Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are warned that content on this page may contain images and references to deceased persons.
It is estimated that up to 800 indigenous servicemen served in the First World War. The exact number will never be known since ethnicity was not recorded on enlistment papers.
When war broke out in 1914, many indigenous Australians who attempted to enlist were rejected on the grounds of race, their attestation papers marked ‘Unsuitable physique – Aboriginal’ or ‘Unsuitable physique – Colour’. This was in accordance with the Commonwealth Defence Act 1909 which prevented those who were not of ‘substantially European descent’ from enlisting in the armed forces.
Many indigenous men enlisted under false names and/or places of birth in an attempt to evade these conditions. Others claimed to be African American, Maori or only distantly related to Aboriginal people.
After Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ conscription referendum was defeated in October 1916 and enlistment numbers were falling, legislation was introduced allowing “half-castes” to enlist. A 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.”
Indigenous Australians were present in almost every Australian campaign of World War I. At least 34 Aboriginal men fought at Gallipoli, 12 of whom were killed. They also served in trenches on the Western Front and on horseback with the Light Horse in the Middle East.
Racial issues were forgotten on the battlefield as allied troops united against the common enemy. Many Aborigines in the AIF experienced equal treatment for the first time in their lives. They served on equal terms and were paid the same as other soldiers.
Readjustment was the greatest problem faced by most indigenous servicemen returning to civilian life in Australia. Many were spurned by white society and found it difficult to re-integrate into Aboriginal society. The same discrimination and prejudices remained in areas such as education, employment, and civil liberties. They were still denied the right to vote, the right to an equal wage, the custody of their children and the control of their finances.
Initiatives as the “Soldier Settlement Scheme”, which granted land to ex-servicemen was not extended to indigenous servicemen, despite the fact that much of the best farming land in Aboriginal reserves had been confiscated for soldier settlement blocks. Aboriginal servicemen were denied veterans’ benefits; they were restricted from marching on ANZAC Day and they were not permitted to enter The Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (present-day RSL) or a public bar to share a drink with their comrades.
There has been very little recognition for the indigenous Australians who relinquished their traditional culture and lifestyle and disregarded the regulations in order to fight for a country that didn’t even recognise them as citizens. The indigenous war effort is acknowledged by a small bush memorial on the flanks of Mount Ainslie in Canberra, some 300 metres behind the Australian War Memorial. It was funded and erected in 1988 by Honor Thwaites, a prominent (white) woman from Canberra. The memorial consists of a granite boulder with a brass plaque bearing the inscription: “Remembering the Aboriginal people who served in the Australian forces”.
To date nine indigenous service men from Orange and the surrounding area have been identified:
GAGE, Charles Alfred
GAGE, Christopher Henry
HOMER, William John
RINE, Thomas [RILEY, William]