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Parliamentary Library Lecture—Aboriginals in the First Australian Imperial Force, a secret history


On 28 May, the Parliamentary Library hosted a public lecture by Gary Oakley, the Indigenous Liaison Officer at the Australian War Memorial. Mr Oakley’s ongoing research into Aboriginal service during the First World War painted an absorbing picture of the experiences of Aboriginals serving in the First Australian Imperial Force (1st AIF) as well as dispelling a number of preconceptions.   

During the First World War, recruitment into the 1st AIF was originally governed by laws and policies that prohibited Australia’s Indigenous population from enlisting—the Defence Act 1903 excluded persons who were not substantially of European origin or descent. Despite this barrier, Indigenous Australians still enlisted. New information suggests that a larger number enlisted than previously thought—the original estimate of 400 has now risen to more than 1,000, and the number is increasing as more research is done. By December 1916, the government was under pressure to find more recruits. As a result, recruitment criteria were somewhat relaxed to allow what were then termed ‘half-castes’ to join the military.

Mr Oakley contended that while the government of the day applied many discriminatory policies, the Army could be considered Australia’s first equal opportunity employer—‘colour was not an issue’ in the Army. It seems that for this reason, along with good pay and conditions, many Aboriginals sought to enlist.

Another interesting fact to emerge from Mr Oakley’s lecture was the discovery of an Indigenous officer who served during the First World War. It was previously thought that the first known Aboriginal Australian officer was Captain Reginald Saunders who served in the Second World War. However, recent information suggests that 2nd Lieutenant Alfred John Hearps from Tasmania was the first Aboriginal officer commissioned into the Australian Army. Additionally, the number of known decorated Indigenous soldiers has increased with the discovery that Lance Corporal Richard Kirby received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, which is second only to the Victoria Cross.

To date, there has only been one Australian Aboriginal woman, Marion Leane Smith, identified as having served during the First World War. While Marion Smith was born in Liverpool, New South Wales, she resided in Canada from early childhood and served with Canadian nurses during the war.

To view slides from Mr Oakley’s presentation, or to listen to a recording, visit the Parliamentary Library’s seminars and lectures webpage.