Aboriginal World War I servicemen – a deliberate silence

Media release: Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Aboriginal men who volunteered to serve in World War I were rarely acknowledged and often suffered severe discrimination when they returned, according to post-graduate scholar John Pearson who has been researching their fate in the National Archives. He will discuss his findings in a free NAIDOC Week talk at the University of Adelaide on Thursday 10 July at 1pm.

'Many Aboriginal soldiers were denied war gratuity payments, pensions and soldier settlement programs and some even had their medals withheld,' said Mr Pearson.

'In South Australia, the Aborigines Act 1911 could prevent a wife or family from inheriting an Aboriginal soldier's pay or belongings, even when he had written a will in their favour. Under this State Act, when an Aboriginal person was killed at work, his assets could be seized by the Protector of Aborigines.

'We have cold hard evidence of this in the National Archives' records. I find that so sad and offensive – that the state thought they could put this money into revenue,' said Mr Pearson.

The prohibition on Aboriginal people drinking alcohol also excluded Indigenous soldiers from meeting up with their army mates for Anzac Day commemorations.

While the numbers of Indigenous Australians who enlisted in the war are uncertain, nation-wide estimates are as high as 4,000.

'From the National Archives' records, I've identified 100 from South Australia but I suspect there are more,' said Mr Pearson.

Before 1917, Aboriginal men were not allowed to enlist and so their Aboriginality was not mentioned in their service records. The best the files might show is a description of a dark complexion, hair and eyes. Their address and next-of-kin might also indicate their background.

'Generally the repatriation files in the National Archives tell a lot more than the service records,' said Mr Pearson. 'I've also used Aboriginal genealogies to help with identification.

'There was no mention of Aboriginal men going to war in any newspapers of the day, nothing written about them at all. There was no interest and, I believe, a deliberate silencing.'

For King, or Country: The treatment of Aboriginal veterans and their families after World War I on Thursday 10 July at 1pm, at Napier Building, University of Adelaide, is a free joint event by the university and the National Archives of Australia. Bookings on (08) 8204 8787 are essential.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0427 853 664 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
  • Nick Gleghorn (Manager, State Office South Australia)
    t (08) 8204 8814 m 0408 620 872
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014