Aboriginals’ significant role in WWI revealed

13 April, 2004 – The names of more than 400 Aboriginal soldiers who served in World War I have been uncovered — and many were from Tasmania’s Bass Strait islands.

Canberra-based historian David Huggonson, who has spent 20 years researching the Aboriginal contribution to Australia’s military campaigns, announced his findings yesterday.

Mr Huggonson said he had uncovered the names of 428 Aboriginal soldiers who served in WWI.

Flinders and Cape Barren islands provided the highest number of early Aboriginal enlistmensts.

They were also mostly from the Maynard or Mansell families who, Mr Huggonson said, had gone on to produce some of Tasmania’s most outspoken Aboriginal activists.

“Few Australians are aware that Aborigines have served in every war that Australia has fought in since the Boer War,” Mr Huggonson said yesterday.

“There are 428 names so far just for World War I, from every state of Australia.

“But I was surprised to see quite a few Tasmanians from Cape Barren Island and Flinders Island.”

He said the figure of 428 Aboriginal soldiers who fought in WWI was significant, as Australia’s Aboriginal population at the time was estimated to be about 80,000.

Mr Huggonson said army regulations at the time had banned anyone not of European origin from enlisting.

“It was only in May 1917 that an army order allowed the enlistment of ‘half-castes’ due to the shortage of volunteers and the carnage on the Western Front,” he said.

Mr Huggonson said the Tasmanian Aborigines who served were most likely the children of European sealers and Aboriginal women.

He said it was important that the role played by Australia’s Aboriginal soldiers was recognised.

“Federation occurred in 1901 but Gallipoli solidified Australia’s nationhood, rather than being separate states,” Mr Huggonson said.

“It is important to note that Aboriginal soldiers played a role in that.”

Mr Huggonson’s research continues and he specifically wants to identify a soldier from Cape Barren Island contained in an old photograph.

Anyone with any information on Tasmania’s Aboriginal soldiers can contact Mr Huggonson by mail at: 12 Shore Place, Weston, ACT, 2611.