ABORIGINAL ENLISTMENT IN THE FIRST AIF: USEFUL WHEN NEEDED

On 7th August 1916 William Garnet South, Chief Protector of Aborigines, South Australia wrote the following letter to the Officer in Charge, Recruiting Centre, Currie Street Adelaide.

As legal guardian of all Half Caste Aboriginal children (vide clause 10 of the Aborigines Act No 1948/19117) I hereby give consent for Rufus Rigney to enlist with the Australian Military Force, he being under the age of 21 years.

Rufus Gordon Rigney was an Aboriginal man from the South Australian Point McLeay mission. He was 19 when he volunteered for the AIF and went on to fight in France before going ‘missing, wounded’ on 12 October 1917. He died four days later in a prisoner of war camp and was buried ‘by German hands’ in the military cemetery at Iseghem, Belgium.

South’s 1916 letter was in effect an endorsement of Aboriginal war service by the South Australian Aboriginals Department. It was however in conflict with the provisions of the Commonwealth Defence Act which barred men not of substantial European origin from serving in the Australian armed forces. Despite this South’s action did not cause dissension between the Commonwealth and his state of South Australia – far from it. In fact the army medical form in Rigney’s service record, which was used for enlistment purposes, unambiguously refers to his Aboriginality: Section (b) of the form is headed ‘slight defects but not enough to cause rejection’ and contains the commentreferred to PMO. Half Caste. States mother & father both half castes’.

Rigney’s success in enlisting provides another interesting example of the loosening of the provisions of the Defence Act. During the course of the war inability to reach recruiting targets progressively led to the relaxation of the physical standards operating in 1914. In this sort of climate it became increasingly acceptable for some recruiting centres to enlist an Indigenous man who was fit in all respects – apart from his lack of substantial European heritage. The partial relaxation of regulations in May 1917 to allow enlistment of an Aboriginal man with one white parent was a specific response to this situation. Lloyd Robson in 1970 in The First AIF. A study of its recruitment 1914- 1918 commented on the erosion of enlistment standards relating to age, height and minor defects in the last years of the war. However he did not mention the one relating to Aboriginal men. Nor, in line with the lack of recognition of Aboriginal war service, does his study mention Aborigines and the issues relating to their recruitment. In doing so he provides another example of the exclusion by scholars of Aboriginal war service, through ignorance or because it was considered irrelevant.

Despite the lowered standards and acceptance of previously excluded non Indigenous and Indigenous men, recruitment continued to fall short of the goals set. By 1918, months before the end of the war, the South Australian State Recruiting Committee, like other state committees, was anxious to emphasise that men were still needed at the front. Under the heading THE CALL FOR MEN it told the public that

Although the Germans are on the run to their own border, and notwithstanding all the talk of peace, the end of the war may be still a long way off, and … every effort must be made to bring the Huns to their knees and to force them to accept the terms which must be dictated to them by the Allies.

In the face of slow recruiting, one device noted by Robson was to publish enlistment numbers by district – in an effort to bolster enlistments by engendering inter-district rivalry. Another variation of this ploy is evident in the location of an article about the service of Aboriginal men which follows on from the South Australian ‘Call for Men’. The report was headed PATRIOTIC NATIVES and details names and casualties, some fatal.

The following aboriginals and half-castes from the Point McLeay and Lakes districts enlisted. In four instances the soldiers made the supreme sacrifice:—Privates P. Wilson, C. Wilson, G. Wilson, L. Wilson, G. Rigney, C. Rigney (killed in action), R. Rigney (killed in action), A. Varcoe (killed in action), A. Rankine (prisoner of war), R. Rankine, W. Sumner, E. Sumner, M. Mack (returned gassed), D. Hodgkiss, W. Gollan, A. Cameron, G. Karpaney, W. Karpaney, H. Muckray, H. Milera, L. Lindsay [enlisted as Power], J. Bews, A. Weetra (returned), P. [R] Carter (prisoner of war), H. Tripp (returned), and A. Walker (died of wounds while prisoner of war).

This constituted an effort to promote non Indigenous recruitment based on
the perception that white men would be shamed into volunteering when they saw the sacrifice of Aboriginal men. It had at least one precedent in South Australia. In April 1916 a commentator, referring to Point McLeay enlistments, said ‘It is a crying shame that any [non volunteering white men] should so far demean themselves as to be taught their duty by dependants of an aboriginal mission.’

Similar tactics were evident in Victoria.

Five half caste brothers enlist. Melbourne, May 21. A striking example to eligible white men has been furnished by a half-caste family at Heywood, named Lovett, five sons having enlisted for active service. Alfred Lovett has been wounded in France, and is in hospital in England. Leo Lovett and Edward Lovett are all in France with their battalion and Herbert Lovett is in camp at Broadmeadows. The fifth and last son, Frederick Amos Lovett, was accepted on Thursday at the Town Hall Depot.

The use of Aboriginal enlistments in this way and the pragmatic approach to acceptance of Aboriginal men by recruiters throughout the war, particularly in its later stages, is a clear illustration of the sentiment expressed by William Cooper in 1938. In this year he wrote to the Prime Minister Joseph Lyons ‘Although usually treated with marked indifference when we are not being ill-treated, there are times when we are considered useful.’ His remark was made specifically in the context of Aboriginal war service. [Quoted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF  p.63]

Despite this pragmatism, Aboriginal volunteers were rejected throughout the duration of the war. Rejected men comprise approximately one fifth of the Indigenous AIF volunteers identified and referenced in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF. Most of the remainder, a least before the change in regulations in May 1917, were probably irregularly enlisted. But even after May 1917 in some parts of Australia, Aboriginal men who appear eligible under the changed rules were still unsuccessful.

Indigenous enlistment in the AIF and its corollary the continuing exclusion of Indigenous men, are both evidence of discriminatory attitudes – one was that of expedience partially overcoming racism to create a qualified acceptance, one which led, after May 1917, to the inclusion of statements with attestations confirming a man had one white parent and had associated with white people all his life. The other underlined the persistence of racist attitudes which stopped a man’s enlistment, even in the face of the increasingly frenetic efforts to secure recruits during the last years of the war.

William Cooper’s words were all too true. Need at least partially overcame the racism inherent in the Defence Act and in the community at large – although not uniformly and only for the purpose of the war effort – and in no way did it guarantee that men so enlisted would be treated with equality by their comrades or by society after the war.

Philippa Scarlett 22 July 2013

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About Indigenous Histories

Author & Publisher of Australian history, art and culture.
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