The places where Australians fought and the nature of warfare during World War I, including the Gallipoli campaign
Exploring the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people during the war
In what ways are Australians’ experiences of World War I different?
Australian people’s involvement and experiences during World War I vary
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have fought in Frontier Wars since occupation, and every Australian military campaign since the Boer War 1899-1902. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in wars, they weren’t even recognised as Australian citizens. They suffered under the strict implementation of past and present government policies and practices, such as those during the Protection Era and the ‘White Australia Policy’.
Often photos of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women were the only reminder of their war service as they were rarely included in displays, memorials or history lessons.
There are many instances where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s names weren’t, and still aren’t, included in acknowledgements, thus denying their participation in Australian wars. This extended to official recognition in and on war memorials; the first war memorials dedicated to Aboriginal soldiers came into existence only in recent times.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, like many other servicemen and women, have suffered from afflictions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the consequences of the use of chemical warfare such as Agent Orange. Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers were denied entitlements, such as soldier resettlement grants, land packages, war service housing, healthcare and membership of the RSL, that were gifted to other returned soldiers. The presentation of war medals were rarely, if ever, given to returned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers. This has meant that the cycle of dispossession and trans-generational disadvantage has perpetuated despite their military service to the country.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have served in both world wars and every conflict and commitment involving Australian defence groups since Federation including the Boer War, in the trenches of Belgium and France, in the dugouts in Tobruk, and in battles in Korea, Vietnam, East Timor and Afghanistan.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in world wars despite not being recognised as citizens. There were many reasons for enlistment, such as being paid for work and gaining civil rights. Others hoped that war service might help the campaign for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizenship and equality in Australia. Often Aboriginal soldiers were treated better as soldiers at war than their families were treated back home in Australia on missions and reserves.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served on equal terms with other Australians during both world war. Once they returned home, the equal treatment ceased and they were expected to resume their designated position within Australian society. This meant that they were once again not treated on equal terms. They faced discrimination in areas such as education, employment, and civil liberties, and were even denied membership of the RSL. Due to the strict implementation of the ‘White Australia Policy’, some were even abandoned overseas and not allowed to return to Australia. This policy enforced the notion that only people of predominantly northern European background were allowed to immigrate to Australia. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers weren’t Australian citizens when they departed, some were denied re-entry as they either didn’t have papers or their papers weren’t recognised.
Only one2 Aboriginal soldier is known to have received land in New South Wales under a ‘soldier settlement’ scheme, despite the fact that much of the best farming land in Aboriginal reserves was confiscated for soldier settlement blocks.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander returning soldiers received no entitlements and the families of those killed were denied compensation from the wars, in contrast to the other Australian soldiers and families who did. The benefits from these entitlements have built capacity and furnished the families with opportunities and resources for economic and social capacity building; benefits denied to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers and families.
People have many reasons for serving their country in wars and the defence forces.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have contributed to many of Australia’s military actions and played an important part in defending our country. Anyone who serves in a defence force should be able to return home and rightfully expect to receive fair and equal treatment and support.
There’s been some acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander war service, but many Australians are not aware of it.
Acknowledging the contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military should be everyone’s responsibility. Because of this, it’s important that society take steps to ensure that the record is corrected, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander efforts are celebrated and acknowledged in the same manner as other soldiers.
The Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion played a significant role in WWII as the air base on Ngurapai (Horn Island) was Australia’s first line of defence.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have used their keen sense of observation to support Australia against invasion. For example in 1942 soldiers from the Torres Strait Islands and Tiwi Islands, and the Yolngu soldiers of Arnhem Land, served by watching the northern borders.
Australian people are proud of their Anzac soldiers. This national pride should extend to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anzacs, which can only be achieved by a broader understanding and public awareness of the role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers have played in Australia’s defence history.
There are many ways to respond, some of which could include:
Learn more about the Frontier Wars and why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people took up arms to protect their traditional lands from occupation.
Learn more about where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served and their contribution to our shared defence history.
Recognise the important role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people played in our history on days such as Anzac Day.
Understand why Anzac Day still has emotive connotations due to the systemic and trans-generational disadvantage and treatment of returned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women.
Publicly recognise, celebrate and remember the achievements and contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people during wars and within our defence force.