About 1000 Indigenous soldiers volunteered for the First World War despite Australia’s Defence Act excluding Aboriginal men from military service.
Although a May 1917 regulation enabled men with one white parent to enlist, most of the Indigenous soldiers had already signed up before 1917. Many fought at Gallipoli in 1915 and then the Western Front.
Historian Philippa Scarlett said the majority of those who volunteered were accepted, demonstrating “the pragmatism of recruiters.”
Professor John Maynard, in the new book Serving Our Country, says about 640 Aboriginal men had enlisted before 1917. They had to be “inventive and proactive” to overcome official obstruction and sign up.
The Ngarrindjeri community from Raukkan (formerly Point McLeay mission) near The Coorong in SA encapsulates the story of Indigenous soldiers – citizens in the trenches but not back home.
Twenty-one young Ngarrindjeri men enlisted. Rufus Rigney was only 16 years and nine months old but his enlistment papers, given consent by the Chief Protector of Aborigines, stated he was 19, the same age as his brother, newly-married Cyril.
Neither came home. Cyril was killed in action in Belgium in July 1917, three months before Rufus was shot at Passchendaele and died, four days later, in a German prison camp.
Two other Ngarrindjeri men died in battles in France, Arthur Walker (whose son was named Anzac) at Mouquet Farm and Francis Varcoe at Bullecourt.
Twenty-one young Ngarrindjeri men enlisted.
Miller Mack contracted tuberculosis in France in 1917, lost nearly 20kg, and died two years later in an Adelaide hospital. His remains were exhumed from West Terrace Cemetery and reburied at Raukkan in 2017.
The Ngarrindjeri men were remembered by a stained-glass window installed in 1925 in Point McLeay’s church (pictured on our $50 note) and latterly, as commemoration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military service has expanded, by a new war memorial at Raukkan.
Recent research has driven up the estimated number of Aboriginal soldiers and the Australian War Memorial has published a list of 1071 names.
Serving Our Country editors Joan Beaumont and Allison Cadzow said post-war recognition of Indigenous soldiers was spasmodic and for decades their story was marginalised.
“Aboriginal servicemen in the First World War were not granted full citizenship on their return and few gained access to the land made available to ex-servicemen under soldier settlement schemes.”
Ms Scarlett wrote in Wartime: “Although repatriation entitlements were not officially denied and were received by some, others found the unofficial obstacles, underpinned by race, were insurmountable.”
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