The presence of Indigenous men and women in Australia’s armed forces was little known publicly until three-quarters through the twentieth century. Subsequent research has uncovered a record of Indigenous service dating back to the start of the Commonwealth era in 1901, and even a very small number of individual enlistments in the colonial defence forces before that. Not only have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in both world wars but they have also served in every conflict and commitment involving Australian defence contingents since Federation, as well as during the intervals of peace since the Second World War.
Because research and investigation is ongoing, it remains impossible to determine the number of individuals who participated in each conflict or operation beyond “ballpark” figures. New records of serving men and women of Indigenous heritage are constantly emerging, while some names have been removed after being shown to be non-Indigenous. Before 1980 personal histories taken by defence authorities at enlistment did not require individuals to indicate whether they were from an Indigenous background, and even after that time disclosure was optional. While service dossiers sometimes contain statements that reveal or point to Indigenous heritage, it remains the case that many Indigenous servicemen and servicewomen have been identified only by their descendants. Indigenous personnel are known to have served in conflicts and operations after 1980, but no consolidated numbers appear to have been published.
Since the Second World War Indigenous personnel have been part of the Australian Regular Army and the Citizen Military Forces or Reserves, and to a lesser extent the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). They have served on mainland bases and taken part in defence activities and operations around the nation. Statements by the Department of Defence assert that Indigenous men and women have been part of the Australian Defence Force in increasing numbers since the 1990s, and by early 2014 their number stood at 1,054 (both permanent and active reserve), representing about 1.4 per cent of the Australian Defence Force’s uniformed workforce.
A complication in understanding the true extent and nature of Indigenous service has been the difficulty in defining “Indigenousness”. Since official Defence policy for the first half of the twentieth century was directly aimed at excluding the enlistment of persons “not substantially of European origin or descent”, it is clear that many Indigenous men gained admission to the defence forces because they did not identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, either to themselves (if actually known) or to army authorities or their comrades in the ranks. However, the presence in both world wars of so many men in uniform who, from pictorial evidence alone, were obviously of Indigenous background or heritage is also evidence that enlistment guidelines and policies were inconsistently applied, and at times purposely relaxed. This has created an anomalous situation where several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families today count members who have served in the defence forces across several generations.
The underlying significance of Indigenous service in the Australian Defence Force lies not in the numbers involved or in the extent or nature of involvement in combat. Rather it is the very presence of Indigenous personnel in the forces at a time when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population was a severely disadvantaged group within Australian society, suffering economic, social and political discrimination that denied it even the most basic rights of citizenship – a situation not addressed until after the Second World War, and not corrected until the 1970s. In these circumstances the defence forces not only stood out as the nation’s first equal-opportunity employer but also provided a beacon of hope to the Indigenous community that their aspirations for fairer treatment by white Australians might eventually be realised.
This paper reports on an investigation into indigenous defence service conducted on behalf of the Australian War Memorial over 13 weeks between March and June 2015. The purpose of the project was not to conduct significant new or original research into the subject but to provide a snapshot of the extensive research to date and an overview of the main conclusions that appear can be safely drawn so far, in addition to producing several information documents for internal use at the Memorial in assisting with public enquiries.
Table of contents:
- Slow process of discovery
- A question of numbers:
- Understanding the context
- Researching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defence force service