Indigenous volunteers in the first AIF
Those identified now number more than 1,000
In 1931 and 1932 Reveille, the journal of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (the predecessor of today’s Returned and Services League or RSL) published lists of Aboriginal men who had served in the First World War. The journal identified 289 Aboriginal men.That figure was a little misleading and contained some errors, as these lists named volunteers only from Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. The service of Aboriginal men was then forgotten and assigned as a footnote, presumably never to play a part of Australia’s history of this conflict.
In the early to mid-1970s Dr. Chris Clark discovered these lists and recognised their significance, which sparked an interest in identifying and recognising this contribution. In 2017 those named number 1,015 at the time of this post. This number will continue to rise, thanks to the wave of interest in Australia today to fully understand the past and to discover the stories of these Indigenous Australian diggers during the current centenary commemorations.
Although this focus and renewed interest has assisted the process of identifying Indigenous service, most of the additional names come from a dedicated group of enthusiastic and committed researchers. Philippa Scarlett took the number to 945, ably assisted by Christine Cramer, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander volunteers for the AIF: the Indigenous response to World War One. Christine and Philippa have recently added another 151 names; refer to “Aboriginal service in WW1: 151 names added to the growing list of aif volunteers” at https://indigenoushistories.com/
Philippa and Christine’s work and research are responsible for the confirmation of the majority of the new names. The Australian War Memorial would like to thank those who have shared their research or given advice, including Aunt Margaret Beadman, AWM volunteer; Major Lea Dunn; Uncle Des Crump; the State Library of Queensland; Sandra Smith of Dubbo, NSW; Peter Bakker of Cranbourne Victoria; Mia and Ivan Copley, South Australia; Andrea Gerrard, Tasmania; Jan “Kabarli” James and Jade Balfour, Western Australian; Uncle Gary Oakley, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Service and Veterans Association; Joy Pickett and Nancy Wiese; and the Coonabarabran DPS Local and Family History Group. Thanks go especially to the countless family and community members who have provided individual names, background, images and support.
These new numbers are particularly valuable, as 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. Over 1,000 volunteers wanted to do their part in the defence of a nation that had taken so much from them less than 4 or 5 generations before.
About the author
Michael Bell is a Ngunnawal/Gomeroi man and is the Indigenous Liaison Officer with the Australian War Memorial. He is trying to identify and research the extent of the contribution and service of any person of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who has served, or is currently serving, or has any military experience and/or contributed to the war effort.
Michael would like to get further details of the military history of all of these people and their families.
He can be contacted via Michael.Bell@awm.gov.au