Researching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defence force service

The Australian War Memorial has devoted considerable effort over the years to collecting information and displayable items that reflect the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women in the Australian defence forces. Researchers entering this field should note, however, that a great deal of research and recording of information has taken place outside the Memorial and remains in the possession and control of private individuals, and agencies and organisations operating at both state and federal level. Whether researching particular groups or specific Indigenous Australian servicemen and servicewomen, researchers are advised to seek access to some of these repositories before approaching the Memorial, particularly when investigating the service history of individuals.

Sources of information outside the Memorial

The organisations with an interest in the subject of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defence service are diverse, and exist across Australia. At the federal level many are predictable – the departments of defence and also of veterans’ affairs, the National Library of Australia, the National Archives of Australia (NAA), the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), all in addition to the Australian War Memorial – but less well known are academic entities such as the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra (which hosts the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) Database) and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University (which in 2014 commenced the “Serving our country” initiative: a four-year project to study Indigenous Australian defence service). Many of these entities host relevant material on their websites, and several maintain databases and reading lists which may assist researchers (although not all are open to public inquiries).    

Outside of the national capital a plethora of organisations at state, regional, and local government level have conducted research on Indigenous Australian service in recent years, usually focusing on veterans from geographically defined areas for the purpose of establishing war memorials to their service, hosting exhibitions, and publishing accounts. State government authorities, museums, libraries, universities, land councils, community groups, and a great many individuals have contributed to this process.

Records and information at the Memorial

The Memorial has collected published records and information on Indigenous veterans since the early 1990s when it first hosted an exhibition on the subject in 1993. Since then the Memorial’s Research Centre has identified a range of material already held in the collection that is not widely duplicated elsewhere, beginning with the 1931–32 issues of the veterans’ newspaper Reveille, which first drew attention to the scale of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enlistment in the First World War. The Memorial also holds the material assembled by state authorities during the Reveille survey, which was deposited and originally filed as AWM27 item 533/1.

To this list has been added a multitude of books and publications from recent decades. The Research Centre has compiled a reading list on Indigenous Australian servicemen and servicewomen which is not currently available for external consultation online, although whether a particular publication is held can generally be determined from the Memorial’s website if its author and title are already known. The Memorial has also received donations of material from family and descendants of veterans, much of which has been used to produce biographical stories of individual servicemen and servicewomen (once their service has been researched and their Indigenous heritage confirmed), accessible now on the Memorial’s website.

For the most part the range of records held by the Memorial that pertain to Indigenous Australians are the same as for non-Indigenous servicemen and servicewomen: the First World War nominal and embarkation rolls; the Roll of Honour; honours and awards; Red Cross and prisoner-of-war records; unit war diaries and histories; military orders; and various military handbooks and instructions. Many of the rolls have been digitised and can be accessed and searched online. For the major post-1919 conflicts (the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War) researchers can use the online nominal rolls prepared by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs; these are also accessible via links on the Memorial’s website.

Personal dossiers held at the National Archives of Australia

Note that personal dossiers of members of the armed forces are held by the NAA and not the Memorial. The private records of all individuals after the Vietnam era remain with the three services which generated them. As these men and women are generally still alive their records remain subject to privacy provisions, they are not available to researchers without the permission of the subject person. Most files from the Second World War to Vietnam have also not been examined and cleared for public access by the NAA staff, and may also be subject to restriction. Dossiers of all persons who served during the First World War have been digitised and are accessible online. Researchers should remember to look at records not just in the NAA’s series B2455 (AIF personal dossiers) but also in MT1486/1 (applicants for enlistment in the AIF), since the latter includes recruits who were discharged soon after enlistment for medical and other reasons, such as being underage or too old. 

How to start a search

The point should also be noted that to effectively search all these sources the names of individual servicemen and servicewomen (at a minimum) must be known. None of the online indexes respond usefully to global searches using keywords describing a group category (for example, “Indigenous”, “Aboriginal”, or “native”. This is because Indigenous recruits were not formally required to state or disclose their racial originals, and army forms used to record an individual’s personal particulars on enlistment did not carry a dedicated space for such information. There is usually, therefore, nothing that instantly distinguishes an Indigenous serviceman or servicewoman from a non-Indigenous one.

Problems with source material

Once a name has been obtained all of the listed rolls can be searched, but unless the name being sought is relatively unusual or uncommon researchers should be prepared to turn up a number of alternatives which may or may not apply. Difficulty can also be encountered owing to factors such as errors introduced into the records at the time of their creation, variations in spelling (again owing to recording errors), and men and women who enlisted (or tried to enlist) more than once, or under false names. It is for these reasons that researchers are advised to obtain as much information about their subject as they can before approaching the Memorial. Having a date (even an approximate year) and place of birth, a service number (from discharge papers or medals), or an idea of when and where an individual served will greatly facilitate the process of sorting through a list of possible candidates. Many errors in existing databases on Indigenous Australian service have also been caused through misidentification of individuals believed to be Indigenous.

Personal dossiers

While personal dossiers remain the primary resource for establishing an individual’s defence service, these are not always helpful in finding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and certainly not when it comes to confirming whether they are Indigenous in the first place. Army policy throughout the First World War and the early years of the Second World War aimed to exclude from enlistment men who were “not substantially of European origin or descent”. This provision was intended to debar from service “full-blooded” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and “half-caste” men and women who were raised or remained in a tribal environment. Although this rule was often enforced (as evidenced in some personal dossiers) significant numbers of “coloured men” nevertheless succeeded in slipping through this net because their degree of Indigenous heritage was not so physically obvious that it could not be overlooked, or because they did not disclose said heritage. Other men, having been rejected in their home district, travelled considerable distances and re-applied elsewhere under false names.

When army authorities relaxed enlistment rules for the AIF (a result of high casualty rates on the Western Front in particular and the drying up of the manpower pool available for recruitment in Australia) it was left to the discretion of medical officers to examine applicants to determine whether or not they were suitable for enlistment. While it has previously been noted that personal dossiers did not automatically record whether or not an applicant was Indigenous, there is sometimes clear evidence on file that puts the matter beyond doubt, while on many others indications and clues can be found by looking at relevant parts of the dossier.

Clearest and most indisputable would be the notation found on many files that a man who had been accepted for enlistment in the AIF was subsequently discharged on the grounds that he was “not substantially of European origin”. Where this has occurred sometime after enlistment it is likely not an indication that the man has just been discovered to have indigenous background; other factors may have caused the decision to discharge him, but the “European origin” requirement has been used as a convenient justification. Sometimes the examining medical officer will be found to have included in an enlistee’s physical description that they are “half-caste”. Often there may be clues in the description: a man described as having a dark complexion, black hair, and brown or grey eyes may be considered likely to be an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person. However, these are not always reliable indicators, and Indigenous heritage has been subsequently established for men described in their personal files as fresh complexioned with blue eyes and fair hair.

Occupation, place of birth, next of kin as an indicator of heritage

Pre-war occupation is rarely a useful indicator of heritage. Men now known as Indigenous almost invariably stated that they had jobs, even if it was as a labourer, station hand, or timber-getter. Less traditional but just as likely to be found are occupations such as baker, salesman, and mechanic. More valuable clues are often found in statements of where a man was born, who his next of kin was, and where they lived. Further information regarding next of kin is usually found in the embarkation rolls for AIF personnel proceeding overseas. Again, to get best use of this information it usually helps to have obtained as much background about a researcher’s subject as possible before trying to access NAA and Memorial records, as this is frequently the only means to rule out other “possibles” from AIF veterans who share the same name.

Pictures as a source

A further category of material which can be of great utility to researchers is the Memorial’s pictorial collection. The Memorial holds hundreds of photographs (and even an occasional film clip) relating to Indigenous service, including not just portraits of named individuals (often donated by family members) but also official material originating from defence force public relations sources. Often the photographs are of groups of soldiers which include a man of obvious Indigenous heritage but whose identity remains unknown. These images can be found through the search facility on the Memorial website, using various keywords to locate them (just one keyword will not disclose them all).

Conclusion

The lack of information on the “Indigenousness” of individuals is not, as some have assumed, the result of a “cover-up” or conspiracy to downplay the contribution of Indigenous people to the defence history of Australia. Rather it derives from the paucity and nature of the records from the first half of the twentieth century, combined with the fact that the defence forces had little interest in the racial background of its members once they had progressed past the process of enlistment (this was as much a matter of policy determined from the Defence Act 1903). The problem of defining “Indigenousness”, beyond those enlisted men whose racial heritage could not be mistaken for anything other than Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, remains the single most perplexing factor in advancing understanding of Indigenous Australians’ service in the defence forces.          

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