Slow process of discovery

Captain Reg Saunders biography, 1960

In the early 1960s a book was published on the life and career of Captain Reg Saunders, long believed to be the Australian Army’s first Aboriginal commissioned officer.[1] This not only recorded Saunders’ career during the Second World War and the Korean War but also highlighted the experiences of Aboriginal soldier Douglas Grant, who was held as a prisoner of war of the Germans during the First World War, and relatives of Saunders who served in that conflict.

Reveille data from 1930s re-discovered in 1970s

A decade later researchers began uncovering records which showed that Indigenous service in the world wars was not a small-scale rarity restricted to a few individuals. In the 1970s a researcher discovered data published in 1931–32 in Reveille[2] showing that no fewer than 289 Aborigines  served in the ranks of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during 1914–18, and that some received gallantry awards for battlefield feats on the Western Front.[3] As was acknowledged at the time, the RSL’s information was almost certainly incomplete, coming mostly from the three eastern mainland states; on that basis, the true number of men involved was estimated as being in the vicinity of 500.


In the 1980s the first major study appeared documenting the contribution to Australia’s war effort during the 1939–45 conflict.[4] This similarly revealed that many hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – men and women – had served in uniform not just in the Second AIF and the army’s home forces but also in the RAAF and RAN. In addition there were hundreds more who had been employed by the armed forces in non-enlisted capacities, often in labouring or support jobs, and many were even issued service uniforms and given junior ranks.

It was during the 1980s also that Aboriginal people, both individuals and as communities, became interested in learning more about the contribution of previous generations to the story of Australia in wartime. A constitutional referendum in 1967 which gave the Commonwealth power to make laws for indigenous people—a power previously reserved to the States—had been followed by a number of national reforms and measures seeking to preserve and restore the sense of identity and culture of the Aboriginal population, after nearly two centuries of neglect aimed at destroying them. Recognition of military service was seen as something which affirmed that Australia’s indigenous people deserved better than the marginalised place in history they had occupied for so long.

In 1986 David Huggonson, an Indigenous employee with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, researched and compiled  an “exhibition of photographs and documents depicting Aboriginal involvement in the Australian Army” through the Australian War Memorial. Titled Too dark for the light horse (based on a 1916 cartoon in the Sydney Bulletin newspaper) Huggonson’s exhibition toured eastern Australia for the next nine years[5] before going on display at the Memorial in 1993 and becoming the focus of an educational booklet.[6]

This initiative also coincided with the nation’s growing popular interest in family history, and many Aboriginal people became swept up in the enthusiasm to document genealogies for their communities and families. From this process sprang a vast crop of new names of past Indigenous servicemen and servicewomen, so that within a few years the number claiming to have served in the First World War stood at more than 1,000, and in excess of 3,000 for the Second World War. This process of discovery continues today.

By then it was also well-established that a significant but indefinite number of Indigenous men had served in Korea (1950–53) and more recently in the just-ended war in Vietnam (1962–75), some veterans of which had earlier taken part in military operations conducted against communist guerrillas in Malaya, and in Borneo during the era of Indonesian Confrontation with Malaysia.


As part of the reforms made across all Commonwealth institutions for the proper recognition of Indigenous Australians, the armed forces, now brought together as the Australian Defence Force (ADF), were from the 1990s required to keep track of personnel in the services who identified themselves as having Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage. This would later evolve into programs to actively recruit for the ADF from within the Indigenous population in an attempt to ensure that the nation’s armed forces were truly representative of all parts of the community.

These were steps which effectively ensured that wherever the ADF served or undertook military or peacekeeping operations over recent decades – in Somalia, Cambodia, East Timor, Iraq, or Afghanistan – Indigenous servicemen and servicewomen would be found to have been present and actively involved. Even during the periods of peace which punctuated the ADF’s record of commitments since the Second World War, Aboriginal people could be identified in growing numbers as having served in the regular and part-time citizen and reserve forces based in Australia for national defence purposes.


Inspired now by the record of Aboriginal service already proven beyond dispute, in recent years a few researchers have embarked on a retrospective hunt for evidence of Indigenous service in conflicts preceding the First World War and within the defence forces of the colonial period. As a result of these efforts it has now been established that Indigenous Australians have truly been part of the nation’s military history from the beginning.

Previous: Introduction   Next: Service in the colonial forces, Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion


[1]   Harry Gordon, The embarrassing Australian: the story of an Aboriginal warrior, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1962.  A second edition of Gordon’s biography of Saunders appeared in 1965.

[2]   The newspaper of Australia’s principal veterans’ organisation, later referred to as the Returned and Services League (RSL).

[3]   C.D. Clark, “Aborigines in the first A.I.F.”, Australian Army Journal 286, March 1973, pp. 21–26; C.D. Coulthard-Clark, “Aboriginal medal winners”, Sabretache 18, 1977, pp. 244–48.

[4]   Robert A. Hall, The black diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989.

[5]   David Huggonson’s Too dark for the light horse exhibition of photographs and documents visited (among other places) Albury, New South Wales (August–September 1988) and the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne (April–May 1989). 

[6]   Too dark for the light horse exhibition, Australian War Memorial (AWM), April–September 1993; Judy Crabb (et al.) Too dark for the light horse, AWM educational booklet, 1994.

About the author:

In 2015 Canberra-based military historian Dr Chris Clark undertook a three-month appointment with the Memorial’s Military History Section to write a brief history on the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Funding for this position was provided via 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. Before retiring in 2013 he headed the Office of Air Force History in the Department of Defence for nine years. He remains a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy.