guidelines resulted in a spike in Aboriginal enlistments in Queensland.24 The Chief Protector in that state, J.W. Bleakley, also advocated military service for so-called ‘full-bloods’; he later recalled the bewilderment of one recruiter, who remarked “some of these are the blackest half-castes I’ve ever seen.”25 Despite Bleakley’s efforts, however, the policy shift was only incremental. In June 1917, sixteen ‘full-blooded’ soldiers recruited from the Barambah Mission were rejected by authorities in Melbourne and sent home under police escort.26 Similarly, Gilbert Williams of Wilcannia enlisted successfully in Broken Hill in April 1917, but was discharged in Melbourne in late August. Williams had an unimpeachable record ofconduct, but his discharge papers cite his Aboriginality under the heading of “Disease or Disability.” Grasping for a more plausible explanation, the medical officer suggested Williams had a “deficient physique,” which was a trait the medical officer in Broken Hill had apparently overlooked (Fig. 9.1).27

Early estimates that nearly three hundred Aboriginal people served during the First World War have been progressively revised upwards.28 In 2012 archivist Philippa Scarlett published a list of 834 men with Aboriginal ancestry who volunteered, of whom 682 served overseas. As Scarlett notes, precise numbers are difficult to determine, but recent research at the Australian War Memorial suggests the actual figure is over one thousand.29 The casualty rates for Aboriginal soldiers (83 killed, 125 wounded) were lower than for the entire AIF, but this is explained by the fact that a large proportion of Aboriginal soldiers served in 1917 and 1918, after the most horrific battles on the Western Front.30 Several Aboriginal soldiers received military decorations, including three Distinguished Conduct Medals and nine Military Medals.31 Among them were Harry Thorpe and William Rawlings, Victorian Aboriginal men and friends, who both fell on 9 August 1918 near Vauvillers, France.32 They epitomise the undoubtedly significant contribution of Aboriginal soldiers to the Australian war effort, a contribution that was complemented by the efforts of Aboriginal people on the home front.

Medical Report for Gilbert Williams when discharged in August 1917. (B2455, WILLIAMS G., NAA.)

Fig. 9.1 Medical Report for Gilbert Williams when discharged in August 1917. (B2455, WILLIAMS G., NAA.)

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