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Overlooked : Tasmanian Aborigines in the First World War


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Gerrard, AE 2015 , 'Overlooked : Tasmanian Aborigines in the First World War', Research Master thesis, University of Tasmania.

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This thesis examines the enlistment and contribution of Tasmanian Aboriginal soldiers to the first Australian Imperial Force. It also considers how they were treated both in the front line, and on their return to Australia.
On 20 October 2014, Tasmanians will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the departure from Hobart of the troopships Geelong and Katuna. On board the Geelong as a young sergeant allotted to the 12th Battalion was Alfred Hearps, a nineteen year old clerk from Queenstown. Young ‘Jack’ (as he was known to his family) would be the first of 74 Tasmanian Aborigines to volunteer for service with the first Australian Imperial Force. Men came from all walks of life and from all over Tasmania to enlist when the recruiting offices opened in mid-August 1914. Over the four years that the war was prosecuted, 18 men from the small island community of Cape Barren Island would volunteer. Seventeen of these men were Straitsmen, the descendants of the sealers who settled on the Bass Strait islands with the Aboriginal women they took as ‘wives’ and with whom they raised children. A further thirteen Aboriginal men from nearby Flinders Island would also enlist along with eight grandchildren of Fanny Cochrane Smith. A total of 34 descendants of Dalrymple Briggs would also enlist – most, with the exception of three, coming from Aboriginal communities in the north and north-west of Tasmania. Four men from Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, were also included in this thesis, as they were the descendants of Betty Thomas, a Tasmanian woman who was probably taken there by sealers.
The number of Aborigines who managed to enlist is not great, perhaps 800 to 1,000 across Australia: nevertheless, they made a significant contribution to Australia’s war effort. It is only in recent years that this contribution has been fully recognised, and that there has been a concerted effort to write them back into the Anzac legend. Dawes, Robson and White have all examined what drove men to enlist in the first Australian Imperial Force: but with very little evidence of any kind, it has been much harder for historians to suggest why Aborigines, who were essentially barred from enlisting (under Section 61 (h) of the Defence Act of 1903) would volunteer to fight for a country that had pushed them to the margins of society. While the founding fathers wanted a ‘white army’ for a White Australia following Federation, in actual fact the first Australian Imperial Force was ethnically diverse in its make-up.
Tasmanian Aborigines, in particular, are conspicuous by their very absence from the literature. Timothy Winegard was only able to add a now outdated figure at the last minute before his book on the contribution of Indigenous peoples from the British Dominions went to print in 2012. This thesis writes the contribution of Tasmania’s Aboriginal soldiers back into the historical record to stand alongside the accounts emerging from other Australian states and territories.
It would appear that the Tasmanian Aboriginal men had little trouble in convincing the recruiting officers that if they were fit enough, they should be enlisted. This was not the experience of many Aboriginal men from mainland Australia, some of who were discharged soon after volunteering, with their records marked as being irregularly enlisted because they were not of ‘substantial’ European origin. However, once accepted, it would appear that the Australian Imperial Force was an ‘equal opportunity employer’ with all recruits given the same pay, clothing, equipment and rations based solely on rank. Yet while this was true of the early phase of their enlistment, statistical evidence would suggest that Aboriginal soldiers were not treated the same as settler Australian soldiers once in the front line. In order to examine this, four cohorts have been considered. The first comprises the 74 men from this study. Two further cohorts were derived from a one in five sample taken from the Letter B Database set up by Professor Kris Inwood of Guelph University, Canada – one of men born in Tasmania, the other of those born in mainland Australia. A fourth cohort is comprised of mainland Australian Aboriginal soldiers.
Rather than being ‘over by Christmas’ 1914, the war dragged on for four years, with the loss of over 63,000 Australian lives and a further 152,422 casualties. The Australian government was overwhelmed by the number of men and families requiring support upon their return to Australia. Given the fact that returned Aboriginal soldiers were once again marginalised when they returned home, many must have wondered whether the Repatriation system set up to take care of the needs of returning soldiers would treat them the same as settler Australian soldiers or whether they would suffer discrimination once more.

Item Type: Thesis - Research Master
Authors/Creators:Gerrard, AE
Keywords: First World War, Aborigines, A.I.F. soldiers, Tasmania
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Copyright 2015 the author

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