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Highlighting Aboriginal military service

“Serving Our Country” is a unique book for not only focusing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who served in the Australian defence forces but relying on stories shared by both Indigenous service members and their families.

The book of essays was based on a substantial amount of oral history, an important primary source of information for those studying Aboriginal history, said ANU College of Asia and Pacific Professor Emerita Joan Beaumont, who co-edited the publication with Allison Cadzow. Military historians generally base their research on archival sources, said Beaumont, who has spent her career writing books on Australians’ experience and role in wars throughout the 20th Century.

“The complexity of the research arose from the fact that there’s not necessarily a lot of surviving written records,” she said.

For example, the correspondence dealing with the military authorities’ decision to allow Aboriginal volunteers to join the first AIF (Australian Imperial Force) in 1917 was destroyed. To my knowledge, no one interviewed Indigenous soldiers in World War I.”

“Serving Our Country” was part of an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage project that documented the contributions made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who served in the Australian defence and auxiliary services. The project team conducted more than 200 yarn ups – audio and video recorded interviews – across Australia with Indigenous men and women who had served as well as family members who recounted stories of their fathers, grandfathers and ancestors in the armed services. These interviews have been preserved on the web as a resource for future researchers.

The project was led by retired Professor Mick Dodson of ANU National Centre for Indigenous Studies and funded by the ARC with support from major government departments and cultural institutions. Its scope covered Indigenous military service from the Boer War in South Africa through both world wars, and later conflicts in Korea, Southeast Asia, Vietnam and the Middle East. It also examined the impact of war on Indigenous Australians on the home front, their experience of national service and their role in contemporary units such as NORFORCE.

Precise numbers on Aboriginal and Torres Straits Island people who have served are difficult to determine, Beaumont said, but an estimated 1,000 enlisted in the First World War and at least 3-4,000 soldiers in the second global conflict. While the Defence Act of 1909 exempted Indigenous men from military training and service because they were not substantially of European origin or descent, they were ultimately allowed to enlist during each world war as the need for soldiers grew, Beaumont said.

Additionally, some First Australians were able to able to evade restrictions and enlist earlier – including some who fought in the Gallipoli campaign – but they weren’t recorded as Indigenous people, Beaumont said.

An intriguing question arising from the book was why Aboriginal men enlisted for Australian military service, a time when they faced discrimination at home and had experienced generations of having lost their land, mobility and even their children.

It seems that some enlisted because of the economic opportunities military service offered while others volunteered because they felt allegiance to the British Empire or Australia. And some volunteered in the hope that their service would gain them greater political rights when they returned.

“There was a mix of motivations,” Beaumont said. “It seems that quite a few of them must have been socialised by Western education, such as being on a church mission, into believing in the worth of the British Empire because there’s an inherent contradiction in volunteering to defend a state that is the agent of your disadvantage and dispossession.”

Another strong narrative from interviewees was that Indigenous Australians experienced more equality while serving overseas in combat zones but returned to a country that treated them as second-class citizens, she said. “That sense that these men went to serve the nation but came back to be treated as second-rate citizens or not as full citizens was a very strong family memory that was backed by historical records,” she said.

The situation began to change after the Second World War, when Aboriginal service members championed the cause of gaining full civil rights on the grounds that they had defended the nation – one of the primary obligations of a citizenship, Still, Indigenous Australians remained exempt from any formal obligation to undertake military service until much later in the century.

Many of those interviewed in Serving Our Country project saw Aboriginal service in the Australian armed forces as being part of a larger narrative of conflict and trauma that dates back to the 1788 and includes the ‘Frontier Wars’, Beaumont said. Institutions that commemorate Australian service members have been pressed in recent years to recognise the Frontier Wars as a war, and Aboriginal people have been using commemorative events such as Anzac Day to call attention to the issue.

“The issue on which book finishes is where do we go from here,” Beaumont said. “Do we widen the debate about Indigenous service to include this much more problematic and difficult history of frontier violence?”

Research funded by: Australian Research Council

Related website: Serving Our Country

Related research: Professor Joan Beaumont



Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team