Under the Commonwealth Defence Act of 1903 and further amendments exempting persons 'not substantially of European origin or descent' indigenous Australians were prohibited from joining military service. After the failure of the first conscription referendum, changes were made in 1917 enabling aboriginal men with one white parent to enlist. Despite the racial discrimination exemplified in legislation the reality was many indigenous Australians enlisted from the very beginning of the war and continued to do so until the end of the conflict. Although it is impossible to be specific, as "race" was not noted on enlistment papers, one source suggests over a thousand aboriginal men enlisted. This included over 70 aboriginal Tasmanians identified so far - but one would expect many more, as research continues on this topic. There are numerous reasons for why they heeded the call to fight for a country that did not recognise them, as varied as any individual who volunteered, loyalty to country, adventure, and payment.
Historian Kristyn Harman has stated "While Aboriginal soldiers were in the trenches alongside other Australian soldiers, there was an equality that hadn't been experienced before between them." Others have noted that once in the AIF, they were treated as equals, paid the same as other soldiers, and generally accepted without prejudice. Returning home after the First World War Aboriginal ex-servicemen received little public or private support. They were denied access to soldier settlement schemes, in some states Native Welfare Agencies quarantined their wages and pensions, sometimes they were denied access to military funerals, and the treatment they and their families received at ANZAC Day services and in the local RSLs varied depending on the attitudes of the local community.
Australian War Memorial
Anzac Day websites
Harman K (2014) "Enlisted!: Tasmanian Aboriginal Soldiers in World War One" in Culture Domain (2014), ps 12-13 Accessed 16th April 2014
Indigenous Australians at war from the Boer War to the present
Riseman (2013) "Serving Their Country: A Short History of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Service in the Australian Army" in the Australian Army Journal Culture Edition 2013, Volume X, Number 3
Shrine of Remembrance travelling exhibition - Indigenous Australians at war
Smith (2014) "Remembering Aboriginal service in the Great War, one century on" in The Australian December 6 2014. Accessed on 16 April 2015.