Case studies exploring the ethnic diversity of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF)
Case study Chris Saunders’ story gives insight into the service of one Indigenous Australian family over three conflicts.
Case study Billy Sing rushed to sign up in 1914 and built a fearsome reputation as "the crack sniper of the ANZACs".
Case study Emaniol was born in Samos, Greece, and immigrated to Australia as a young man before serving with the AIF.
August 2014 will mark 100 years since the beginning of the First World War. This war, known at the time as the “war to end all wars”, still stands as a significant and poignant event in Australia’s military history.
Approximately 420,000 Australians enlisted in the AIF during the First World War, including nurses, Indigenous Australians, and Australians with British, Asian, Greek and Northern European heritage. For some, enlisting was difficult. The introduction of the Commonwealth Defence Act in 1909 excluded any person not “substantially of European descent” from enlisting in the First World War. The Act was in line with the White Australia Policy, which aimed to ensure that Australia retained its white colonial British character. Regardless of these policies, many Australians of Asian descent (including close to 200 Chinese migrants or their children who had created a new home in Australia) as well as over 1,300 of Australia’s Indigenous population, are known to have enlisted.
The introduction of the Commonwealth Defence Act in 1909 excluded any person not “substantially of European descent” from enlisting in the First World War.
For Indigenous Australians, joining the AIF gave a sense of equality they had never experienced in civilian life. The army provided the opportunity for training, education, travel and pay, and for those in the field, a chance to form new friendships regardless of background or skin colour.
Many immigrants, who had come to Australia in the late 19th century during the Gold Rush and subsequent industrial developments, signed up as a way of showing loyalty to a new Australian homeland.
During the war, over 61,000 Australians lost their lives and more than 156,000 were wounded. Countless others demonstrated bravery and were awarded medals for their exemplary service.
The story of the Anzacs, and indeed all Australians who served in the First World War, is tied together by the aspirational qualities of loyalty, comradeship, devotion, audacity, patriotism, and independence that united so many of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), as well as their shared goals and experience of war - whatever their origins, backgrounds or beliefs.
After the war, many friendships endured, but some Indigenous and ethnic Australians returned home to the same racism and mistreatment they had encountered before the war.
In telling the diverse stories of Australians who served in the First World War, the Anzac Diversity project aims to encourage students to examine the Anzac story from a fresh perspective; explore the cultural and ethnic diversity of the members of the AIF; challenge some traditional understandings of who the Anzacs were; and analyse the qualities attributed to the Anzacs as well as how they have become an aspirational model in the national psyche.
For more information on the diverse stories of Australians who served in the First World War, go to:
- "Indigenous Australians at War" at AIATSIS online
- Indigenous Histories' First World War archive
- "Forgotten heroes: Chinese Australians in the First Australian Imperial Force 1914–20" by Alastair Kennedy
- Russian Anzacs by Elena Govor
Links to the Australian curriculum: History
The content of these stories and classroom activities will provide opportunities to develop historical understanding through:
Sources and evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, perspectives, empathy and significance, and contestability.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia.
Literacy, IT competence, critical and creative thinking, intercultural understanding.
While History is the main focus of the learning activities attached to these stories, they also have relevance to other curriculum areas, including English, Science, the Arts, and Civics and Citizenship.
This resource adopts an inquiry learning approach, with students encouraged to examine a range of information and source material. After research, analysis, and discussion, students can construct their own understandings, and draw conclusions about the contribution of Australians from a variety of backgrounds during the First World War.
A full list of resources used in the research and writing of these case studies is available here.