Initially recruiting officers allowed Indigenous Australians to enlist only if their skin was considered ‘white enough’ but as the war went on, with casualty rates rising and recruitment numbers dropping, the officers weren't as selective. It’s not sure how many Indigenous Australians fought in the war but it is believed to have been around 500-600. They were involved in the majority of the campaigns.
Many enlisted with the hope that fighting for the country would in turn change the way they and other Indigenous Australians were treated – to no longer be discriminated against and to be treated equally. Others enlisted for the same reasons as non-indigenous Australians such as to see the world while receiving good pay (the pay was the same for Indigenous and non-indigenous soldiers).
In the trenches Indigenous Australians were considered and treated equal but when they returned home, things went back to the way they were before the war. The men were no longer equal to non-indigenous soldiers who they fought side by side with. They continued to be discriminated against, for example, they couldn’t apply for land under the soldier settlement schemes or even have a drink with their fellow soldiers at the local.
For more information including a referenced alphabetical listing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men who volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force during the war see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander volunteers for the AIF: the Indigenous response to World War One.
NSW serviceman portraits, 1918-1919 - Leslie John Locke. Locke was awarded the Military Medal.
We have the Douglas Grant Papers, 1917-1918 which are part of our European War Collecting Project. Visit us to view the papers.
At the age of 30 Douglas Grant enlisted in the 34th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force on 24 January 1916. However he was discharged as his battalion was about to leave because government approval was required for Indigenous Australians to leave the country. During the same year he enlisted again and this time left for France on board HMAT A18 Wiltshire to join the 13th Battalion, Australia Imperial Force.
Grant was wounded in the first battle of Bullecourt and along with other soldiers from the same battalion, he was captured by the Germans. He was sent to a different prisoner of war camp to his fellow servicemen, a camp for soldiers of colour. During his time (1917–1918) as a prisoner of war, he became president of the British Help Committee where he supervised the distribution of comforts to fellow prisoners at the camp. He was also studied by the Germans who found him curious and in return was given some freedom within the camp.
On 22 December 1918 Grant was repatriated to England and after visiting the family of his adoptive parents in Scotland, returned to Australia in April 1919.
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