Who were the Black Diggers?

22 Apr 2016 - 6:27 PM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2016 - 6:27 PM

“'We’re not citizens, yet we’re willing to die for this place, we’re willing to die for non-Indigenous Australians.' Have a think about that one.” - Gary Oakley, Indigenous Liaison Officer, Australian War Memorial.

Australia's black diggers

Black diggers are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service personnel who fought for the wars Australia has taken part in, such as the Boer Wars, WWI and WWII, the Vietnam and Korean wars.

When WWI began, Indigenous military men and women were not permitted to enlist on the grounds of their race. Nonetheless, many wanted to fight for Australia.

By the time WWII commenced, they were allowed to join.

“There are as many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of military service as there are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” writes historian Noah Wiseman at the Australian National University.

“Lest we forget.”

Yet returning Indigenous service personnel were not afforded the same support and recognition as their comrades.

Rights groups have been pushing the government to properly recognise Indigenous men and women made to Australia’s military ever since.

Indigenous people continue to serve their country into the 21st Century, such as in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The Australian Defence Force offers a cadetship program for Indigenous Australians, along with the Defence Indigenous Development Program, which provides literacy, military and leadership training, and cultural appreciation.

World War I black diggers

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not considered citizens of Australia at the time World War I began in 1914.

They were subject to lower wages, they could not buy property and were forced to live on missions, they were denied the right to vote and could not enter many places such as pubs or public spaces such as pools.

At that time, the amended 2009 Defence Act prevented Aboriginal people from joining Australia’s military, yet many still found their way in. By 1917, however, some were permitted after a new order was made, which read:

"Half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force [AIF] provided that the examining medical officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin."

More than 1,000 Indigenous Australian men fought for Australia during the four-year war, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies says.

While they were treated as equals on the battlefield, they experienced something much different back on Australia’s shores.

Sacrifices ignored

Despite fighting for the country, when they returned home, they discovered they were not afforded the same rights as their non-Indigenous counterparts.

“These men had expected so much,” says Professor Goodall of the University of Technology, Sydney on its website.

Returned Black Diggers were not entitled to war pensions or land grants that other soldiers were given. One such example was when the government closed Lake Condah Aboriginal Reserve and gave it to non-Indigenous soldier settlers.

They were denied membership to local RSL clubs and sometimes their children were denied enrolment into public schools – instead government policies dictated their children be removed and placed with European families.

WWI Black heroes

Private Richard Martin: Joined the Australian Imperial Force. He declared he was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, and had served for five years in the Light Horse.

He served in France and Belgium and was wounded three times before he was killed in action in March 1918.

William Irwin: Joined in 1916 and served in the 33rd Battalion.

William was killed in a battle at Road Wood near Bouchavesnes in France. His battalion under fire from Germany and died after rushing the German machine gunners, likely saving numerous lives. 

He was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

World War II black diggers

Nearly 4,000 Indigenous people officially served during World War II (1939-1945), according to historian Robert Hall. Of those, about 3,000 were Aboriginal people and 850 Torres Strait Islander people. Other accounts suggest as many as 5,000 Indigenous people served.

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The War Service Land Settlement Agreement between the Federal Government and states resulted in soldier settlement legislation that granted returned service personnel land.

While Indigenous service personnel were not excluded, many say they were rejected from the scheme.

The treatment of Black Diggers during World War II is known to have further propelled the Indigenous rights movement, which led to the 1967 referendum.

The referendum resulted in two amendments to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia.

First amendment: Regarding the power of the federal government to make laws, which previously read: “The people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws," (Commonwealth Constitution Section 51, paragraph xxvi), the clause “Other than the Aboriginal race in any State” was removed. This enabled the government to make laws for Indigenous Australians.

Second amendment: A provision in the Constitution, which read that Indigenous people would not be included in Australia’s census: "In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a state or other part of the Commonwealth, Aboriginal natives shall not be counted," was removed (Section 127). This was seen as a maneuver to help break down barriers between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians.

Torres Strait Islander service

The 850 Torres Strait Islander people who served is considered quite high, given the total population was only in the thousands. 

They became known as the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion although they received one-third of the pay of other Australian soldiers, the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies says.

Their pay was increased to just two-thirds after they conducted a strike. But they did not receive this until the 1980s.

WWII Black heroes

Leonard Waters: Australia’s only Aboriginal World War II fighter pilot. He flew 95 missions over Japanese-held islands of the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea.

Reg Saunders: The first Aboriginal commissioned officer who fought in the Middle East, North Africa, Greece, Crete and New Guinea, and in the Korean War.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal of the Quandamooka people (Kath Walker): An Aboriginal rights campaigner who joined the Australian Women's Army Service in Darwin during WWII.

‘We want recognition for our service’

The Korean and Vietnam wars

Indigenous people also served in the Korean War (1950 to 1953) and the Vietnam War (1962 to 1975). Australia. Some military personnel who were recognised for their contribution include Charles Mene, a Torres Strait Islander man who was awarded the Military Medal for leadership during the Korea War. 

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies also notes Corporal Norman Womal from Queensland received a ‘Mention in Despatches’ for his bravery during the Vietnam war. He continued fighting after being wounded in action, wounds he would later die from.


“In remembering Aboriginal veterans, we should also remember what they and their families had to cope with on their return, and the human impact that this had on them,” says Tim Muirhead, an advocate for Indigenous rights in Western Australia.

Over the past 20 years, momentum has been building for greater recognition of Indigenous service people.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans Association led Perth’s 2001 Anzac Day march. Four years later, Honouring Indigenous War Graves was founded and conducts ceremonies at the gravesites of deceased Aboriginal servicemen and women across Western Australia.

In 2006, Aunty Dot Peters lobbied Victoria’s Returned and Services League to sponsor a commemorative service at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance during Reconciliation Week.

The next year, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs sponsored services across some of Australia’s capital cities. 

Since 2007, the Coloured Diggers March in Redfern have taken place each year on ANZAC Day, which commemorates those who have served Australia.

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Indigenous people have been calling for more memorials for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders military service. In 2013, Adelaide received a memorial followed by Sydney in 2015 when the City of Sydney erected a commemorative sculpture in Hyde Park.