Despite discrimination and exclusion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have served in every conflict since Australia’s Federation in 1901, and some signed up to colonial forces before this.

The Australian Defence Force did not record members’ cultural background until recently, so it is hard to determine the exact number of Indigenous Australian service people. Under the Commonwealth Defence Act of 1903, they were excluded from joining military service, so many hid their identity to sign up. By October 1917, when recruits were harder to find, and one conscription referendum had already been lost, restrictions were cautiously eased. A new Military Order stated: “Half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.”[1]

During World War I (1914-1918), more than 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples served and around 70 fought at Gallipoli.[2] They have been serving in all military conflicts since Federation, including Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and peacekeeping operations, including in Somalia and East Timor. Their service has been on the ground, air, sea and horseback, and being involved in work at home to support the war effort such as construction, farming, and butchery for the army in northern Australia during World War II. When Australia was drawing on all its reserves of men and women to support the war effort, the contribution of Indigenous Australians was vital.

Aboriginal women also played an essential role by enlisting in the women’s defence forces or working in war industries and supporting isolated RAAF outposts.

During the World Wars, it was the first time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were treated as equals. However, they returned to the discrimination and prejudice they experienced before serving in the Australian Defence Force. They were denied the right to vote and receive the benefits offered to other returning service personnel. Many were barred from Returned and Services League clubs, except on Anzac Day.

They were also denied access to land under the soldier settlement schemes. While not explicitly excluded under the schemes themselves, the assessment procedures were prejudiced against them, and many were rejected from the scheme. This action was unjust because the scheme offered lands that had always been Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands.

Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to serve in Australia’s Defence Forces at home and abroad. Defending our coastline is NORFORCE, the largest army surveillance unit in the world, which has over sixty per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander personnel. This regiment, which is one of three, patrols some 1.8 million square kilometres of land in the Northern Territory and Kimberley region of Western Australia.[3] Its history goes back to World War II when the Torres Strait Light Infantry was started to patrol the Torres Strait Islands and support ships going through their waterways when there was fear of a Japanese invasion. At the same time, the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit was formed. This unit was made up of Yolngu men from Arnhem Land and used Aboriginal tactics and weaponry to fight the Japanese military.

The motto of the Pilbara Regiment is Mintu wanta, which is a Western Desert Aboriginal phrase meaning ‘always alert’. It is the first time an Aboriginal language has been incorporated in an Australian Defence Force regimental crest.[4]


[2]    accessed 21/10/2121


[4] Ibid

Other sources