A question of numbers - Between the world wars

As the AIF returned to Australia in 1919 for demobilisation no trace of Indigenous service remained in the nation’s military forces, which reverted to being a mostly part-time militia army administered and trained by a small cadre of permanent personnel. Only the RAN and the RAAF, formed in 1921, were predominantly “permanent” organisations comprising full-time personnel. In the case of the RAAF, initial recruitment was based almost entirely on wartime service in the Australian Flying Corps or the British air services, and there is no evidence of men with Indigenous backgrounds seeking to enlist.

Photographic evidence does exist, however, that suggests the RAN may have utilised Indigenous personnel in the early 1920s when a naval sloop became engaged in conducting hydrographic surveys of the Great Barrier Reef in Far North Queensland. An image in the National Library records the presence of six clearly Indigenous men – probably Tiwi Islanders – dressed in white sailor uniforms on board HMAS Geranium in 1922–23.[1] However, it remains unanswered whether these men were formally enlisted for general service as sailors, or, more likely, were present as auxiliaries, taken on board to contribute specifically to the survey with their local knowledge of the reef’s passages and channels.

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[1]  The National Library website dates this image from 1926, but Navy History dates it earlier, and this appears more likely. Defence website page called History of Indigenous Involvement in Defence, accessed 7 May 2015, states that these men were probably Tiwi Islanders, and asserts that Torres Strait Islanders were also employed by the AIF to maintain a wireless guard on the island. The image can be seen on the National Library's website at http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an23607993

About the author:

Military historian Dr Chris Clark wrote this brief history on the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the assistance of a generous grant from the Gandevia Foundation. Dr Clark has been researching and writing Australian military history for more than 40 years, and has authored, co-authored, or edited more than 30 books, including The encyclopedia of Australia’s battles (3rd edition 2010). He was an officer in the Australian Army and later worked in various government departments as a strategic analyst and historian, and at the Australian National University and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. He headed the Office of Air Force History in the Department of Defence for nine years before retiring in 2013. Dr Clark is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy.