In 2014 the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers who were known to be involved in the Gallipoli campaign stood at 50 men. This during an era when they weren't recognised as Australian citizens, so for them enlistment was illegal. At present it seems that it will never be possible to state an accurate number, but the Australian War Memorial is currently endeavouring to rectify this situation and to identify and recognise this little-appreciated and unexpected piece of Australia's military history.
The difficulty the Memorial faces is that Indigenous enlistees didn't record their ethnicity on recruitment papers. After the war, they returned to their communities, often never marching on Anzac Day. "Because no-one saw them, it skewed the perception of their service," Gary Oakley, President of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Service Association, said in a recent interview at the Memorial. “There are photos from the Western Front which clearly show Aboriginal soldiers. There are no known photos of Aboriginal soldiers on Gallipoli,” Mr Oakley explained.
Despite this, the Memorial – in conjunction with previous work by Philippa Scarlett and David Hugginson, and by a dedicated group of volunteer researchers throughout the nation – has identified some 20 additional Aboriginal soldiers. This takes the total to 70 Aboriginal men who are believed to have served on Gallipoli, 13 of whom were killed in action. It is estimated that 1,000 to 1,300 Indigenous soldiers served in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War, of whom around 250 to 300 made the ultimate sacrifice. That's out of an estimated Indigenous population at the time of 80,000.
The research is still ongoing and still produces new stories. One relates to William Charles Westbury, who served on Gallipoli, in France and in Belgium. This story has now been uncovered and shared, thanks to a family member located by the Memorial in an attempt to connect another Aboriginal solder to his traditional lands. That person’s name was provided via a community member who responded to the Memorial’s call for more information on Indigenous soldiers in association with the current For Country For Nation Indigenous service exhibition. There will be more on this story in the coming months. With this story came the confirmation of South Australia’s first identified Aboriginal Boer War soldier, and a valuable addition to the Indigenous contribution to that campaign.
Under the Australian constitution, Aboriginal people were not recognised as citizens. The 1903 Defence Act specifically exempted those “not of substantial European descent” from service in cadets and the militia. But come 1914, recruiters weren't so fussed. "I believe the Australian Defence Force, especially the AIF, was the first equal opportunity employer of Indigenous Australians, because they chose to ignore this rule," Mr Oakley said. "If you fronted up to the recruiter, all he saw was another soldier. He didn't care what colour you were."
In light of this situation, it was the medical officers at the recruiting depot who had the final say. Some perhaps were racists, some stuck strictly to the rules, and others turned a blind eye. Undeterred by rejection, many would-be Indigenous soldiers made multiple attempts to enlist, and travelled to other recruiting offices. Some tried four or five times before succeeding.
In 1916, new recruiting guidelines stated that "Aboriginals, half-castes or men with Asiatic blood" were not to be enlisted. Again that was ignored. From 1917, the enlistment rules said half-castes could be enlisted if recruiters were satisfied that one parent was European.
This raises an obvious question: "Why would you want to join a defence force in a country that doesn't class you as a citizen? The unfortunate thing is, we never asked anybody, we left it too late," Oakley said.
We suggest some possible answers. In the AIF, everyone was paid the same, and that pay was good – six shillings a day for a private. That was comparable to a worker in Australia, and far greater than the pay of British soldiers. Soldiers could send money home, though in some cases that was diverted by the various agencies which ran Indigenous settlements, so the money never reached needy families. Another motive for enlisting was the warrior tradition: many joining up were only a generation away from traditional life. Lastly, those who lived on mission settlements likely encountered the same propaganda which swelled recruiting throughout the war.
"Once in the service, as an Indigenous soldier, you were treated as an equal; you had the same options for pay. When you are in the trenches, you don't have the option of disliking the person behind you," Mr Oakley said. Sadly, that changed once the Indigenous soldiers returned from the AIF. Out of uniform and back in their communities, they resumed being just the same second-class citizens as before.