Among the thousands of those first Anzacs were a number of First Australians, Aboriginal men who were prohibited from joining but did so anyway — Aboriginal men who answered a call that wasn’t to them, to fight for a nation that didn’t recognise them.
For many years it was thought that about 400 Aboriginal men had joined up across the four war years. We now know there were about 1300 Aboriginal Diggers in the ranks, thanks to the ongoing research of Aboriginal Vietnam War veteran Gary Oakley at the Australian War Memorial.
We don’t know the exact number and probably never will.
We do know that under the Defence Act 1903, indigenous Australians were banned from military service, along with all other people who were not “substantially of European origin or descent”.
Yet, despite this, some of the very first enlistments were indigenous Australians. The 1st Light Horse Regiment, which paraded down Macquarie Street and embarked from Circular Quay in Sydney in October 1914, included two Aboriginal troopers.
In Hobart, the 12th Infantry Battalion marched to the tune of Rule, Britannia ! on its way to the waiting transport ships at Ocean Pier. Members of the 10th Battalion in Adelaide were boarding vessels at Outer Harbor. Melbourne’s Station Pier — then known as Railway Pier — saw off the 7th Infantry Battalion. And at the same time the 9th Infantry Battalion from Brisbane was already under way aboard HMAT Omrah.
All of these battalions had one thing in common: each had at least one Aboriginal soldier in the ranks.
Other early Aboriginal enlistments also occurred across Australia in late 1914. About 50 Aboriginal Anzacs fought at Gallipoli, including one soldier in the first landing on that first Anzac Day in 1915. He was killed later that day — his remains not found until 1922, as he had managed to get farther behind the Turkish lines than anyone expected.
By the end of 1915, it became harder for Aboriginal men to enlist. Some lied about their ethnicity, some anglicised their names. Many simply fronted a medical officer who turned a blind eye. Other would-be Diggers travelled hundreds of kilometres to enlist after being knocked back at recruiting centres closer to their communities.
By 1917, some Aboriginal men were allowed to enlist but only if the examining medical officer was satisfied one parent was of European origin.
These Aboriginal Anzacs easily could have ignored the Great War as a “whitefella problem”. But all were determined to serve our nation, even though our nation regarded them as second-class people, at best, not even deemed citizens. By putting their hands up to be counted as Australian soldiers, they demonstrated a hope that one day our nation would right these wrongs.
The irony of their non-recognition was that in the AIF, they experienced equality for the first time. They were paid the same, and Oakley’s research tells us that there was scant racism in the trenches.
We’ve travelled a long way down the road to reconciliation since then. The Holt government’s 1967 referendum was a great step forward, as was Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008.
And now in this 44th parliament there is bipartisan support for the next step in our reconciliation journey — including formal recognition of indigenous Australians in our Constitution — a step that Tony Abbott has described, aptly, as one that will “complete” rather than just change our Constitution.
These next few years provide us with a unique chance: the intersection of the Centenary of Anzac and the growing momentum for reconciliation; the chance to reveal and remember this history in a way that complements and strengthens harmony.
In the months and years ahead we will focus like never before — at a national and local level — on the contribution of those 400,000 Australians who served, 60,000 of whom made the supreme sacrifice.
A century on, we will remember every battle in sequence across four years, from the Centenary of Gallipoli next year to that of the Armistice in 2018. This will give us the chance to remember and revere all who served — all of them.
A century on we have the opportunity to tell the proud story of Aboriginal service in World War I better than we have in the past 100 years; and in doing so highlight another dimension to our national story and add extra fibre to the fabric of reconciliation.
Tony Smith is the Liberal member for the federal seat of Casey in Victoria.