According to the Australian War Memorial, more than 400 Indigenous Australians fought for the British empire in the first world war. Photograph: Aaron Tait Photography
A century after the first world war, Australia has come to eulogise its Anzac diggers for their supposedly unique capacity for mateship, resilience, egalitarianism and sacrifice.
In the broad Australian consciousness, they have also been defined as white and of European Christian extraction.
But like so much about the clichéd Australian Anzac, this entrenched cultural caricature overlooks the extraordinary experiences of minorities who fought as Australian sons of the empire – not least those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait lslanders.
More than 400 Indigenous Australians fought for the British empire in the first world war. Photograph: PR
According to the Australian War Memorial, more than 400 Indigenous Australians fought for the British empire in the first world war.
This is probably a conservative estimate: thanks to curious Commonwealth rules about who was eligible to fight – Indigenous volunteers had to prove to recruiting officers that they were, despite appearances, of “substantially European descent” in order to be considered for enlistment – the actual number of Indigenous men who served in that war will remain the source of conjecture.
In late 1914 and 1915, when the first of some 420,000 Australians signed up – 39% of the males aged 18 to 44 from a total population of 4m – Indigenous applicants were often rejected.
Then, after the tragic folly of Gallipoli in which 7,600 Australians were killed came the catastrophe of the European western front where 50,000 more perished.
As domestic Australian support for the war waned, recruitment officers became colourblind.
Ironically for the Aborigines – their land stolen and people massacred after British colonisation in 1788, refused recognition as Australian citizens, voting rights or control of their earnings – it became possible to find emancipation of sorts by joining the 1st Australian Imperial Force and fighting under the British flag against the Germans and Turks.