Understanding the context

To fully appreciate the significance of the statistics of Indigenous military service – incomplete and inexact as they are – it is also necessary to understand the circumstances in which Indigenous men (and later women) were enlisted and served during much of the twentieth century. Examination of these aspects reveal that those who were accepted for military service were representatives of a group within the Australian population that suffered severe social, economic, and political disadvantages to such an extent that it becomes problematic to assess the motivations for so many members to even offer themselves for recruitment in the first place.

It seems remarkable that the earliest examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enlistment prior to and at the time of Federation overlap with what many writers regard as the period of the frontier wars: the process by which Australia’s Indigenous population was dispossessed of its land. Respected white academic Henry Reynolds has dated the Coniston Massacre in central Australia in 1928 as marking the end of “officially endorsed killing” of Indigenous Australians, but argues that “all sorts of private brutality persisted for far longer in the remoter parts of the country”.[1]

It hardly mattered that the country’s military forces had played no part in operations against Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people since 1838 (with the notable exception of the deployment of the British Army’s 96th Regiment’s deployment to Port Lincoln, South Australia, in 1842).[2] Violent activities on the frontier by white settlers, aided by paramilitary entities such as the mounted (often native) police, completed a shocking and illegal process of the subjugation and repression of the Australia’s original inhabitants that has still not been fully recognised or accepted even today. 

When the Commonwealth was brought into existence in 1901, the number of Indigenous Australians has been estimated at between 60,000 and 70,000: something less than a quarter of the population at the point of first European settlement. Various claims have been made about the disadvantages that affected this much-diminished group (for example, exclusion from the federal census under section 127 of the Constitution; denial of the right to vote; and exclusion from social security pensions introduced in 1908). For the purposes of this project it has not been deemed necessary to research the accuracy of all these claims, since its scope was to accurately reflect the current state of research on Indigenous Australian service in the armed forces.

It is clear, however, that the vast majority of “full-blooded” tribal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living near settlements were kept in abject conditions worse than endured even by the most disadvantaged white Australians. They were forced to live on reserves or mission stations, subjected to state paternalism at the hands of “protection” agencies that left them with little control over any aspect of their lives, and with no semblance that they were regarded in any way as citizens. Marginalisation of the Indigenous population was also reflected in Commonwealth legislation providing for national defence, with the Defence Act 1903 specifically exempting from military service in time of war “persons who are not substantially of European origin or descent”.[3] This provision was, of course, aimed not only at Indigenous Australians but also at Kanakas (Pacific Islanders initially brought to Queensland as labourers) and the Asian races, some of whom had been resident in Australia long enough to pass the usual test for admission into the armed forces of being “natural born British subjects”.

The “substantially of European origin” requirement was also enshrined in legislation providing for the introduction of universal military training in 1911 (Australia’s first conscription scheme), and amended eligibility provisions for entry into officer training at the Royal Military College at Duntroon in 1913.[4] It is no surprise that proposals made in 1911 for the Indigenous people of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland to be provided with military training and utilised for the defence of Australia in the event of invasion met with no official enthusiasm.[5]  

Indigenous people who were less than “full-blooded” were in a very different position. This was confirmed by the Commonwealth Statistician, G.H. Knibbs, who obtained a legal opinion ahead of the first federal census in 1911 that persons of “half-caste” or less-Indigenous descent were not “Aboriginal natives” for the purposes of the Constitution. Because that distinction helped to free people in this category from the restrictions placed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people forced to live on the reserves, it was entirely understandable that those who could escape what appeared at that time to be the stigma associated with declaring one’s Aboriginality would have done so. Unless forced to acknowledge their heritage by their distinctive appearance, many men chose to conceal their heritage, or at least did not admit to it. It was mostly these people who, upon their background being discovered by later researchers, have caused the estimated number of Indigenous servicemen and servicewomen in Australia’s wars to swell beyond what defence authorities of the time would have ever imagined. 

It was the “substantially of European origin or descent” yardstick that shaped official policy applying to Indigenous enlistment in the AIF throughout the First World War and into the early stages of the second. Instructions issued to recruiting depots in 1916 stated categorically that “Aboriginals, half-castes, or men with Asiatic blood are not to be enlisted. This applies to all coloured men.” But this policy became less clear-cut later that same year, after the toll of AIF casualties rose steeply and the recruitment pool of replacements started to dry up, leading to revised instructions: while the “European origin” rule still applied, “Doubtful cases should be referred to the Medical Officer”.[6] Initially, it had been left to the discretion of the commandants in the military districts of each state to make the final decision about acceptance of such cases, but in May 1917 there was a further change of instructions so that only medical officers were required to be satisfied that an applicant had one parent of European origin.[7]

The logic and rationale behind the Army’s enlistment practices were spelled out most clearly in instructions issued to recruiting officers in December 1916. They stated that, because Indigenous men accepted for enlistment would be “required to live with white men and share their accommodation”, their selection was to be judged by “whether their inclusion will cause irritation to the men with whom they will serve”.[8] According to this criteria it was not expected that “full-blooded” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would be eligible for enlistment, nor “half-castes” who had been raised with their “full-blood brothers”. However, other half-caste men who had “mixed all their lives with white people and copied their ways” were deemed to be possibly suitable.

These were policy guidelines which invited inconsistency. From early on in the First World War men of obvious Indigenous heritage were accepted into the AIF by demonstrating their separation from tribal life and environment – even “full-bloods” like Frederick Prentice and Douglas Grant who had been raised in white households. While there was undoubtedly scope for an individual recruiting officer to demonstrate racial prejudice if so inclined, there were many cases of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander applicants who were not deterred by rejection but simply shopped around until they found a recruiting centre willing to accept them, sometimes miles away, where their personal history was not local knowledge.

In these circumstances it becomes obvious, too, that use of the “substantially of European origin” provision as grounds for discharging Indigenous Australians from the AIF did not always carry the racist implication that has been attached to it in recent years. Discharge on the grounds of racial origin at a later point, sometimes months after enlistment and sometimes from units where other men of known Indigenous heritage continued to serve, is a clear indicator that other factors might be involved. Regulations regarding European origin or descent became, therefore, merely a convenient and essentially unchallengeable justification for removing a man who had provided other demonstrated failings as a soldier.

Much as it might be wished otherwise, cases are on record where an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander serviceman was discharged as a “habitual bad character”, and others for desertion both before and after embarking on overseas service. These are not in themselves examples of racist proclivities within army administration, since such instances can be fully matched by any numbers of cases of misbehaving white soldiers. They do, however, demonstrate that, like white enlistees, not all Indigenous men seeking to enlist were imbued with selfless notions of serving their country in time of war. This highlights the fact that practically nothing is known about the reasons Indigenous Australians sought to enlist at all. Since official records are silent on this aspect, answers will most likely be found only in anecdotal and family history accounts.

While it may be unknowable why Indigenous Australians – or anyone at all – sought to serve in the Boer War and the two world wars, it is clear that many of those who did so returned from the experience with markedly changed expectations. The army was, at that time, probably Australia’s first and only equal-opportunity employer. Once accepted into the ranks, an Indigenous serviceman could expect to be treated with equality in all respects: accommodation, food, medical treatment and, especially, payment. Many of those who survived wartime service faced a massive let-down following discharge back into civilian existence.

This paper can only acknowledge the disappointment and frustration felt across the Indigenous population during the inter-war period, when it was widely hoped that the record of black service during 1914–18 might lead to greater public and political attention being given to improving the lot of Indigenous Australians. While some of the complaints and grievances aired in recent years are not fully borne out by further research (for example, Indigenous Australians were not excluded from the postwar soldier settlement scheme to the extent usually alleged, and at least five Aboriginal veterans are now known to have been allocated blocks of land[9]), the effects of disenchantment would become evident when Australia entered the Second World War and some black veterans counselled family members against enlisting by citing the lack of benefits derived from their own war service. Countering such examples are instances where First World War veterans were among the first to seek enlistment in 1939, in some cases laying the basis for family traditions of service in the armed forces that have continued to this day.

At the outbreak of the Second World War there was apparently a period of early confusion in which many Indigenous Australians, including some full-blooded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, were accepted for enlistment in the Second AIF, essentially because of a lack of guidance or instructions given to recruiting officers. As soon as this situation became apparent to all three armed services, the “substantially of European origin” yardstick was again applied in relation to Indigenous recruitment. As a result of complaints and protests about this policy during 1940, the Military Board which administered the army essentially re-adopted the approach of the previous war – reaffirming the “substantially European” rule but again leaving it to medical officers to decide the suitability of individual applicants.

Such practice as adopted by the army, the RAN, and the RAAF meant that Indigenous Australians once again served within formed units alongside white servicemen and servicewomen. The difference that emerged was principally in the de facto status accorded to the segregated Indigenous units, raised by the army and the navy in northern Australia from early 1942, whose members were never formally enlisted. For instance, the army’s decision to pay the men of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion at only one-third the rate of other Australian soldiers was enough to send that unit on strike at the end of 1943. Although the army responded to what it saw as a mutiny by raising pay to two-thirds the ordinary rate, it would take another 40 years to fully rectify the injustice.

With the Second World War coming to a close, a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights and citizenship movements begun in the 1930s attempted to ensure that Indigenous servicemen and servicewomen would not, after the war, face the same reversion to pre-war status as had occurred in 1919. The Aborigines’ Uplift Society urged that “immediate and full citizenship should be conferred on all Aborigines accepted for service in the AIF” and that they should “retain citizenship on their return to Australia”. This position was not accepted at the time, and it was not until 1949 that Indigenous people became citizens. That same year they were granted the right to vote in federal elections, provided they were able to vote in their state elections or had served in the defence forces. Significantly, 1949 was also the year in which all restrictions were lifted on Indigenous Australians joining the armed forces.


Australian Aboriginal League float

The Australian Aboriginal League float in Sydney’s 1947 May Day procession. Second World War veteran Herbert Groves wore his army uniform to protest that Aboriginal servicemen had been “free to fight but not to drink”, P01248.001

The well-funded research project currently underway at the Australian National University can be expected to gather many of the personal stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans from before, during, and after their time in the armed forces, and will probably further increase the numbers of Indigenous men and women thought to have served in the conflicts of last century. However, understanding the true extent and nature of Indigenous service will, on the basis of the analysis carried out for this project, be fully addressed only when more work is done to develop an accurate list of Indigenous veterans by resolving discrepancies among the various databases and verifying the Indigenousness of all those whose names have already been proposed.  

Previous: Peacetime forces, later conflicts and commitments    Next: Researching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defence force service


[1]  Henry Reynolds, Forgotten war, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2013, p. 49.

[2]  John Connor, The Australian frontier wars 1788–1838, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2002, pp. 120–21; see also Chris Clark, The encyclopaedia of Australia’s battles, 3rd edition, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2010, pp. 20–21.

[3]   The Defence Act 1903, paragraph 61(h).

[4]   C.D. (Coulthard-) Clark, A heritage of spirit: a biography of Major-General Sir William Throsby Bridges, KCB CMG, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 1979, p. 96. No (known) Aboriginal applicants entered Duntroon as cadets until 1984: see C.D. (Coulthard-)Clark, Duntroon: the Royal Military College of Australia, 1911–1986, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1986, p. 258.

[5] Major W.O. Mansbridge, “A scheme for training the Aboriginal natives in the northern portions of the Commonwealth”, Commonwealth Military Journal, January 1912, pp. 99–100.

[6]  Enlistment booklets in the Memorial’s collection: Instructions for the guidance of enlisting officers at approved military recruiting depots, Anthony James Cumming Government Printer and the Australian Army, Brisbane, 1916 at call number 355.2230994  A741r and General instructions for enlisting officers, Albert J. Mullett Government Printer and the Australian Imperial Force, Melbourne, 1916 at call number 355.2230994  A741ge.

[7]  Military Order No. 200, issued May 1917.

[8]  Instructions to army recruiting officers, cited in Sarah Tomkins, “An assessment of the effect of government and military policies on the ability of Indigenous Australians to enlist in armed forces since Federation, with a specific focus on Indigenous women”, unpublished report prepared for the Australian War Memorial, May 2014, p. 7.

[9]  According to Philippa Scarlett, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF, p.44, these were: George Kennedy, Clifford Wilson, Albert Beulah, Archie Murphy and Percy Pepper.

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.