Australians Indigenous in World War 1

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WW1 offered extensive opportunities for Indigenous people to find gainful employment, respect from all communities, equality and social power. They were treated with the same amount of respect that their white counterparts received, they earnt the same amount of pay and they were able to travel and experience the world without the added burden of racial discrimination holding them back. However, whilst it may have seemed like world war 1 provided advancements in opportunities for Indigenous Australians to gain and exercise power, when the war ended it became clear that this was simply a coverup of the belittlement of Indigenous people and the “power” that they had supposedly gained during the war quickly depleted and they were left in the same position as they had been previously.

For many Indigenous Australians, enlisting in the army meant that they could find useful employment, respect among the people they worked with and a sense of agency. Indigenous Australians soldiers who went to war received the same treatment as their white counterparts. Indigenous men were considered anonymous soldiers, however some did receive awards for outstanding actions, such as Corporal Albert Knight and Private William Irwin.

The exact number of serving Indigenous people in world war 1 is not known due to ethnicity not being stated on army registration forms, (this was protocol at the time). Whilst non-Europeans were officially banned from enlisting in Australia’s armed forces for majority of the first half of the 20th century, around 500 Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander men managed to enlist. Whereas on other occasions, the recruiting officers simply didn’t care about the race of the man, as long as he would sign on the dotted line.

When it came to the army around this time era, Australia was desperate enough for soldier’s that a man could serve irrespective of the colour of his skin and his race. There were many reasons as to why Indigenous men put their names down to serve for a country that didn’t respect them. Some had strong hope that serving in the war might assist in furthering the Indigenous campaign for citizenship whilst others sought out adventure, good pay or simply joined because mates did.

When Australia’s desperation for troops increased so did the amount of men who were enlisting – both Australian, European and Indigenous. It is currently estimated that around 1,000 Indigenous Australians, (out of a population of around 93,000 in 1901), fought in World War 1. Whilst it’s not perfectly clear what the Indigenous Australians main motive was when enlisting, it is widely believed that loyal and patriotism played a part. This can be seen in source 1. Source 1 depicts three members of the 3rd battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment confer with a North Korean.

Along with an interpreter (on the left) who is serving with the battalion. Through this image we can see that world war 1 offered a place for Indigenous men to see the world and also gain respect from fellow white soldiers. It’s clear that indigenous Australians found a lot through world war 1, they found employment, equality, respect, equal pay and social power.

Indigenous men exercised the power that they gained from war in many different ways. Whilst in the middle of battle, a lot of the time survival came down to relying on your fellow troops, so racism had no place on the battlefield. Indigenous soldiers were more often than not anonymous men who didn’t earn any sort of bravery award or mention in the official history. However, whilst saying this, some Indigenous men were decorated for their outstanding work in the field.

Indigenous soldiers served under the same conditions of service as the other men in the AIF, the army was the first place where Indigenous men had the opportunity to be treated equally with their white counterparts. They came from a part of society with very little basic rights, extremely low wages and very poor living conditions. Majority of Indigenous Australians could not vote, and none were counted in the census. However, once they were serving under the AIF, they were treated as equals. They were paid the same as other solider and were, for the most part, accepted into the community without prejudice. As well as this, for any Australian in 1914, the offer of 6 shillings a day for a trop overseas was not to be taken lightly.

This can be seen through source 2 which shows Group portrait of a platoon consisting of Aboriginal soldiers at Number 9 camp at Wangaratta 1940 – 1942. Corporal Mullet (left), Major Joseph Albert Wright (centre) and Sergeant Morris (right). Major Wright, a World War 1 Light Horse veteran, was in charge of this Platoon, which was the only Aboriginal squad in the Australian military forces. The soldiers were all volunteers. Through this source and other relevant information, we can begin to understand how Indigenous people exercised the power they gained from war.

However, whilst the Indigenous men may have gained and exercised power during the war, when they returned home, they found that cultural climate had barely been changed if at all. In 1918, racism and exclusion were ride and the contribution of the Indigenous Australians who served at war was quickly forgotten – all rights that they had only just received, revoked. After the war, Indigenous veterans began to find that their service in the war counted for close to nothing back home. They were continually frustrated by racism and the lack of recognition they received for their time on the battlefield.

A bare minimum number of Indigenous Soldiers received a soldier settler block, they were not given full citizenship and rights and they were still forced to live under the so-called ‘Protection Acts’. The Protection Acts imposed strict control over pretty much every aspect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life. They began to realise that the discrimination that they had dealt with before the war, had remained just as bad if not gotten worse since after the war period. There is only one known Indigenous Australian that received land in New South Wales under a “Soldier Settlement”, despite most of the best Aborigine farming land being stolen to be used for soldier settlement blocks.

The belittlement of Indigenous Australians increased between the wars, as the so called ‘Protection Acts’, gave the government even more control over Indigenous people. This continued on until as last as 1928 where Indigenous Australians were being massacred in reprisal raids. There were many important Aboriginal political movements however there was still little improvement to civil rights. Through this paragraph it is clear to see just how much the Indigenous Australians lost when they returned from the war.

To conclude, whilst world war 1 did offer amazing opportunities for Indigenous Australians to find gainful employment, cheap travel, equal pay, respect and equality, it is important not to look past the belittlement and repression that Indigenous Australians still faced for years to come after the war was over.


Cite this paper

Australians Indigenous in World War 1. (2021, Feb 07). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/australians-indigenous-in-world-war-1/



How were the Indigenous Australians treated during the war?
The Indigenous Australians were treated poorly during the war, with many being denied the right to enlist and being subjected to discrimination and racism. Those who did serve faced similar mistreatment, with many being assigned menial tasks and receiving lower pay than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
What role did indigenous people play in ww1?
Indigenous people played a small role in WW1. They were not drafted into the army, but some did enlist. They were not a major factor in the war.
Where did Indigenous Australians fight in ww1?
Indigenous Australians were not conscripted to fight in ww1, but many did enlist of their own accord. The most notable instance of Indigenous Australians fighting in ww1 was at the Battle of Beersheeba.
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