Aboriginal diggers forced to pretend

Media release: Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Aboriginal men, banned from serving in World War I, sometimes falsely identified themselves as nationalities such as part-Maori, Indian or black American so that they could enlist, says Greg Cope from the National Archives in Brisbane.

Next week Greg is presenting two public talks in Brisbane on his findings about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander diggers as preserved in records held by the National Archives.

'When war broke out in 1914, many Indigenous Australians who tried to enlist were rejected on the grounds of race,' he said.

'Some managed to enlist by identifying as other nationalities. However, by October 1917, when recruits were harder to find and one conscription referendum had already been lost, restrictions were cautiously eased.'

At the time a new military order stated: '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.'

While men weren't identified as Aboriginal on their service records, an estimated 1000 Indigenous Australians fought in World War I.

'They came from a section of society with few rights, low wages, and poor living conditions,' said Greg Cope. 'Most Indigenous Australians could not vote and none were counted in the census.

'While we don't know what motivated them to enlist, loyalty and patriotism may have played a part. Some may have also seen it as a chance to prove themselves the equal of Europeans or to push for better treatment after the war. For many Australians, in 1914 the offer of 6 shillings a day for a trip overseas was simply too good to miss.'

Once in the AIF, Indigenous servicemen were treated as equals. They were paid the same as other soldiers and generally accepted without prejudice.

But, when they returned home, they found that discrimination remained or, indeed, had worsened during the war period, especially in areas such as education, employment, and civil liberties.

Indigenous Australians also served in other areas of conflict, including Aboriginal bush trackers who had served in Africa during the Boer War. As many as 6,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in World War II.  At this time the army and RAAF also depended heavily on Aboriginal labour in northern Australia.

The public talks will be held on Wednesday 15 April at 10am and on Friday 17 April at 2pm at the National Archives of Australia, 16 Corporate Drive, Cannon Hill. Bookings on (07) 3249 4200

Contact information

  • Greg Cope (Director, Queensland State Office)
    t (07) 3249 4224 m 0400 753 854
  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0417 247 157 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au

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