A question of numbers - First World War

In mid-1931, little more than a decade after the end of the First World War, the editors of Reveille came to the realisation that Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander people had served in the ranks of the AIF.[1] Based on this initial discovery of three men, the RSL launched a quest to find more names, and by October the editors were urging readers to help in “compiling a complete list of the names and units of … all Aborigines who served”.

Also asked to assist were the state boards responsible for the protection of the Aboriginal communities in their respective jurisdictions. In the case of New South Wales, the approach taken by the Aboriginal Protection Board was to circulate a request to police stations across the state asking for the names of Indigenous ex-servicemen resident in each district. The lists of names published in Reveille’s pages over the following three months[2] seemingly represented the best summary of official-level knowledge on the subject at that time. Having achieved their purpose, the paper’s editors promptly ended their quest and the records that had been assembled were forwarded to the Australian War Memorial for retention.[3]

Although acknowledged at the time as an incomplete picture, the RSL exercise provided an interesting snapshot of Indigenous service in the war. For a start, although the units in which the men served were, predictably, the AIF’s largest components – the infantry and the light horse – the men were also widely dispersed. While some units (for instance, the 11th Light Horse Regiment) seemed to have a large number of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander members, it could never be said that any Aboriginal units existed: instead, Indigenous men were serving in the ranks alongside white soldiers, without any distinctions being made.

It is also quite striking that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families were represented by multiple members – not just brothers, who were often found in the same battalion or regiment, but also father and son combinations (thereby beginning a tradition of military service across several generations in some Indigenous families). Even within the restricted sample obtained by Reveille, it was clear that the casualty rate among Indigenous members of the AIF was heavy, and broadly in proportion to the force as a whole.

As the list of names underwent expansion from the 1980s, and names from South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania were added, these features were confirmed, and some additional trends began to become evident. The range of units and arms in which Indigenous men served was broadened to include artillery, engineer, transport, signals, machine-gun, and railway units, as well as remount depots and ordnance workshops. At least two served in the Australian Flying Corps, though not as airmen.[4] So far there is only anecdotal evidence that Indigenous men may have served in the other branch of Australia’s armed forces in the First World War, the RAN.[5] The navy was not just a highly technical service (like the flying corps); it was also heavily recruited from the British Royal Navy on its formation in 1911, and underwent little expansion over the course of the war (hence did not recruit hugely into its ranks).

The chief area of disagreement and uncertainty which has subsequently emerged regarding the First World War contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians has focused on the total who served, and at what point they began to enter the AIF in significant numbers. These are questions which cut to the heart of claims regarding the extent of any impact Indigenous service could have had within the AIF, and whether Indigenous men were present at the “birth” of what has become a central motif of Australian military history: the Anzac tradition begun at Gallipoli.

As various entities, organisations, and individuals have entered the search to identify the presence of “black diggers” in the First World War, the list of confirmed names has climbed beyond 1,000 to about 1,200 – and some claim as high as 1,400. A problem emerged when it became apparent that there were a great number of errors in the competing lists. These errors arose not just from mistakes in matching names provided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families with the personal dossiers of members of the AIF but also from doubts over whether all those claimed as having Indigenous heritage actually qualified for that description. Cases have emerged where dark-skinned men previously counted as “black” were found to be non-Aboriginal – for instance, John James Dunn(e) was recorded to have American Negro ancestry, and Archibald Johnston’s dark complexion derived from his Maori mother.

It has so far rested on a few researchers to undertake the task of winnowing the lists in an effort to arrive at something approaching definitive numbers. Philippa Scarlett’s methodology is important because she has been rigorous in establishing, first and foremost, proper evidence of “Indigeneity”. In her more recent published findings[6] Scarlett confirmed the details of 834 enlistments or attempts to enlist by Indigenous men during the First World War, although this number included 11 second enlistments, with three of these being under another name. She also records that 152 of those who volunteered did not serve overseas. On this basis, it can be safely concluded that 671 individuals for whom evidence of “Indigineity” can be proved left Australia for service overseas during the First World War, and served either on the Western Front or in the Middle East. However, this statement requires qualification. As Scarlett is careful to point out, her task is ongoing; just as her 2012 publication resulted in the addition of 14 names to (and the removal of six others from) the list she first published in 2011,[7] so the third edition of her project can be expected to adjust the figures yet again.

Even accepting the changing nature of the figures, it is clear that the total tally to be considered is more than double that reached by Reveille nearly 85 years ago. While this can be partly explained as the difference between a whole-of-Australia figure and one for only three states, the states missing from the 1932 total were in fact the three smallest in terms of proportional population, and so there must be other factors at play. For reasons that will be addressed later in this paper, very few “full-blooded” Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders were accepted into the AIF, so the vast majority of men accepted into AIF ranks who were counted as Aboriginal must have been men of at least “half-caste” extraction. Although “full-blooded Aborigines” were deliberately excluded from the 1911 national census, those who were half-caste were, in fact, counted, and published charts from the census showed that 75 per cent of all 5,283 males in this category lived in New South Wales (including ACT), Victoria, and Queensland.[8]

If the lists of names put together for Reveille in 1931–32 were rounded out proportionally to provide an approximate national figure, it might reasonably be expected that the old figure of 289 would have increased to around 385. Even allowing that the Reveille lists were incomplete, this still does not explain Scarlett’s current total, which is 43 per cent above that figure. The conclusion must be that the modern lists include a great many men who despite their Indigenous background did not disclose that fact to army enlistment personnel or to their white colleagues in the AIF. If their physical appearance did not mark them out as Aboriginal, many of the men now identified as Indigenous either did not know or acknowledge that fact at the time, or chose to conceal it.

The reasons Aboriginal men may have preferred not to wear their heritage with pride in 1914–18 will be explored in a later section of this paper, but there is one implication that must be dealt with in considering the extent and nature of Indigenous service in the war. Given what will be shown about the army’s policies towards enlisting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the war’s early stages, many of the Indigenous men who have been identified as having participated in the AIF’s Gallipoli campaign (variously put at between 32 and 55)[9] were probably not men whose ancestry stood out at the time, even if the fact of their heritage is not in question. The true test for men of obvious Indigenousness – in terms of gaining enlistment into and acceptance within the AIF – would come later in the war.

Broadening the definition of Indigenousness had other effects on the conclusions reached from the Reveille data. Whereas the names on the old list suggested that just one man had been decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for gallantry, two others received the Military Medal (MM), and one was Mentioned in Despatches. The later lists now count four DCMs (although one recipient may have been of West Indian heritage), 17 MMs, and one Belgian Croix de Guerre, while three were Mentioned in Despatches. Similarly, whereas the highest rank originally believed to have been achieved by an Indigenous Australian was corporal, the later lists include numerous non-commissioned officers, and one Tasmanian man (Alfred John Hearps) was appointed second lieutenant shortly before he was killed at Mouquet Farm in 1916[10], making him the first commissioned officer of Indigenous heritage.

Recent research has also altered our understanding as to whether any Indigenous women may have had a formal military connection, which for the First World War would have been found only in the nurses recruited to staff the army’s hospitals. One candidate emerged in the person of Marion Leane Smith, the granddaughter of a Darug woman, but it was also discovered that she was a nurse in Canada before the war who enlisted with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in Canada (a British organisation) and worked in England.[11]

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[1]  Reveille, 31 August 1931, p. 5.

[2]  Reveille, 30 November 1931, p. 22, and 31 January 1932, p. 20.

[3]  Originally filed in AWM: AWM27 533/1.

[4]  Sergeant Norman Francis Matthews was a mechanic (fitter & turner) in No 4 Squadron; that he was indigenous has not yet been proven. The other man (name known to Garry Oakley) was briefly an officer’s batman.

[5]  John Perryman, "A brief history of Indigenous Sailors", 100 Years of the Royal Australian Navy, Bondi Junction, New South Wales: Faircount Media, 2011, p.199.

[6]  Philippa Scarlett, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander volunteers for the AIF: the Indigenous response to World War One, 2nd edition, Indigenous Histories, ACT, 2012, p. 5.

[7]  Scarlett, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander volunteers for the AIF, p. ii.

[8]  Census of the Commonwealth of Australia taken for the night between 2nd and 3rd April, 1911, vol.2, part VIII, Non-European races, p. 903.

[9]  Phillippa Scarlett, "More Aboriginal men at Gallipoli", Indigenous Histories, 27 May 2014, accessed 4 May 2015.

[10]  Alfred John Hearps, accessed 5 May 2015.

[11]  Philippa Scarlett, "An indigenous nurse in World War One: Marion Leane Smith", Indigenous Histories, 30 October 2013, accessed 5 May 2015.

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.