Experiences of Indigenous Australians
Australia and World War I

Warning: People of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent should be advised that this website contains images of persons now deceased.

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1310 Private Gordon Charles Naley of Mundrabilla Station.

Read this passage and the Biographies below and then do the Activity at the bottom of the page. Complete for homework.

Indigenous Australians were present in almost every Australian campaign of World War I. It could be inferred that while Aborigines did not necessarily value fighting for the Empire, they were keen to fight for their country and families. This is evident in the fact that between 300 and 400 Indigenous Australians fought in World War I, defying the Australian Government and the Defence Act of 1909 which did not permit Aborigines even to enlist.
Why did they Join?
That is not an easy question to answer. Why would Aboriginal men, who were dispossessed and discriminated against in every aspect of life, want to risk their lives fighting in a war for a country that disrespected them? At the time of WWI, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were not officially classified as citizens of Australia. Under the Protectors' Acts they could not enter a public bar, vote, marry non-Aboriginal partners or buy property. They would, however, have been like every other adventurous young Australian male, wanting to go out and see the world, get paid good money, see some action and “be home before Christmas”.

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These men, no doubt, would have stood out in the crowd. Whilst in their daily civilian life they would have had to endure racist slurs and attitudes it was rarely like that in the trenches. Racism became less of an issue. In the heat of battle, survival could come down to relying on your mates so racism, for once, took a back seat. White and black soldiers forged friendships in the trenches of Gallipoli and the Western Front or on horseback with the Light Horse in the Middle East. The misconceptions and negative stereotypes that surely many non-Aboriginal diggers held when they joined would have quickly disappeared when they were living, eating, laughing and dying with these brave men.

In common with other soldiers, indigenous servicemen generally were anonymous men who earned neither bravery awards nor mentions in the official history. However, some were decorated for outstanding actions. Corporal Albert Knight, 43rd Battalion, and Private William Irwin, 33rd Battalion, were each awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal – second only to the Victoria Cross for men in their ranks – and others the Military Medal. Private William Rawlings, 29th Battalion, was awarded his Military Medal for ‘rare bravery in the performance of his duty’ in July 1917. He was killed in action the following year.

aboriginal soldier 2.PNGUnfortunately although many of these died and others risked their lives by 'going over the top' in service of their country they rarely receive recognition or a hero's welcome. When they returned to Australia they were shunned and their sacrifices ignored. They were not considered eligible for any State and Federal governments initiatives such as the "Soldier Settlement Scheme" which allotted land to their white comrades. Sadly returned indigenous soldiers were not allowed to have a drink with their comrades at their local pub, or enter any RSL Club. Likewise, there was no Government support for the wounded or mentally scarred Indigenous veterans. Today the bodies of those that fell in the battlefields of France, Belgium, The Middle East and Gallipoli remain with their mates, thousands of miles away from their ancestral homes.

It was not until the start of World War II that the Australian Defence Force permitted people who were not of 'substantially European descent' to enlist in any of the services. Once the restrictions were lifted, a number of Aboriginal men and women were able to officially enlist for service.

Acknowledgement of Country

I would like to acknowledge the Dharug people who are the traditional custodians of this land. I would also like to pay respect to the elders past and present of the Dharug nation and extend that respect to other Aboriginal people present.


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1. After reading the passages above, then read the ONE or more of the Biographies below.

Biography - Gordon Charles Naley

Biography - William Reginald Rawlings

Biography - Corporal Albert Knight

2. Copy the Questions below into OneNote FIRST and then type your responses.

i. Although the Defence Act of 1909 prevented Indigenous Australians from enlisting, how many Indigenous Australians served in WWI?

ii. Describe their experiences during the war in their interactions with fellow soldiers?

iii. What was their experience when they returned home?

iv. Read one Biography and Blog your thoughts (Two paragraphs) about the experiences and contribution of Indigenous servicemen.

3. Blog your responses by copying and pasting into our Indigenous Experiences Discussion Post. (Best if done first in OneNote as the Discussion Page can become unstable if left open for too long and you are likely to lose your work)

4. Read and comment on each other's Blogs

5. Extension activity - Write a letter home from the trenches on The Western Front from the perspective on an Indigenous serviceman. (Type it first in OneNote or MS Word and then copy and paste into our Extension Activity - Indigenous Experiences Blog)

For more information see the link below.
Indigenous Australians at war
South Australian Aboriginal soldiers of the First World War