(Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people please be advised that this post contains images of deceased people.)
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in the year 1918, the guns finally fell silent, and the First World War officially, mercifully, came to an end.
Since then, November 11 has been known as Remembrance Day, a moment for Commonwealth nations to remember and reflect on the 9.5 million servicemen and servicewomen killed in World War 1 (including 60,000 Australians), and the many millions killed in subsequent wars.
Today, GEGAC remembers and honours all those people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who died fighting for land and country.
Although the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women are not an often-told part of our nation’s war history, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have served in every conflict and commitment involving Australian defence contingents since Federation, including both world wars, Korea and Vietnam.
More than 1,000 Indigenous Australians fought in the First World War.
They came from a section of society with few rights, low wages, and poor living conditions.
Most Indigenous Australians could not vote and none were counted in the census.
The Defence Act of 1909 prevented people from enlisting if they were ‘not substantially of European origin or descent’, and so Aboriginal people were often forced to hide or renounce their Aboriginality in order to serve.
Many Indigenous Australians who tried to enlist at the beginning of World War 1 were rejected on the grounds of race.
With the death toll mounting and new recruits in short supply, a new Military Order was created, stating: “Half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.”
By the time of the Second World War, Indigenous Australians were divided over the issue of military service.
Some Aboriginal organisations believed war service would help the push for full citizenship rights and proposed the formation of special Aboriginal battalions to maximise public visibility.
Others, such as William Cooper, the Secretary of the Australian Aborigines’ League, argued that Indigenous Australians should not fight for white Australia.
Cooper had lost his son in the First World War and was bitter that Aboriginal sacrifice had not brought any improvement in rights and conditions.
He likened conditions in white-administered Aboriginal settlements to those suffered by Jews under Hitler.
Cooper demanded improvements at home before taking up “the privilege of defending the land which was taken from him by the White race without compensation or even kindness.”
Despite positive public opinion, the military held the stance that only Aboriginal men “of mostly European background” could enlist, and created strict policies preventing Indigenous enlistment.
In 1940, the Defence Committee stated that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples enlistment in either the Army or the Navy was “neither necessary nor desirable.”
It was not until 1949 that all restrictions were lifted, enabling Indigenous Australians to join the Australian military forces.
As Lachlan Grant writes in For Country, For Nation: An illustrated history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service, “Aboriginal servicemen and servicewomen serving in the Australian military forces have often spoken of being part of a long-standing, continuous warrior tradition that embodies deep respect for their forebears who fought for their traditional lands.”
Photo and information courtesy Australian War Memorial Collection.
Caption: Aboriginal servicemen standing to attention, at No.9 Camp located at the Wangaratta showgrounds in Victoria. These men were mainly volunteers from the Lake Tyers mission, known as Bung Yarnda, by the local Gunaikurnai community, in Eastern Victoria. The men volunteered together, either in the first intake, on 15 June 1940 or the 14 and 25 July 1940. The platoon was based at No. 9 Camp from September 1940 until February 1941, serving with the 2/14 Training Battalion (October) and 2/21 Training Battalion (November-February 1941) before being transferred to 6th Training Battalion – Darley Military Camp (near Bacchus Marsh) in February 1941.