There’s growing recognition of the role indigenous soldiers from Australia and New Zealand played in the two World Wars.
Ceremonies will be held on ANZAC Day in both countries to honour the indigenous soldiers who served.
But how do the experiences of Australian Aboriginal soldiers during, between and after the wars, compare with those of New Zealand Maori?
Kerri Worthington explores.
Substantial numbers of Australian Aboriginal and New Zealand Maori young men signed up for the two world wars – many going to fight far from home.
Monty Soutar is a historian and co-ordinator of the 28 Maori Battalion Project — which promotes the feats of New Zealand’s most highly-decorated battalion of the second world war.
Mr Soutar says World War One began barely 50 years after the New Zealand government confiscated Maori tribal lands in punishment for a rebellion in the country’s north.
He says that incident was still a living memory when Maori were being called upon to serve their country in the war, and posed a genuine dilemma for many.
“Some saw that they had a patriotic duty to go and fight with Britain, and others felt that they didn’t because of what had happened to their lands. Realising the difference between the Australian Aborigines and the New Zealand Maori is that we signed a treaty here in 1840 that gave us the rights of British citizenship. And inherent in those rights is when Britain calls that you man up (act in a ‘manly’ way) and you go and fight in the defence of Britain.”
In contrast, Australian Aboriginal men wanting to join the army were hindered by the Defence Act of 1903 which specifically excluded indigenous Australians from serving.
Despite this, a large number of indigenous men signed up to the Australian Imperial Force.
War Memorial indigenous liaison Gary Oakley says he has figures showing about one thousand of the Force’s 80-thousand recruits were indigenous.
Mr Oakley says ten per cent of those indigenous servicemen were killed in World War One.
But he also says life in the army was good for indigenous men.
“When you’re in the Defence Force and you’re indigenous, and especially in the First World War, people didn’t see you as Aboriginal or whatever your background was, all they saw was another soldier. For the first time in your life you were treated as an equal, you fought as an equal, you were paid as an equal. You had all those chances as an equal, you served in the trenches with your mates. Then you came back to society where you weren’t equal again, and you were back to basically either shunted back to the reservation or community or settlement, or if your complexion let you move around in society as a non-indigenous person, things might have been a little bit better.”
In a strange twist, there are several recorded instances of Aboriginal men telling Army recruiters they were New Zealand Maori, allowing them to serve in the First World War with no more questions asked.
But Monty Soutar says being able enlist openly as indigenous New Zealanders in their own army at that time did not necessarily do Maori soldiers any favours.
“Maori ended up serving at Gallipoli for a while as front line troops, but they were decimated like all the other units there. And I guess the government was thinking about a race with such small numbers — we were 63-thousand at the time — that they ought not to risk the Maori contingent further, and so pulled them back and converted them to a pioneer battalion.”
Pioneer units dug trenches and laid communication lines — risky work that led to substantial casualties.
The change in role also had the unintended consequence of casting the Maori soldiers as labourers rather than soldiers.
Monty Soutar says when World War Two came along, Maori leaders insisted Maori serve in a front-line infantry role.
“They have a long history of warrior tradition in this country and to serve as anything less than frontline troops is kind of below them. And the whole point of going to war, too, was yes they were fighting for Britain half a world away but also they were fighting for equality in their own country. And that was in both wars. The Maori leaders argued that if we don’t go to this war how can we effect change when the finger is pointed to us after the war that you weren’t there? And so they realised that in order to be the equal of their Pakeha (white NZ) brothers they had to serve in the same way, and they were frontline troops.”
Maori suffered huge casualties as their reputation as fine soldiers ensured they were sent to World War Two hotspots.
Monty Soutar says their contribution was made more visible because most served together in Maori units.
The Australian War Memorial’s Gary Oakley says such public recognition was denied to indigenous Australian soldiers, because almost all served in ordinary units.
It was when they returned home that Australian Indigenous soldiers received less-than-equal treatment – being denied, for example, involvement in a scheme that gave cheap farmland to former servicemen.
Gary Oakley says sometimes indigenous soldiers also faced the denial they’d ever played a part in Australia’s war effort.
“Some men came home and put on their military medal to go to a service and people said to them ‘where did you steal that from?’ They did not believe that they were capable of winning these awards. I mean, how do you feel when your mates in the Defence Force say to you what a great man you are, give you a medal for it, you come home and the white population at home thinks that you’re pulling a shifty (doing something illegal).”
Across the Tasman, Maori returned soldiers were finding post-war life a lot more rewarding.
“Race relations were never better than when Maori and Pakeha soldiers were overseas serving in a common cause and experiencing the same dangers. And there’s a camaraderie that’s gained by being at the seat of war in the heat of battle, when you’ve experienced what others have experienced. Certainly there’s many accounts of attitudes changed by European or Pakeha servicemen when they came home towards Maori, because they hadn’t had — especially around World War One — hadn’t had a lot of engagement together in New Zealand.”
Still, the significant presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander* soldiers in the Second World War was noted.
John Schnaars, who runs the organisation Honouring Indigenous War Graves, says their contribution ultimately led to the successful 1967 referendum to alter the constitution and give the federal government responsibility for Aboriginal affairs.
“That’s where it all started was from these old blokes going away, and the women, some of the women too, showing the rest of Australia that these people loved this country as well, which was their ancestors’. They wanted to fight for it as well as anybody and show the rest of Australia their pride in the country. And I think once the rest of Australia had seen what was going on on, they realised that these people should be able to vote, should be a part of this country. And I think that was why, in 1967 at the referendum, why it was such a resounding result.”
Mr Schnaars is himself a war veteran, having served Australia in the Vietnam War.
He says the lack of recognition of the war service of indigenous soldiers continued after that US-led war, but this time it was the same for all the Vietnam veterans.
“When we came home from Vietnam because the people in Australia — well not all people but a lot of the people — treated us all the same, abused us and called us child killers and what have you, So we were all treated much the same. And one of my mates, he said we know a little bit about what it’s like because we’ve been through all this sort of thing before, whereas it’s a bit harder for the white fella.”
Projects by the Australian War Memorial aim to increase recognition of the contribution of Indigenous soldiers.
But the families of indigenous soldiers say compared with the respect New Zealand indigenous veterans receive, Australia could do better.
Maori historian Monty Soutar says he’s seen for himself the difference in attitudes towards indigenous servicemen, and their families.
He tells a story about being in Australia in the 1990s with Maori veterans and taking a young Aboriginal man whose father had been an Australian Defence Force soldier with them to a Returned and Services League club.
“We were with our veterans and they were talking to other World War Two veterans, you know, made welcome, no colour bar or anything. But when he walked in we noticed that he stood at the door unsure about whether to come in, and one of the Maori Battalion veterans waved him over. But it was the comment by the Australian servicemen about him, derogatory remarks. The Maori Battalion veteran said to this guy ‘hey, his dad served in World War Two just like us. He has every right to come in here as we do.’ But you know, for us New Zealanders and Maori, you’d never see that here.”
* Torres Strait Islanders joined the Australian armed forces for the first time in WWII