Remembering the indigenous Anzacs

By Natalie Kyriacou 24 April 2015
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Indigenous Australians were forbidden from voting in 1914, but that didn’t stop them from enlisting when war broke out.

The monumental journey embarked upon by Australian Anzacs in 1914 has been woven into the rich fabric of Australian history, yet successive generations have continued to overlook the estimated 1000 First Nations soldiers who fought bravely in the war.

Forbidden from entering military services, a small number of indigenous Australians were discreetly recruited by the AIF, provided they were not “too-dark”. However, by 1917, war fatigue from heavy losses had set in and racial prejudices in Australia gave way to military pragmatism, opening a small window for indigenous Australians to enlist.

Emerging from a racially segregated society lacking basic citizenship benefits, indigenous soldiers found themselves transplanted into the military, where segregation no longer existed. Once on the battlefield, they were accepted without the prejudice that was embedded in Australian culture at that time.

“There was no segregation at all in the military. These soldiers were defending their country and fulfilling their role as warriors,” says Dr Dale Kerwin, indigenous historian and author of The Lost Trackers: Aboriginal Servicemen in the 2nd Boer War.

War is a racial equaliser

Honour and loyalty may certainly have encouraged indigenous Australians to enlist in Australian war efforts, yet, the war also provided the opportunity to escape from the social ennui that was plaguing Australian society, as well as the possibility of earning respect and social advancement. “It was also a way for them to get out of poverty as well as providing them with a sense of adventure,” Dr Kerwin says.

Before the war, Australia’s policy towards indigenous service adhered to pre-existing racial assumptions that were based on exclusion. Despite their valiant war efforts and renewed hope in Australia’s cultural framework, indigenous soldiers who returned to Australia found that they were still heavily discriminated against.

Related: Green skin: Australia’s indigenous army

Racial discrimination awaits soldiers at home

“Once they came home, the old racist attitudes returned along with racist government policy,” says Dr Kerwin. “Not all Australians were racist, but it was embedded; there were government policies and restriction Acts” he says.

Of the 1000 presumed indigenous war heroes, only one veteran was able to benefit from the Soldier Settlement Act. Warrant Officer 2 George Kennedy was granted 17,000 acres at Yelty, NSW. His resting place, which was simply a numbered peg, was recently discovered in a cemetery.

Acknowledging the efforts of indigenous Australians in WWI is a concept that is becoming more accepted.

“I believe now is a time of reconciliation and contribution to Australian history. We went and defended this country and now we have recognition and have finally been ascribed back in the body of the country,” Dr Kerwin says.