In 1931 and 1932, Reveille the journal of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia, (the predecessor of the Returned and Services League and referred to as the RSL) published lists of Aboriginal men who served in the First World War. These lists named men from Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland and noted their service in a range of capacities – mainly infantry battalions and light horse regiments but also transport, signals, ambulance, engineers, artillery, remounts, machine gun companies and service corps. The publication was based on information received from state Aborigines Protection authorities and an appeal to readers. The interest this displayed was not isolated and was part of a wider movement in the 1930s to write about and document war participation and experience. The service of Aboriginal men was then forgotten and never part of Australia’s history of this conflict.
In the 1970s things started to change – if slowly – spearheaded by the discovery of the Reveille lists by military historian Dr Chris Clark and his important 1973 and 1977 articles drawing long overdue attention to Aboriginal service in the First World War. In 2015 Dr Clark revisited these lists in an attempt to explain the increase in number of Aboriginal soldiers which had escalated sharply from the 1980s. His conclusions were based on careful deductions from the Reveille numbers – 289 (actually smaller because of repetition of names across and within state lists) in relation to the 1911 Commonwealth census which showed 75% of Aboriginal ‘half castes’ lived in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales. The remaining 25 % of men described in this way lived in the states not represented in Reveille’s 1931 and 1932 articles. This led him to estimate, by deduction that the number 289 from the eastern states reasonably could be seen in proportionate terms to represent 75% of the number of Aboriginal enlistments nationally. This being so the number of men from the remainder of Australia would account for 25% of enlistments or a number of approximately 96. However he noted that the total of these two figures, 385, falls far short of the number of men now said to have served. It was on this basis that he concluded that many of the men named from the 1980s onwards, although undoubtedly of Aboriginal heritage, did not physically display their Aboriginality and that the increase in numbers must be because ‘many of the men now identified as Indigenous either did not know or acknowledge that fact at the time, or chose to conceal it’ and so are the result of what he calls ‘broadening the definition of Indigenousness’.
In the latest edition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF: The Indigenous response to World War One (to date containing the only referenced list of volunteers) I give figures suggesting that 759 men served overseas as opposed to a higher total number of volunteers, including those who were rejected or did not leave Australia. While the majority are from the states covered by the two Reveille lists, it does not automatically follow that the increase in numbers is the result of the recent identification of large numbers of men who were not recognisably of Aboriginal heritage. Although a lesser proportion of men do fall into this category, Dr Clark’s assertion is discounted by photographic evidence, information in service records and by other contemporary primary records and newspaper sources. What is clear, however, is that the Reveille survey was even less reliable than assumed at the time and sometimes later – and as such is not a firm basis on which to project numbers.
There is considerable evidence to show that the lists from Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales are far from complete. There are no documents showing the way in which the Victorian and Queensland lists were compiled, but the records of the New South Wales survey have survived. These show that the names were sought by police stations across the state with the help of mission managers. It is likely that a similar approach was adopted in the other two states. The Queensland list bears this out. It not only contains men who were born and enlisted in New South Wales and the Northern Territory but also men for whom no AIF records can be located – suggesting that the names were the result of word of mouth searches. Moreover the total number of Queensland men listed in the 1931 Reveille, 154, (of whom only 109 actually enlisted from Queensland) is contradicted by a statement made in 1940 by the Queensland Department of Native Affairs about the service of what it referred to as ‘half- bloods’: ‘In the War 1914-1918 some 200 coloured people of whom this Department was aware, and there would be others, enlisted and served overseas.’ (NAA: MP508/1, 275/750/1310 Aborigines Enlisted in AIF). The observation supports the contention that local inquiries rather than the records of the Chief Protector were the source of the names provided to Reveille. Just one of the Queensland men who were not listed by Reveille was Charles Alley , who with Martin Blyth was the subject of press and RSL attention in 1930, the year prior to the survey:
The bad old convict days ‘ of Australia are recalled by the banishment from the mainland ‘ to Palm Island of two half-caste aborigines — Martin Blyth and Charles Alley— both returned soldiers … the Returned Soldiers’ League in Northern Queensland are protesting “to the authorities, at what they call the ” barbarous treatment” of the two men. (Evening News (Rockhampton, Qld.) 17 May 1930:5.)
Of the two, Blyth was listed by Reveille and Alley was not, demonstrating the hit and miss nature of the name collection process. Similar comments apply to the Victorian list. Amongst others omitted by Reveille were six Aboriginal men whose names appear on the honour board from the Lake Condah mission church. The Aboriginality of one of these Herbert Winter was noted as ‘complexion black’ in his service record.
It seems probable the background to some of the discrepancy lies in the fact that the efforts of the officials in NSW and elsewhere, well after the end of the war, were dependent not only on word of mouth but the collectors’ knowledge of the communities they were based in and the degree of application and interest which as individuals they brought to the task. Another indication of how unrepresentative the lists are can be seen in cases where only one brother of a number who enlisted is recorded, despite their enlistment often on the same day and with consecutive service numbers. These omissions can be found in all three states. In addition in some of the New South Wales correspondence, the reply to the official inquiries is demonstrably deficient in relation to Aboriginal men known to have served from a particular district. Surprisingly, too the New South Wales correspondence shows that not all the men whose names were reported by police were published in Reveille. There seems no reason for the omission of these names – possibly a slip up in the publication process – but it does highlight yet another weakness in the information provided to Reveille.
Relevant to men from all lists, but particularly for the larger states of New South Wales and Queensland, were the itinerant work patterns of bush workers which meant that they volunteered far from their original homes, sometimes in other states, making identification difficult or impossible and the fact that some men were loners, unknown in the communities they passed through and so unremembered. In other instances men and their families may have actively sought to keep under the radar of Protection authorities and police. A communication to the Inspector of Police, Broken Hill NSW dated 12 December 1931, from the constable at Ivanhoe, suggests some of the difficulties encountered by the name collectors, often faced with enormous patrol areas:
I beg to report that there are only two Aborigines within this patrol, whom the above mentioned Circular applies to and they are both absent droving somewhere in Queensland, and I have been waiting for their return. I have also been communicating with the Manager at Carowra Aborigines Reserve regarding this matter and the Aborigines cannot give any other information other than that they are returned soldiers.
In another communication, the manager of Angledool Aboriginal Station explained that he ‘ found it very hard to get in touch with the people [he] named as they are on the move all the time and this information has been given by other people that are conversant with them.’ (AWM27:533/1 Returns showing particulars of men of Aboriginal parentage who enlisted and served with the AIF, presented by the Board for Protection of Aborigines, Sydney, 10 Aug 1932.).
The following indicative examples from New South Wales illustrate that men not recorded by Reveille came from differing locations and backgrounds. Walter Newton was born and lived in Corner country in the Broken Hill police patrol area but went to nearby South Australia to enlist as did other similarly located non-Aboriginal men. His Aboriginality was recognised in his attestation which recorded ‘complexion black’ and is discussed by Jeremy Beckett in Newton’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and an expanded article in Oceania. After discharge he returned to Broken Hill where he worked in the mines before resuming stock work. He also joined the RSL. Despite this he was not included on the Reveille list.
The identification of Aboriginal servicemen in the crowded environment of cities and their suburbs was similarly lacking. The police returns detailing men living in the Sydney area gave the names of three Aboriginal servicemen (Douglas Grant, Thomas Kelly and Tom Williams) but failed to identify amongst others Leonard Gilmore Smith, William Castles and Ewan Rose. Smith – also described in his attestation as ‘complexion black’ was from South Australia and living in Bankstown Sydney. There is no evidence that he was known to the Aborigines Protection Board, however William Castles, ‘complexion brown’ was a former Protection Board ward. He was a member of a family associated with the Plumpton and Sackville reserves and with his brothers, appears in the index to Protection Board minutes. Ewan Rose, awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre, an Aboriginal man from Queensland travelled to Sydney with a circus. He was befriended by a white family and lodged with them at St Marys before and after the war. His appearance is documented in David Huggonson’s Too Dark For the Light Horse photographic collection.
Particularly significant is the omission of William Irwin DCM, the only Aboriginal man to be identified by Charles Bean in The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. He was born at Coonabarabran and although he enlisted at Narrabri, his application to enlist was made at Moree which was also his postal address. His service record shows the presence of family in the Moree area and includes the results of a search in 1919 by the Moree police for family members eligible to receive his service medals and gallantry award. It also contains a 1936 letter from the manager of Quirindi Aboriginal Station about him, written on behalf of his brother. Despite all this in 1932 his name was not recorded in the New South Wales Reveille list.
These are all examples but not exceptions. I hope later to elaborate on this and to show even more clearly that the increase in number is not primarily the result of a changed perception of who may or may not have qualified at the time as an Aboriginal man according to the restrictive racist provisions of the Defence Act, its interpretation by recruiters or the community opinion reflected in the Reveille lists which included men described as both ‘half castes’ and ‘octaroons’. However the question pinpointed by Dr Clark remains, even given the difficulties faced by the Reveille collectors and their glaring omissions – that is what is the reason for the large discrepancy between the lists created in the 1930s and the much larger number of men of Aboriginal heritage now known to have served in the AIF?
The answer to this question lies primarily in the fact that the potential of word of mouth and memory available to police and managers to locate Aboriginal ex-service men, years after the end of the war, is hardly a match for the power of modern day printed resources and search engines. Since the early 2000s we have had the ability to read every AIF service record (available in the 21st century on the website of the National Archives of Australia) and to search for and read contemporary newspaper accounts via the National Library of Australia’s Trove digitised newspaper project. Combined with this is the easy access to a host of records including police records and photographs, and indexes and some records of Protection boards. All this is complemented by the growth in interest in Aboriginal family history and the availability of identifying photographs and family information via the public Aboriginal family trees displayed by ancestry.com. The growth in Aboriginal biography and autobiography and of Aboriginal history itself – so long excluded from mainstream history are also important factors. Put another way this assembly of weaponry dwarfs the limited resources of the officials who conducted the inquiries on which the Reveille lists are based and has resulted in the discovery of information which far outstrips that provided to the journal’s editor. This is not in any way to diminish Reveille’s importance. The 1931 and 1932 articles, with all their deficiencies, were crucial in demonstrating the service of Aboriginal men – and Dr Clark’s actions in realising their significance and rescuing them from oblivion, unquestionably give him the distinction of being the first Australian historian to recognise and write about Aboriginal service in the first AIF. However these lists are only one source and, as Dr Clark acknowledges, are a restricted sample and in the nature of a snapshot. Rather than being seen as the basis for estimating maximum numbers they point instead to the minimum number of Aboriginal men who served in the First World War.
Philippa Scarlett 27 March 2016
Thanks to Christine Cramer for her help particularly with numbers in this post.
The articles published in Reveille are ‘Many served: AIF Aborigines’, 30 November 1931: 22 and ‘Aborigines: N.S.W.’, 31 January 1932: 20.
I am pleased that in 2018 the Australian War Memorial endorsed the comments in this blog post by their partial repetition in the War Memorial’s book For Country For Nation pages 22 and 23 and that in April 2021 the Memorial article which is referred to in this post was amended to reflect the position detailed above. See Indigenous service in Australia’s armed forces in peace and war https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/indigenous-service/report-executive-summary