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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]



The diggers’ war was shaped by the distinctive origins and nature of the Australian Imperial Force. When the German army marched into Belgium in 1914, the Commonwealth government offered to send an Australian contingent of 20 000 men to support the British cause. The existing military forces could not make up a fraction of that number and a call was made for volunteers, who rapidly filled the ranks. Unlike other Allied forces the AIF remained a volunteer force throughout the war, despite two attempts by the government to introduce conscription by referenda. The diggers regarded themselves as citizen soldiers and baulked at the traditions and regulations of the traditional British army; and the Australian government felt obliged to resist British pressures to introduce the death penalty for desertion, which operated in the rest of the British army, into the AIF.

Nevertheless the AIF was not an independent national force. Australian units were part of the British army and subject to the orders of British High Command. Even within the AIF many staff and regimental officers were, at least in the first years of the war, British regular army soldiers. In November of 1917, after a protracted political campaign, the five Australian infantry divisions were finally amalgamated into one army corps, staffed and commanded by Australians, although the Australian corps was still answerable to British headquarters.

Australian soldiers fought at Gallipoli and on the European Western Front, while members of the Light Horse also saw action in the Middle East. By 1918 the AIF had achieved a reputation as an effective fighting force, but at the cost of terrible casualties. Just under forty per cent of Australian males between eighteen and forty-four enlisted, and of the 331 814 who had served overseas or were undergoing training by November 1918, about sixty-five per cent were casualties (the highest rate in the British army) and 56 639 had died.1

The legend that was made of the Anzacs is familiar to most Australians, and can be summarised as follows. At Gallipoli, and then on the Western Front, the Anzacs proved the character of Australian manhood for all the world to see and, through their victories and sacrifices, established a nation in spirit as well as in name. The Australian soldier of the legend was enterprising and independent, loyal to his mates and to his country, bold in battle, but cheerfully undisciplined out of the line and contemptuous of military etiquette and the British officer class. The Australian army suited his egalitarian nature: relations between officers and other ranks were friendly and respectful, and any man with ability could gain promotion. According to the legend these qualities, fostered in the Australian bush, discovered and immortalised in war, typified Australians and Australian society, a frontier land of equal opportunity in which enterprising people could make good. This was the nation that ‘came of age’ at Gallipoli.

In many respects this familiar story intersects with the remembered experiences and attitudes of the diggers themselves. Yet their testimony records a war experience that was much more complex and multifaceted than the homogeneous identity of the legend, and which sometimes even contradicts the legend. The following account of the diggers’ war contrasts key features of the legend with the experiences of the men I interviewed. It is not intended to prove that the legend was ‘false’ — some of its features are corroborated by veterans’ memories — but rather shows how Anzac legend-makers, including the diggers themselves, articulated a legend through processes of selection, simplification and generalisation.

Gone for soldiers

Traditional accounts of Australian motivations for enlistment focus on dutiful patriots and innocent adventurers. In Charles Bean’s official history of the events of August 1914, the men of the Australian outback ‘became alert as a wild bull who raises his head, nostrils wide, at the first scent of […] an old friend in danger’. In more recent times, an advertisement for the Anzac Seventy-fifth Anniversary Commemorative Coin eulogised the motivations of the Anzacs in the following terms:

They fought for what they believed in. They fought for freedom. They fought for their country. They fought for us. They fought for our children.2

Historians now question the extent and significance of patriotic motivations for enlistment. Richard White argues that there were other more private or self-interested motives, and that working-class recruits were less likely to be inspired by patriotic duty than middle-class recruits; studies of Kitchener’s army make similar claims about the motivations of British working-class volunteers. The stories of my own interviewees reinforce these more complex explanations of enlistment by the so-called ‘generation of 1914’.3

Although there is debate about the degree and depth of patriotic feeling amongst working-class Australians in the years leading up to war, it was of undoubted significance in the early lives of many of the men I interviewed. Stan D’Altera grew up in a poor, factory-working, Yarraville family which enjoyed few material luxuries, but when war broke out his mother scraped up enough money to buy the newspaper so they could read about Australian exploits: ‘Oh I was patriotic like, we’d had all this patriotic stuff at school […] Britons never shall be slaves’. Stan’s older brother who ‘was mad on going to the war’ enlisted immediately and served at the Gallipoli landing. In May of 1915 Stan followed his example:

I wasn’t eighteen. I’m working on the lathe, like, next to another chap, and … everyone said go to the war, and I said to him, ‘Why don’t you enlist?’ He said, ‘I’ll enlist if you do’. I was apprenticed, not of age. 1 went straight up to Victoria Barracks and enlisted. We left the factory and I had to get my father’s signature. Well I forged that.

Stan’s father found out and had him discharged, but within two days the lad had run away to Ballarat and enlisted under a false name, and before the year was out he was on Gallipoli.4

Stan D’Altera was one of several interviewees who twisted their parents’ arms or lied so that they could enlist under age. Alf Stabb grew up among the seven children of a bricklayer and a home-working mother in the inner eastern suburb of Prahran. He was working for the railways when war broke out:

I wanted to go, straight away […] Just had the urge […] Well see, I’d been soldiering all my life and the war broke out and of course your mates, they were all enlisting. They were going away and you were still stuck. My father wouldn’t let me go … see, if you were under twenty-one you had to have your parents’ permission to go. My dad wouldn’t let me go. Well he wouldn’t give a reason but I think he was afraid that if I got killed or something like that, it’d be on his mind.

One Sunday in February 1916 a boyfriend of Alf’s sister arrived at the house with the intention of enlisting the following day, and Alf persuaded his father that Vic would look after him if they enlisted together. After a short time in camp Vic left the army because the route marches were affecting an old injury: ‘He said, “You can cook something up to get out”. I said, “It’s taken me too long to get in to want to get out”’.5

Alf’s story reveals the genuine enthusiasm of many young recruits, and shows that for some the years of cadets and compulsory military training (required of boys aged twelve and over, since 1911) had whetted their appetite for the real thing. It also highlights the encouragement or pressure of mates, and of a general public that was unsympathetic to young men who stayed at home; Alf was one of many eligible men who received white feathers in his letter box. For James McNair these public attitudes were an indirect cause of enlistment. A clerk with the Melbourne Post Office, he was convinced that he had ‘no hope’ of being accepted into the army because he was too scrawny. In January of 1916 he went to the Town Hall to get a volunteers’ badge which would prove that he had at least tried to enlist:

I thought that’s all I’d get. So, [laughs] ‘You’re in’. I signed the form, came home, I told the mater, oh she cried. I said, ‘I’ve joined the army, mother’. Oh well […] ‘That’s it. Got to put up with it’. I was neither disappointed or pleased.6

Underlying the enthusiasm of youths like Alf Stabb and Stan D’Altera was the anticipation of adventure; indeed, for a generation brought up on deeds that won the Empire there was a fine line between adventure and patriotism. For others the war seemed to be an opportunity for excitement and the chance of a lifetime. Jack Flannery had grown up in a family of potato pickers who travelled around the north west of Tasmania looking for work. After the Gallipoli landing he decided to ‘go to the war’ and persuaded his father that unless he got permission he would catch the boat to Melbourne to enlist: ‘To be truthful, I thought we were going to have a good trip, see the world and have a good trip’.7

E. L. Cuddeford ‘thought it would be a pastime, like all the lads who enlisted’. He had left a farm which his father managed in outback New South Wales to serve an engineering apprenticeship in Sydney, and decided to enlist at a carnival held in Parramatta Park early in the war:

I had a girlfriend with me. I remember that quite well. We were up in the hurdy-gurdy, went round and around and around. We got way up the top, the brakes weren’t much good, and raining cats and dogs. We were stuck up the top all the time, they’d go down the bottom, they couldn’t hold her, she’d go up the top again. We were out in the pouring rain. That’s how I remember that one. And I decided from there on that I would enlist. I think it was that night I made the move, there was a chap around that night called people who wanted to enlist.8

The forgotten side of the great adventure is that many young men were only too keen to leave tedious, exhausting or unfulfilling working lives. Ern Morton had grown up in Dookie, where his father was an instructor at the Agricultural College, and went straight from school into farm labouring work. Within a week of the outbreak of war he and a mate who was working on the same property had enlisted in the Light Horse: ‘I think it was patriotism … I felt it a duty that everyone go to the war’. Yet he was also delighted to leave a working life which ‘had no future in it’ and to travel for the first time to the big city where he met ‘chaps from all walks of life and … you soon got to have a different outlook on life’.9

For others, enlistment was an alternative to poverty and unemployment. Sid Norris grew up with eight brothers and sisters in a slab hut with a mud floor, near Gulgong in New South Wales. He killed rabbits for food, and foxes and possums for their hides, ‘because father used to drink a lot and he never left any money’. Sid left home and went on the track looking for labouring work as soon as he could. He was not keen to go to war, but when he was laid off a mate lent him the fare to get to town to enlist: ‘Well there was no work. I had no money. I never enlisted for any reason for King and Country. That wasn’t in it’.10 Sid Norris’s story — and others from the city and the bush — recalls the poverty of many working-class Australians in the first decades of the twentieth century. Low and intermittent wages, large and sometimes single parent families, bad housing conditions, and prospects of an uncertain future in factory or farm labouring work meant that enlistment provided an attractive alternative for many young men.

The war could also serve as a respite from domestic problems. Although most of my interviewees were too young to be escaping from family responsibilities, Jack Glew went to war ‘because I couldn’t hit it with me dad, because the way he treated me’. His father ran a wood and coal yard out of Geelong. Every evening Jack went to the forest to load up cut wood, and then in the morning he would bring it to the yard before going to school, ‘where I was the biggest dunce because I was that darned tired’. Eventually he ran away from home and worked as an onion weeder, and when his family discovered his whereabouts and brought him home he enlisted to get away.11

For older men like James McNair and Percy Bird, who were settled into work or family responsibilities, the decision to enlist was more difficult. Charles Bowden’s story highlights the pull between family and military responsibilities, and the tragic consequences of the pressures of duty and mateship. Born in 1888 he had worked in mining and other mechanical jobs on the Victorian High Plains before finding employment with the railways in 1911. He married the following year, and by the end of 1916 he had a two-year-old son and had secured his position in the railways through study at night school:

I was working down at Port Melbourne, and this old Doull [the foreman], he was a warmonger, you know. As soon as I mentioned the war to him, going to the war, he bounced right and gave me a kit bag and some other things to take to the war with me. There was another chap in the office, a fellow called Maddigan, Chris Maddigan, he was a clerk and I was a store-man. He came in to me in the store and he said, ‘Look, I’m going to enlist today, how about coming with me?’ I said, ‘I’ll think about it’. So he got leave from the old foreman, who was only too happy to see us go to the war.

The two men went to the recruiting office in South Melbourne, but Maddigan would only enlist if he was offered a commission.

So of course, phsst, out. They didn’t want him. So I go in after him. They ask me a few questions, give me a few tests and then sign on the bottom line, and I’m a bloomin’ soldier [laughs]. Anyway, after I’d become a soldier I didn’t fancy it too much, see, and I wanted to get out of it, but I couldn’t. I tried all sorts of manners and means to get out.

Charles’s wife was appalled at what he’d done, and when he went away she rarely wrote because ‘she was bloody well disgusted with me’. He regretted leaving her and the child because ‘she was a very fine looking woman and in that she was up against all sorts of obstacles, you know’.12

Wild colonial boys

Going to war was an extraordinary adventure, and a time of excitement and discovery. Among the most vivid and pleasurable of the veterans’ stories are those of the voyage through exotic new worlds to the northern hemisphere. Lesley David was on one of the first Australian troop-ships to travel via the Panama Canal in 1917. Before the war he had worked as a clerk with the railways in Melbourne, but from an early age he had dreamt of going round the world as a wireless operator on a ship. Lesley delayed enlistment until he turned twenty-one, as his parents had died and he was looking after his younger brother and sister, and then joined the Wireless Corps so that he could ‘study and see the world at the same time’. Lesley recalls with relish the delights of tropical Tahiti, the hospitality of Americans in Virginia and the shore-leave pleasures which he shared with the officers after being given a typing job in the ship’s Orderly Room.13

For many of the younger recruits this excitement was laced with confusion and trepidation. Albie Linton had grown up with a family of fourteen in the Tasmanian bush, and then worked in a North Melbourne factory before he enlisted with mates from his football team. For Albie and other young recruits based in training camps around Cairo, Egypt was a source of exotic bewilderment:

Oh, it was a really different kind of life to what we had been used to leading. Actually, we were lost, out on your own like that […] in the way of living and getting around. Their livelihood was altogether different to ours. Their streets were different, their marketing, and their markets were different to ours. Course, you’ve got a different view when you’re eighteen and nineteen, in those things, to what you’ve got now.14

Ted McKenzie, who had been an apprentice coach-maker in Richmond before the war, recalls that ‘we were thrilled with it’:

It was quite a turnout for us young blokes anyhow. It was something different. We had the pyramids and all that to go around. Cairo was a place where you could be … quite interested and see quite a lot of things.15

Stan D’Altera was also curious about ancient monuments, but his strongest impressions were of the soldiers’ brutality to the Egyptian people, and of the brothels that attracted ‘a lot of the blokes, you know, older than me’. Contempt for the local population ranged from casual violence — the brutal elements among the Australians would ‘wack ‘em over the jaw for anything’ — to a more calculated imperial policing which made young Stan question the school-book histories of justice in the ‘Great British Empire’:

[…] about once a week, all spruced up, you know, our uniforms neat, boots looked highly shined and shining bayonets, we’d march through the native quarters of Cairo and give them the impression that’s what they’d be up against if they revolted.16

Most of my interviewees glossed over such behaviour and portrayed their Egyptian adventures as ‘a good time’ of youthful innocence and enthusiasm. Perhaps the younger recruits were particularly careful in this strange new world, or perhaps as ageing veterans they were careful to sanitise their stories for a modern audience with different attitudes to race and behaviour. The historical record shows that the violence and racism of some of the Australians in Egypt, and their local unpopularity, continued throughout the war.17

The record also shows that many Australians were enthusiastic visitors to the Cairo brothels. In the year ending February 1916, almost 6000 men from the AIF were treated for venereal disease and over 1000 were returned to Australia. Ern Morton recalls that ‘having no experience of city life or of anything like that it was really degrading. I could never, never force myself to associate with any of it’. While several of my interviewees shared Ern’s disgust, others described the brothels of Egypt, France and England in vivid detail, though very few were explicit about their own sexual experiences. By contrast, chance meetings with young French peasant women and blossoming relationships with English ‘girls’ are common stories recalled with evident pleasure. These types of relationships with women provided a memorable contrast with the stark experiences of the trenches and the everyday male world of the army. The stories reveal how men’s wartime relationships with women were easily polarised into the stereotypes of foreign whore and feminine rose, and suggest that this distinction may have been used by men to sustain their own moral self-respect.18

The difficult relations between the Australians and the local population in Cairo also signalled a tension between the Australian soldiers’ attitudes to discipline and those of the military authorities. This tension would be a sore point within the AIF, and between the AIF and British headquarters, throughout the war. Both in Egypt and in Europe, where the bulk of the Australian force was based from 1916, absence without leave, drunkenness, and disrespect to officers were common AIF offences, despite repeated attempts by the Australian staff to improve the behaviour and image of their troops. At one point the proportion of Australians in punitive detention was about nine times that of the British army as a whole. British headquarters was appalled by the ‘the extreme indiscipline and inordinate vanity of the Australian forces’. The diggers’ disdain for military etiquette — a memorandum of the First Brigade recorded that saluting at officers ‘gradually became extinct’ towards the end of the war — particularly infuriated British officers.19

Many diggers relished the life and identity of — to use Albie Linton’s tag — the ‘happy-go-lucky army’. For example, Stan D’Altera describes his good fortune when he was given permission to transfer to his brother’s battalion on the French coast at Étaples:

I was cashed up, I’d had a good win at a two-up school. I had me papers. It took me three weeks to find them. I went round having a good time, [laughs], going to what they call the pub, the estaminet, and having some good feeds and that. I was really AWL [absent without leave], but I wasn’t AWL really, officially.20

Alf Stabb recalls that ‘you wouldn’t go AWL in France […] but if you got the chance to slip away in England well you’d just nick off for a few days and if you were lucky you’d get back and if you weren’t lucky you’d get caught [laughs]’. Even in France the men of his unit enjoyed themselves when they could, as on one occasion in 1918 when they came upon the evacuated town of Corbie:

That’s one place where we had a ball. We had feather beds, [laughs], sheets and pillow slips. It didn’t go on for long. About three or four days and the MPs [Military Police], they came along. There was a brewery there and we raided that for grog. It was the best show we had up there all the time we were there, I think.21

Not all the Australian soldiers were comfortable with this way of life. Bill Williams was unusual among the men I interviewed in that he came from a relatively well-off family and had worked in his father’s property agency before the war. Now he found that he was ‘different’ to the other soldiers:

I don’t know that I was ever one of them in some ways. I’m not a snob, but I felt that I was more literate than most of them, probably I was. I think I had different tastes. Beer, booze, never appealed to me. It appealed to a lot of our fellows. I don’t know that I could ever have the idea of chasing women who had been … well, as the fellow said, preloved [laughs]. I couldn’t face going to brothels like a lot of them did, and that sort of thing, and I suppose they thought I was what we’d call in those days a wowser … I didn’t feel that I was very happy about being different.22

Percy Bird and Fred Farrall also felt uncomfortable and even excluded by the diggers’ larrikin behaviour, but for most of my interviewees it was a feature of the AIF in which they took great pleasure and pride.

Albie Linton explains that the ‘happy-go-lucky army’ was different because ‘we didn’t have the professional soldier instinct’ of the British army, and because ‘the outlook of our officers was totally different to them, because we were all volunteers […] They had to do what they were told but we could argue the point a little bit with our officers’. The interviews are full of similar contrasts between the distinctive forms of discipline that Australian officers used with independent diggers, and the rule-bound British army with its autocratic officers and servile Tommies. Ern Morton explains this difference in terms of an Australian egalitarian ethos: ‘in Australia you never took any undue interest in a man because he was in a different position to you, he was an Australian and he was a cobber and that’s the end of it. That’s the same way it was in the army’. Others agree with Alf Stabb that the Australian officer was ‘one of the boys’ because he came from the ranks.23

There is evidence that these attitudes were prevalent in the Australian army.24 Yet for all their pride in the distinctive forms of AIF discipline, the diggers were still bound by army authority. Bill Harney was a cattle drover before he enlisted, and he contrasted life in the army with ‘the old days of the cattle station where the man rounded up cattle and used his own initiative — that’s all gone. You’re just a big cog in the machine’. Jack Glew had joined the army to escape the discipline of his father, but found that it was another ‘hard old life’:

Nothing that was any good that you would like, because you had to obey orders. Do this and do that, and if you didn’t do it, by Jesus, they’d fix you up and put you in the clink. If there was another war I wouldn’t go to it anyhow [laughs]. I’m buggered if I would.25

Sometimes, despite their loyalty to the egalitarian AIF, old diggers included Australian officers in their criticism. Ern Morton explains that as the Australian officers associated with English officers ‘and saw how things were run in a regular army, some of them changed’. He recalls that one ‘very great cobber’ who was promoted out of the ranks didn’t like ‘to be seen associating with me’ in front of other officers. Jack Flannery states that in extreme cases Australian officers were shot by their own men:

They don’t last long if they’re bad. I know one bloke, he got bumped off, red-headed bloke. But, oh gosh, he was a cow. He was a cow out of the line. Oh, a private was only a dog to him. Like a dog. So, got rid of him.26

Because the Australian divisions served within the British army and were subject to British military discipline, such extreme criticisms were more often directed at British authority figures — especially staff officers and military policemen — and thus deflected away from Australian leaders. Yet veterans’ memories remind us that even within the AIF there were significant tensions between Anzac officers and digger mates.

Sailors and non-combatants

For an Australian brought up on soldiers’ stories, one of the surprising findings of the oral history project was that many veterans had not experienced war in the frontline. Men who served in the navy had very different war stories, and for these veterans their memory of the war seems to have been affected by the Anzac legend’s emphasis upon the infantry experience. Bill Bridgeman had been encouraged by a mariner grandfather to join the navy before 1914. As an able seaman on HMAS Sydney (the escort for the first Australian troop-ship convoy which later became famous for knocking out the German cruiser Emden) he spent much of the war in the miserable conditions of the North Sea. Though he was very proud of his war service, Bill Bridgeman always felt that the Australian soldiers had got too much of the credit.27

Even within the army there were significant differences in the war experience. An army in the 1914–18 war depended upon a large administrative and support staff. Although the AIF had a higher proportion of fighting soldiers than most armies, there were still many Australian soldiers — including about a quarter of the men I interviewed — who did not see service in the line. They tended to be older men who had gained appropriate work experience before the war, and who now joined support units or were plucked out of their platoons to take on administrative duties. The war experiences of these men, which rarely figure in the public accounts of the Anzacs, were markedly different from those of other soldiers. They often felt uneasy or guilty about the relative safety and comfort of their service, yet they also knew that survival and good health depended upon their special status, and were grateful for training and education opportunities.

James McNair joined the 14th Battalion at Albert on 14 August 1916. After six weeks with the battalion on the Somme and at Ypres he was spotted by an old workmate from the Melbourne Post Office. This friend was now on the staff of First Anzac Corps, and he offered James a job keeping the records of the Assistant Adjutant-General. James was hesitant at first — ‘I can have a rest when I’m with the battalion, here you’re working nine in the morning till ten or twelve at night’ — but he accepted when he was also promoted to Lance Corporal:

I was there pushing a pen till the end of the war — I never saw any more action […] But he saved my life … nearly everyone I went away with — you know, you were a little bit of a clique in the tents, in the camps […] Oh, a lot of the chappies I went away with were killed in action or taken prisoner of war.28

Charles Bowden joined a unit which drove trains carrying soldiers and supplies between the French ports and the railheads of the Western Front. Though he had not really wanted to join the army he was quite happy in the job, which took him around the country and was relatively safe. Charles made the most of the opportunity to teach himself French, and after the war the army put him through night school at Pitman’s College in London. Yet he always felt that ‘we weren’t what you might say, real soldiers, we never had any arms or any ammunition or anything like that …’29

Like James McNair, Leslie David had also been a clerical worker before the war. Upon arrival in England he was ordered to work in the Camp Orderly Room, where he remained until the Armistice. He was ‘very disappointed’ that he was not allowed to do similar work closer to the action in France, yet he benefited from the work experience and from army-sponsored training at Pitman’s College. For Leslie David the war ‘was mainly a pleasant experience’:

You see, I was fortunate. I never got into any strife in France and so on. And six months in London, that was a pleasant experience; I made some good friends there. But generally speaking my war experience couldn’t be regarded as anything but pleasant. I was a lucky one.30

End of innocence

For men in front-line units the war was a very different story. The outlines of the story of the AIF are familiar to most Australians. The soldiers of the Australian First Division landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, and, after a bitter struggle with the Turkish defenders, established a toehold on the peninsula and gained lasting fame. The Gallipoli campaign became a trench war of attrition punctuated by bloody offensives, and after a bitter winter the emaciated Anzac survivors were evacuated from the peninsula in December. In March of 1916 the AIF, more than doubled in size by reinforcements but leaving the Light Horse units to fight in the Middle East, moved to France. After a short spell in a quiet sector of the line, the Australian divisions joined General Haig’s infamous Somme offensive. Although they made a name for themselves at Pozières by succeeding where earlier British attacks had failed, the Australians suffered terrible casualties from the artillery bombardments that were a feature of war on the Western Front. In 1917 Australian losses numbered 55 000 as the AIF spearheaded several of the step-by-step offensives at Ypres, which were eventually and disastrously bogged down in the mud of Passchendaele. The following year, Australians played a significant role in halting the German spring offensive, and then contributed to the vital breakthroughs in August which shattered the German armies of the Western Front and turned the tide of war.

At the time, Anzac publicists extolled the military triumphs of the Australians on the Western Front, which they regarded as final proof of the fighting qualities of the AIF, and a fitting climax to the national trial by fire. Though it is important to recognise that even for the Australians most of the battles of the war were strategic and human disasters, there is considerable evidence to support claims about the comparative military effectiveness and success of the AIF. The relatively new armies of the Dominions were less confined by military tradition than British units and better able to adapt to the demands of twentieth-century warfare. The high proportion of citizen-soldier officers in the AIF was significant in this regard; the Australian Corps commander, John Monash, exemplified the new breed of modern generals for whom war was fought like a modern business, and who emphasised appropriate training, planning and logistical support. Furthermore, within the huge British Army the relatively small and homogeneous AIF was a cohesive military unit, and, inevitably, the glowing reputation of the AIF became partly self-fulfilling as new recruits leant from old hands and were encouraged to live up to the Anzac tradition.31

Some of the men I interviewed highlighted the military qualities and effectiveness of the AIF. E. L. Cuddeford believes that it was initiative and independence which made the Australians such effective soldiers. He recalls that the diggers did not trust British units to defend their flanks, and explains why he thought the Tommies were inferior:

I hated the British Tommy as a soldier. I always said he was a very good soldier, and a very game soldier, if led, which he wasn’t. He was led a lot of times at the point of a revolver. They didn’t treat him properly at all, didn’t know how to handle the man.32

Jack Flannery concludes that ‘there was only one soldier in the world equal to the Australian, and that’s a Kiwi. And that’s a big order isn’t it?’

He had no fear. You could be a lieutenant or a captain or a major. I’m a lieutenant. We’re leading a battalion into action. We get skittled. There’s always a private, there’s always someone in the mob that’ll take over. They’re what made it so good.33

Yet the fighting ability of the Australian soldiers is not the dominant feature of the war memories of diggers from the ranks. Veterans also emphasise the appalling conditions of trench warfare, the losses of friends, and their own feelings of vulnerability, confusion and fear. They recall the ordeal of constant shell and rifle fire, the stench of the unburied dead on Gallipoli, or the mud of France and Belgium, churned up by unceasing rain and bombardment, rotting the feet of the soldiers and deep enough for wounded men to drown in without trace. They recount images of mates caught on the wire, of battalions lining up reduced to the size of platoons, of treading on corpses in narrow trenches.

Ern Morton had joined the Light Horse, but he left his horse in Egypt when he was sent to Gallipoli after the landing:

We scratched little holes in the side of the hill, for protection. Then for three and a half months it never went out of my mind for one second, there was constantly shell-fire and rifle-fire, machine-gun fire. Continuously for three and a half months. It was a terrible ordeal for a lad of nineteen to go into […] We weren’t on Gallipoli long before we were up in the front lines, of course, and used to throw what we called ‘egg bombs’ at one another […] One of these egg bombs landed on my cobber that I enlisted with. I’d been living with nearly all my life. Landed on his head and completely blew his head off. I was standing alongside of him. That was a shock … 34

Albie Linton arrived in Egypt just as the Australians were evacuated from Gallipoli. Among them was his older brother, who was in ‘very, very poor condition, under-fed [and suffering from] dysentery’. As a member of the 31st Battalion of the new AIF Fifth Division, Albie’s initiation into battle coincided with the first major Australian action on the Western Front, the ill-conceived attack at Fromelles:

We went over the bags, about 15 000, between half past six and seven in the evening, and we fought our way across to Fromelles. About twelve or one o’clock in the morning we got the order to retire to our own lines. See, because we had no hope of taking it. It was too well defended. They’d flooded us out, the barbed wire, we had to cross through barbed wire, and then they flooded open dams on us, and they flooded no man’s land, and we had to get back through water and barbed wire that you couldn’t see […] I felt rotten. Wouldn’t you? The man that said he wasn’t frightened, well he’s a liar […] I think at the Roll Call next morning there were about five or six thousand answered the Roll Call out of about fifteen. That’s how bad it was.35

Offensive actions like these were an infrequent part of a soldier’s life in the war of attrition on the Western Front. Units alternated between the front line, reserve trenches and billets behind the lines, with occasional periods of leave in England. Life in the trenches was often a monotonous routine, yet the strongest remembered impressions are of appalling physical conditions and the terrible emotional and physical impact of artillery bombardment. James McNair only spent six weeks in the trenches, but that period is stamped in his memory, and he conveys the main themes of his experience in a few lines. In the heat of summer, the decomposing bodies dug up by shell-fire produced a terrible stench. Then rain turned the trenches into a quagmire and the diggers were ‘up to our bloody thighs in water and weighing like blazes’. Worst of all was the shelling:

You can’t get that blasting … oh it’s a terrific feeling […] at times in the trench there, the shells can come over at the front, at the back; oh your ears would ring. See, you can be just a few yards away and not get a scratch. But oh, the detonation!36

Embattled manhood

The diggers suffered from fear of death or mutilation, from the trauma of appalling sights, sounds and smells, from loss and guilt, and from extreme discomfort, exhaustion and illness. These stresses often produced disorders such as combat fatigue, nervous exhaustion and shell-shock. Some historians of the Great War argue that the experience of trench warfare precipitated a psychological crisis for many soldiers. Feminist historians suggest that this was a crisis of masculinity. Unable to live up to prescriptions for military masculinity that required them to be bold and enduring, but equally unable to escape from the trenches, soldiers took the psychological escape of nervous collapse.37

Statistical evidence suggests that Australians were no better off in this regard than other Great War soldiers. Indeed, one Australian study argues that diggers who bottled up fears so that they could live up to the Anzac reputation of bravery and self-control were especially prone to nervous collapse. Digger memories confirm the statistics. Fred Farrall recalls that after being wounded and dazed during the 1917 battle for Polygon Wood he began to show signs of a nervous condition which manifested itself in a stutter and extreme anxiety. Though few interviewees are so frank about the emotional effects of war, most remember mates who could not cope.38

There were ways of getting out of the line. Veterans recall that they were glad to receive a minor wound which took them away from the front (a minor wound requiring hospital treatment in England was known as a ‘blighty’). As the pressures of war mounted, some Australians took more extreme measures. In the last year of the war incidents of self-inflicted wounds and desertion increased dramatically throughout the AIF. The Australians had the highest rate of desertion in the British army, and although the absence of a death penalty in the AIF may have been partly responsible for these statistics, there is little doubt that some diggers were desperate to stay out of the trenches.39

Alf Stabb joined the 29th Battalion and served in many of the battles on the Western Front. He recalls that after living on inadequate rations through the bitterly cold winters of 1916 and 1917, ‘we were really sick of it’. He also remembers his own extraordinary good fortune, and describes several occasions when he left groups of mates to undertake a particular task and returned to find them all blown away. ‘Well there must have been somebody looking after me up top, that’s what I reckon, because it was uncanny.’ Alf’s luck continued, and in April 1918 he survived when a shell landed at his feet. The men around him were badly wounded but Alf suffered only minor injuries to his right hand. The regimental doctor bandaged him up and commented, ‘You were lucky Stabby, this is a good one’. Back at the Casualty Clearing Station Alf was put with two other men who had hand wounds similar to his own. He could not understand why the three of them were being ignored by all the orderlies. Eventually a doctor arrived and questioned the three men in great detail. After some time he spoke to one of the nurses about Alf, ‘Shift this man down below, you mixed him up. He’s not a self-inflicted wound’. It was only then that Alf realised that his hand wound had made the doctor suspect that it was self-inflicted. He was sent to a hospital near Paris, but assumes that the other two men were court-martialled: ‘It was getting near the end of the war, I suppose, and the fellows had had it and just couldn’t take any more’.40

On Gallipoli, Ern Morton remembers men who would ‘go to any lengths to get out of the army’ and off the peninsula. He recalls one man who pestered him for days asking for his arm to be broken, and others who rammed picks into their legs while they were tunnelling underneath no man’s land. One common ruse was to put condensed milk on your penis and claim that you had venereal disease. Ern was evacuated from the peninsula with a wound on the night before the August offensive. When he recovered he was sent to France with a unit of reinforcements for the Second Division Machine Gunners. In France, Ern became an outspoken campaigner against conscription amongst the diggers, because he felt ‘very, very strongly against forcing people to go and fight in a war for the benefit of others’. In 1918 Ern’s brother deserted from the army and went to Ireland, and Ern recalls in vivid detail the occasion which provoked his own rebellion:

One of the most momentous experiences I had in the war, I think, in the whole of the war, was when we were going to hop over one day, and there was a German officer. Only a young chap, be in his late teens I suppose, and he had been mortally wounded. And of course with the machine-gun I didn’t have a rifle, I had a pistol. He prayed to me to kill him. Put him out of his misery. He spoke English better than ever I’ll speak it in my life, probably educated in an English university, and it flashed through my mind then, we’ve been taught all these years about these heathens we’re fighting and they’ve got to be exterminated at all costs, and here’s a man that could speak English and asking me to put him out of his misery. I turned against war. I was probably gradually drifting that way but that was the end. From that time on, and that was late in ’18, I think, I never did anything in the war that … all I did was keep out of it. I wouldn’t fire a machine-gun, wouldn’t shoot at anybody. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to have anything at all to do with this’.41

More commonly, digger disillusionment was articulated as resentment towards their army commanders. The stubborn commitment of the British High Command to a war of attrition, and British generals’ mismanagement of most major battles, were sources of bitterness and derision. It was also widely believed within the AIF that the Australian forces were being used to excess. As E. L. Cuddeford recalls, ‘any tough corner, the Australian troops were pushed into it. The British troops were kept out of it. We objected to it, while we were pushed into everything dirty and rough and the British troops weren’t there to help us’.42

But criticism was not only directed at the British. Fred Farrall relates two telling incidents that occurred when his unit was stationed behind the lines in the last weeks of the war. Fred and two others were sent to the Australian Army Corps compound at Flexicourt to bring back some men from their unit who had gone absent without leave and had served a sentence in ‘the clink’. When they arrived at the compound they noticed a body of 1st Battalion men who were being held within a barbed wire fence. After talking to the guards, Fred and his pals discovered ‘that the 1st Battalion had walked out of the Hindenburg Line and declared the war “off”, or in other words they went on strike so they were all put in the clink’. In fact 119 members of the 1st Battalion had refused to return to action after their relief had been postponed. These men believed that they were not getting a fair deal but they were arrested, court-martialled and found guilty of desertion.

Fred Farrall remembers that the men of his own battalion were also getting restless in these last weeks of the war. It was a Sunday and the battalion, by now reduced from a thousand to three hundred men, was on church parade when their general arrived on his rounds. He spoke to the men in ‘the usual glowing terms of how good we were, and then dropped a bombshell by saying that they had hopes that the war was coming to an end, but that if it was not successful then we would be back in the front line again’:

Well that’s as far as he got. It was easy to get clods of dirt which were aimed at his horse, if not at him, and this was something that wouldn’t be dreamt of in days gone by. But the situation developed to an extent where the general thought that it would be better to remove himself. So he did. That was the frame of mind that the soldiers had got into. Generally speaking they didn’t want any more frontline or talk about it, any more than the 1st Battalion didn’t want any more of the Hindenburg Line.43

Yet in common with most other units of the British army, the majority of the Australian soldiers did stick to their task, not with any great enthusiasm but because there were few realistic alternatives. Some veterans recall that their endurance was sustained by a sense of duty or responsibility. Alf Stabb recalls that ‘it was a job that you knew you had to do and you couldn’t squib it’:

You had to go on with it. Of course, we were volunteers, we weren’t conscripts and we just went on with it. But nobody was … well everybody was more or less frightened I suppose. You could put it that way, nobody was a hero. You kept your head down when you possibly could.Sid Norris remarks that ‘you didn’t care much, you developed that way that you didn’t care, everybody was looking for a blighty’. But he concludes that ‘the majority thought they had to win the war, they had to finish, you see, they had that at the back’. Some veterans recall that they were motivated by loyalty to the AIF battalion that had become their family and home. In particular they proudly relate the story of digger resistance to the merging of many of the depleted battalions in 1918, and use the incident to explain the bonding and spirit of their battalions.44

Soldiers also used a variety of more personal coping mechanisms to help them endure life in the line. While many longed for the temporary relief of blighty leave (in England) or even a blighty wound, others sought solace in alcohol, gambling or prostitutes, as well as less frowned-upon pastimes. Some individuals turned to God or other forms of spiritual succour; after several miraculous escapes Ern Morton and Alf Stabb began to feel that they were fated to survive, and that someone was looking after them. Most men adopted a fatalistic attitude as a psychological defence against anxiety and vulnerability, and expressed that fatalism in the distinctive language and humour of the trenches. Jack Glew had joined the Australian artillery in France as a horse driver, and recalls that ‘I didn’t seem to care […] if I’d got knocked I wouldn’t have cared. I’d seen so much of it’. A. J. McGillivray was an infantryman, and comments that he ‘had great faith right to the end. Don’t know why it was, we seemed to be so jovial and that under such conditions’. None of these coping mechanisms were unique to the Australians. Studies of British and European veterans show that they relied upon much the same strategies for survival.45

The company of mates was the most important physical and emotional support, both in and out of the line. War, like other isolated stressful situations, encouraged men to form close and supportive relationships. Comradeship helped men to cope in appalling conditions and to enjoy their life out of the line. Comrades could share equipment and skills, or sleep together for extra warmth and security. In the line a good friend could save your life, and most soldiers believed that they had a better chance of survival if they helped each other. Because soldiers’ friendships were lived in extreme conditions and were likely to be cut short, they were often very intense, and comradeship became revered as an almost sacred bond. Though Australian mateship is highlighted in the Anzac legend, comradeship was not unique to the AIF. Many personal accounts from the European armies in the Great War single out comradeship as the most positive aspect of the war experience.46

Bill Langham recalls the material and emotional support of mates as the most positive feature of his war experience. In the cold of the European winter the six men of his artillery team slept close for warmth, so that ‘when you turned, you all had to turn together’. When one of the men received a food parcel it was shared without question. One man, fifteen years his senior, became like a brother to Bill until he died of bronchial pneumonia.

You had so many good mates … made you forget homesickness. When you go to war you find real mates. They, they’ll die for you. They will too. You don’t think, you don’t think of yourself. You think of the other fellow. As long as he’s all right, don’t worry … about me. He thinks the same about you.47

Mateship provided a vital support network, but it also exerted a powerful pressure on soldiers to maintain a particular code of manhood and not let their mates down. Albie Linton recalls that ‘you couldn’t turn your comrades down, you had to be with them, in it’. Fred Farrall consistently refused to leave his front-line battalion for the relative safety of his brother’s support unit, because that would have meant leaving his mates. The creed of mateship was a double-edged sword.48

Digger culture and identity

A man’s comrades also served as the main forum for the articulation of feelings, attitudes and identities. They provided a place to grumble about the food, about officers or about army life in general. Among his mates a man developed particular ways to talk about experiences such as battle. And within this small community, soldiers identified ways in which they were distinctive in comparison with civilians and with soldiers in other units or armies.

Although in many ways the life of the diggers was similar to that of soldiers in other armies, their articulation of the experiences outlined in this chapter was shaped in particular ways by Australian attitudes and customs. Perhaps most importantly, my interviews bear out the claim that for many Australian soldiers the war was a potent experience of national self-recognition. Australia was too far away for the soldiers to return home for regular leave. The battalion became home and digger mates became a soldier’s family, so that despite the separation from Australia the men’s most intimate contacts were fellow Australians. In their training, and during life in and out of the line, they began to see themselves as part of a distinctive unit from a faraway country, identified by their Australian kit and the famous slouch hat, with their own common experiences of place, culture and even humour. The Australian vernacular was an important part of this identity; for example, military comradeship was defined using the language of ‘mateship’, with all its associated understandings of relationships between men and with authority.

The Australian soldiers savoured the military reputation that they had gained at Gallipoli and in subsequent battles, and liked to think of themselves as better than British soldiers. Stan D’Altera remembers that by the time he was invalided home in 1917 he had become ‘a mad Aussie, and I’d proved that Australians were the best at anything, best in the world’. The diggers were proud of their status as citizen soldiers in an army that did not have conscription and did not use the death penalty, and resolutely maintained an informal attitude to military authority. They also became homesick, a feeling that was reinforced by the miseries of the Western Front, and developed in contrast an idealised and often pastoral image of their country.49

For all these reasons they enthusiastically identified themselves as Australians and adopted the affirming labels of ‘Anzac’ and ‘digger’. Yet whereas the term ‘Anzacs’ was invented by head-quarters staff and used by publicists to denote the Australian and New Zealand soldiers, the term ‘digger’ was coined by the Australian other ranks on the Western Front in 1916 and 1917. They preferred the latter term because it was of their own making and because it signified their own distinctive culture. Most of the men I interviewed referred to themselves as ‘diggers’ and not ‘Anzacs’. Though digger culture asserted a common national identity, it was primarily the identity of the Australian other ranks, and it did not necessarily carry the patriotic meanings that informed the language of ‘Anzac’.50

The digger culture of the other ranks was defined and reproduced in codes of behaviour about and attitudes to mateship (no true digger would leave his mates), authority (diggers did not salute officers) and life out of the line (diggers were drinkers, gamblers and womanisers). Australian soldiers had to match their own behaviour against the public identity of the diggers. Though some relished the diggers’ manly comradeship, for others the prescriptions were uncomfortable or exclusive. My interviews include several examples of men like Bill Williams who would not or could not live up to the standards of the digger culture, and who ‘didn’t feel […] very happy about being different’.51

Digger culture was articulated through storytelling, rumours and songs, which used distinctive language and slang; many soldiers’ publications included glossaries of ‘diggerisms’. In turn, this oral culture was worked up and crystallised for a wider digger audience, and occasionally for a civilian audience, in writing. The most important forms in which the soldiers wrote for and about themselves were the trench newspapers and annuals. There were a great number of digger papers throughout the war, with numerous contributors writing and drawing for a large readership. The papers varied from handwritten and stencilled sheets of gossip and verse to sophisticated, printed newspapers with news, photographs and articles, edited by journalist soldiers. Their content also varied, but on the whole they served as outlets for gossip and rumour. Though they were typically humorous in tone, they included bitter-sweet reflections on the war and mild criticisms of officers and the army, and thus provided a safety valve for the soldiers’ discontent. They were also sentimentally Australian. Writers often adopted the popular Australian literary styles of the bush ballad and urban larrikin verse, although they usually excluded the more rough and critical elements of digger oral culture.52

Thus the Australian soldiers did not just have a legend created by others about their experiences; they were actively involved in fashioning and promoting their own collective identity. Nevertheless the making of digger culture and identity was not an independent process. Digger codes of behaviour were often in conflict with army regulations, and even in the AIF behaviour that overstepped the mark was sternly punished. Although the diggers’ oral culture expressed the attitudes of the men of the ranks, it also drew upon the ways in which Australian soldiers were represented by others, in letters from home, in press reports and official citations, and in the steady stream of Anzac books that were published after the Gallipoli landing; indeed, official and journalistic writing was often intended to counter troubling aspects of digger culture. The writings of the diggers were also regulated by the military authorities. The Anzac annuals and several of the main trench newspapers were controlled by AIF staff officers and were primarily intended to bolster morale. Even the most simple productions were monitored by a supervising officer and were censored to exclude material that might stir discontent or undermine discipline.

The making of a digger culture and identity was thus influenced by, and in constant interaction with, the making of a more official legend by the army and by war correspondents and commentators. The next chapter explores how one influential commentator, the official war correspondent Charles Bean, responded to the diversity of Anzac experience and moulded a national legend.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson