When it was colonised by Europeans, Australia was declared terra nullius; there were no formally binding treaties made with Indigenous Australians, so there was no recognition of the rights of the Indigenous inhabitants.
The Defence Act of 1903 stated that all males aged from 12 to 25 would receive military training; as Aboriginals were not of European descent, they were exempt from military service. (It was not until 1949 that all restrictions were lifted, enabling Indigenous Australians to join the Australian military forces.)
At the outbreak of the war large numbers of Australians came forward to enlist, and Aboriginals also answered the call. Best current estimates are that about 1,000 Indigenous Australians – out of an estimated population of 93,000 in 1901 – fought in the First World War (though the real number is probably higher). It is not known what motivated Indigenous Australians to join the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), but loyalty and patriotism doubtless played a part. There was also the incentive of a receiving a wage. Indigenous soldiers were paid the same rate as non-Indigenous soldiers. In general, Aboriginals served under the same conditions of service as other members of the AIF, with many experiencing in the army equal treatment for the first time in their lives. There may have also been the hope that having served would deliver greater equality after the war. In reality, however, upon their return to civilian life they were treated with the same prejudice and discrimination as before.
Only rarely did the Australian army note on a soldier’s attestation papers whether he was Aboriginal; often just a description, specifying dark complexion, dark hair, or brown eyes, was entered. However, note was made of a soldier’s Aboriginality, in the event of his being discharged as unfit for service because of it.
By the end of 1915 it became harder for Aboriginals to enlist, and some were rejected because of their race. But this did not deter others, and some travelled hundreds of kilometres to enlist after being turned down at centres closer to their communities. Some who had been passed by the recruiter were then rejected while under training in the camps.
Instructions for the “guidance of enlisting officers at approved military recruiting depots” issued in 1916 state that “Aboriginals, half-casts, or men with Asiatic blood are not to be enlisted – This applies to all coloured men.” However, some Indigenous Australians who were of lighter skin colour with mixed European parentage enlisted by claiming foreign nationality. It was usually left up to the recruiting officer to decide whether to allow the person to enlist, so darker-skinned Aboriginals did sometimes slip through.
By October 1917, when recruits were harder to find and one conscription referendum had already been lost, restrictions were cautiously eased. A new military order stated: “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.”
Private Richard Martin
Richard Martin joined the AIF on 17 December 1914 and declared on his attestation papers that he was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, claiming that he had five years’ prior service in the Australian Light Horse. Richard in fact was born on Stradbroke Island in Queensland. He was taken on the strength of the 15th Battalion on 9 May 1915 on Gallipoli.
Martin was transferred to the 47th Battalion in Egypt in March 1916 and went on to serve in France, where he was wounded in action on 9 August 1916. He again was wounded in action on 7 June 1917 in Belgium and a third time on 13 October 1917 with a gunshot wound to the right hand. He rejoined his battalion on 27 February 1918 and was killed in action a month later. Some records suggest he was buried in the cemetery at Dernancourt, but a later document states his grave could not be found.