A century ago in May 1917, the Australian Army issued a Military Order stating that “half castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force providing that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.” The order relaxed an earlier policy that officially prohibited the enlistment of all Aboriginal Australians. The precise motives behind the 1917 memo are unclear, but it was undoubtedly an important moment in the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military service. Furthermore, by accepting some Aboriginal people for military service – one of the quintessential responsibilities of the citizen – it was an early milestone in the long struggle for Aboriginal rights.
In the years following the Boer War, all British dominions had amended or introduced legislation to reform their military structures, considering (among other things) the eligibility of Indigenous peoples for military service. In Australia, amendments to the Defence Act in 1909 introduced compulsory military training for men aged 12 to 25, but Section 61(h) included an exemption from both compulsory training and wartime conscription for “persons who are not substantially of European origin or descent.” This provision did not identify Aboriginal people specifically, nor did it explain whether exemption from compulsory service precluded voluntary enlistment. But this ambiguity was resolved in 1914 when a military recruiters’ handbook explicitly stated: “Aborigines and halfcastes are not to be enlisted.” The Australian approach contrasted with other settler societies including New Zealand, Canada and the United States, where indigenous people could enlist, and were more in line with those of South Africa.
Given the strong response of white Australians to the call to arms in 1914, there was little need for recruiters to ignore this regulation, but many medical examiners certainly did. As a result, there were Aboriginal soldiers present at the earliest AIF engagements, including the Gallipoli landings in 1915. Aboriginal people were able to circumvent the regulations by finding a sympathetic recruiter or one struggling to meet local quotas. In other instances, Aboriginal volunteers claimed to be Italian or Maori. Like all soldiers, their motivations to enlist were complex, ranging from the pragmatic (a decent wage) to the idealistic (loyalty to “King and Country”). An often-professed motive was a desire to assert equal status with white Australians, or at least a right to better treatment by government authorities.
Historians have speculated on the motives behind the change in recruiting policy in 1917. Regrettably, the correspondence of the military board that made the decision did not survive the Australian Army record culls of the 1930s, so there is no clear answer. Some have argued that resistance to indigenous enlistment weakened as a result of the manpower crisis of late 1916 – but manpower alone seems an inadequate explanation. It seems more likely that prejudice in recruiting policy was undermined by the successful service of many Aboriginal soldiers who had managed to evade earlier restrictions. In Victoria, of the 86 Aboriginal soldiers who served during World War I, nearly three quarters had enlisted before 1917. A similar pattern is evident in New South Wales. Military authorities noticed these recruits and, shortly before the new regulation was announced, the Director-General of Recruiting publicly stated that concerns about integration of Aboriginal soldiers into the AIF had proved unfounded. It is thus apparent that the 1917 memo did not so much inaugurate Indigenous enlistment as respond to it.
Aboriginal people’s capacity to serve had also been asserted by white bureaucrats working in Aboriginal administration, including Archibald Meston, a former Protector of Aborigines in Queensland, who in June 1915 offered to lead a force of “50 to 100 North Queensland aboriginal warriors” to the front. Similarly, the Chief Inspector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, J.T Beckett, viewed military service as conducive to his broader aim of remaking “half-caste” youths into model citizens; in his 1915 report he explained that “as regular soldiers an honourable future would be assured them.”
The 1917 order did lead to a spike in enlistments among Aboriginal people in Queensland. The Chief Protector of Aborigines in that state, J.W. Bleakley, then pushed for greater reform, and actively encouraged so-called “full-bloods” to enlist. He later recalled the bewilderment of one recruiter, who remarked “some of these are the blackest half-castes I’ve ever seen.” Despite Bleakley’s efforts, however, the policy shift was only incremental. In June 1917, sixteen “full-blooded” soldiers recruited from the Barambah Mission were rejected by authorities in Melbourne and sent home under police escort. Similarly, Gilbert Williams of Wilcannia, New South Wales, enlisted successfully at Broken Hill in April 1917, but was discharged in Melbourne in late August. Williams had an unimpeachable record of conduct, but his discharge papers cite his Aboriginality under the heading of “Disease or Disability.” Grasping for a more plausible explanation, the medical officer suggested Williams had a “deficient physique,” which was a trait the medical officer in Broken Hill had apparently overlooked.
It is difficult to know precisely how many Aboriginal people served in the AIF during World War I. A conservative estimate published by Philippa Scarlett in 2012 suggests at least 834 men with Aboriginal ancestry volunteered, of whom 682 served overseas. But recent research at the Australian War Memorial suggests the total figure is well over 1000. Several Aboriginal soldiers received military decorations. Among them was William Rawlings, a Victorian Aboriginal man who enlisted at Warrnambool on 14 March 1916. Serving in the 29th Battalion on the Western Front, Rawlings was awarded the Military Medal for his feats during successful advances along Morlancourt Ridge on 28-29 July 1918. Ten days later he was killed in action at Vauvillers.
Dr Samuel Furphy is a Research Fellow in the National Centre of Biography, School of History.