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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

CHAPTER 3

MEMORIES OF WAR

Percy Bird

Percy Bird was born in the western Melbourne port suburb of Williams-town in 1889, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. His mother’s family had run a boarding house and his father was a boilermaker with the railways and a Mason, with no political or union interest that Percy could recall. Percy proudly explained that according to family tradition his paternal grandfather’s family had owned a shipping line in the old country, and that his grandfather had eloped to Sydney and sold his boat and worked on the harbour. The story highlights the ambiguity of Percy’s class position and identity. Though the Birds were ‘not a bit wealthy’, Percy was careful to define his family as ‘near enough we’ll say to the middle class’. This contrasts with most of my other western suburbs interviewees, who defined their backgrounds and social position as ‘working class’. The Birds aspired to the middle-class lifestyle and values of church, association and education, and Percy adopted these ideals and subsequently sought professional training and positions with professional status, albeit limited and subordinate, in his army and working life.1

In our first interview Percy described an idyllic childhood in William-stown. He went to the local State school, was prominent in several sporting teams, and sang as a soloist in the Presbyterian Sunday School choir. He was also an enthusiastic member of the Williamstown Boys’ Naval Brigade and participated in its band, in public military displays and camping holidays. Percy enjoyed remembering these aspects of his childhood; he had already helped researchers into the histories of baseball and the Boys’ Naval Brigade. In the second interview he admitted that when he read the first transcript he realised that ‘he didn’t have such a wonderful time’ because he was the youngest and had to run messages for the family and neighbours. Percy’s explanation hints at a general unease about his childhood which is usually hidden by the enthusiastic remembering of organised youth activities. This childhood unease about private life and relationships was repeated in adult life, where public activities remained the most affirming for Percy and became the mainstay of his identity and remembering.2

In 1904 Percy left school and, on his mother’s advice, attended a business college. The following year he started work as a clerk with the Victorian railways. He still lived with his family in Williamstown, where he was active in local sports teams, the church choir and the Australian Natives Association branch. Unlike most of my other interviewees, Percy was already in his mid-twenties in 1914, and had been in regular employment for almost ten years. He was also engaged to be married to Eva Linklater. In the interview he didn’t recall any strong personal response to the outbreak of war, and explained that he delayed enlisting until July of 1915 because his father was dying. I asked him why he enlisted:

Oh [laughs]. Be like all the others [laughs]. I wanted to enlist like all the others, you know. Well, like lots of the others, I should say, because I thought I was … well, I was … should enlist. Being a member of … being an Australian.3

When I listened to the tape I was struck by the awkwardness and discomfort of Percy’s reply. Enlistment was not one of Percy’s standard anecdotes (unlike some other veterans for whom it is an important signpost in memory), and the awkward form of the account of enlistment contrasted sharply with his usual, confident storytelling. Enlistment did not become one of Percy’s stories because at the time it required a difficult choice between competing demands. In the memories of most of my interviewees the story of enlistment is highly significant and fraught with contradictions. It reveals a struggle to make sense of a decision that may have been difficult at the time, which sometimes had disastrous personal consequences, and for which public regard has shifted dramatically, from wartime enthusiasm through to doubt, ambivalence and even opposition.

On the one hand Percy was influenced by his perceived duty as an Australian which he had learnt in the Boys’ Naval Brigade and the Australian Natives Association, and which became a predominant motif of recruiting rhetoric. He was also affected by the subtle pressure of mates who had joined up; later in the interview he remarked that he ‘had to go’ because his pals were going. On the other hand, the family trauma of his father’s illness and the commitment to a new fiancée were countervailing pressures that made enlistment difficult. Enlistment represented a choice between two different prescriptions of masculinity, between the family man and the independent soldier adventurer. The pressures to join up and be a soldiering man were stronger, and to justify the decision — especially necessary in relation to his family and fiancée — the explanations of duty and mateship became the main features of Percy’s account. In turn, these explanations were consolidated by wartime public approval; though in later life Percy would be further troubled by public questioning of the worth of Australian participation in ‘a European war’. Enlistment never became a favoured public story for Percy because it recalled the old tension and hidden pain. It is perhaps significant that he never discussed Eva’s feelings about his decision, or how she and his family were affected by his absence.4

Following his difficult decision to enlist, Percy Bird was sent to Egypt with a unit of reinforcements for the 5th Battalion of the AIF. On the ship his clerical skills were discovered and he was made Orderly Room Sergeant for the duration of the voyage. After a period of training in Egypt and at Étaples, Percy joined D Company of the 5th Battalion at Bonneville in July 1916, just after the battalion suffered heavy casualties in the first battle for Pozières. After a short spell in the line at Pozières he went with the battalion to Belgium for six weeks, and then returned to the Somme for the winter of 1916–17. In February 1917 he was reappointed as an Orderly Room Sergeant for the battalion. The new job at battalion headquarters took him out of his company and, for the most part, out of front-line fighting, although he still went up the line on occasional tasks. The line also came to him on one occasion at Lagnicourt in May 1917, when the battalion headquarters was almost overrun by the enemy. While at Lagnicourt he was gassed, and in August he had a life-saving operation on a gland in his neck. He ended up in a hospital in Weymouth, and from there was shipped to Australia on the day before the Melbourne Cup horse race in 1917.

There were a number of key issues in Percy’s experience and identity during the war. Like every infantry soldier he had to cope with life in the front line. Though his experience of the front was not as severe as that of many other diggers — he was only in a fighting unit for about six months, and in all of that time D Company never went ‘over the top’ — he did endure the bombardment of Second Pozières and the miserable conditions of the Somme winter of 1916–17. Most of Percy’s stories about the front refer to the difficulties of getting through the mud and finding the line, and the lack of food because ration parties were bogged or lost:

The 1916–17 winter was the worst for thirty years, and the mud was shocking. Well, we were up the line one time for three days and three nights and you know what we had to eat? Bread and milk. Sodden bread, Tommy cookers, condensed milk […] they ducked out with a couple of dixies to get some shell-hole water and we mixed it with the condensed milk and heat it, you see, and the captain said to me — there were about twenty of us in this dugout — he said, ‘How much?’ I said, ‘Two mouthfuls each’. Went round, I said, ‘Fill a mouthful’. And that’s what we did [laughs].5

Figure 11  Letter of commendation for Percy Bird, 1916. (Kath Hunter)

The 5th Battalion history confirms that these were important features of the battalion’s experience of that winter on the Somme, in which even getting to the line was a miserable experience of ‘wading, crawling, wallowing in mud for hours through the darkness’.6

Humorous anecdotes helped Percy and the men of D Company to cope with these physical hardships (the stories are still his main way of remembering the winter of 1916–17), but the conditions did not cause major emotional problems for Percy. In contrast, silences and repressions in his remembering suggest that he did not cope so well with the artillery bombardments that were the other main feature of life on the Somme. The battalion history describes the scene when Percy first went into the front line at Pozières’ ‘Death Valley’ on 14 August 1916:

The whole of the shell-rent surface was torn into the ghastliest commixture of decaying dead, tattered clothing and broken equipment […] Stinking corpses, or portions of them, everywhere exuded their foul gases […] forming a dreadful paving on which perforce the men walked.

The job of D Company was to dig hopping-off trenches for other battalions, all the time under intense shell-fire and suffering severe casualties, unable to respond in any way to the bombardment. According to the history it was ‘a time of nerve-wracking passivity for the Fifth’. Yet every time I asked Percy what it felt like to be under shell-fire he changed the subject back to one of his standard stories about concert parties behind the lines or getting bogged in the mud. He volunteered no stories about the smells and sounds of the trenches, about his own feelings under fire, or about the mutilation and deaths of his mates. The most that he could say in the first interview, before he changed the subject, was, ‘I think we were all frightened but we all stuck together’.7

In the second interview, perhaps because there was greater trust between us, and because I was expressly trying to guide him out of his set sequence of stories, Percy expressed a few more clues about those feelings. He said that he did not like watching the ‘Anzacs’ television series because it brought back painful memories of dead pals. After I had repeated the question about his feelings several times, he rushed through a set of disturbing memories that had not been in his previous written or spoken remembering — of watching helplessly while another battalion was ‘knocked to ribbons’, and of two NCOs being blown up just after he walked away from them — before changing the subject again.8

The way in which Percy told these stories, and avoided telling them, suggests that like many others he was extremely distressed by these experiences in the firing line. Though he denied that his nerves had been affected, he did remark that ‘we were glad to get away. I will admit that’. None of Percy’s stories were positive about his worth as a fighting man, and that role was virtually excluded from his remembering because he could make no safe or comfortable sense of it either at the time or subsequently. The evidence for the traumatic effects of bombardment lies in the silences of his remembering. Disturbing experiences and feelings were either repressed from conscious memory or pushed aside into a ‘private’ drawer of Percy’s memory, from where they came out only under pressure, in response to probing questions, or by association and in dreams, but never in his public stories.9

Repression of the most disturbing aspects of bombardment was only one way in which Percy coped with the experience. The refrain ‘we were frightened but we all stuck together’, which Percy repeated several times, testifies to the physical and emotional support provided by the men of D Company. In sticking together the soldiers developed their own language, stories and songs which made the experience easier to live with. Percy’s oral skills ensured that he was actively involved in that process of collective narration. Many of his standard stories were told and enjoyed during the war. Thus stories about lucky escapes (an Orderly Sergeant who has a shell go between his legs and bury itself in the ground while he is asleep) and the language they employed (‘Fritz’ lobbing over ‘a couple of shells’), made sense of the experience of bombardment with humour, bravado and a touch of fatalism. Percy’s stories did not make sense of the war in terms of bitterness or disillusionment, partly because most of his war experience was in relative safety behind the lines, and partly because he enjoyed good relations with his superior officers and had an uncritical attitude towards the military authorities and their decisions. His own experiences were almost always generalised in terms of the positive, collective experience of the unit, and formed a repertoire of affirming stories. Over time the stories and soldiers’ songs came to stand for the experience of the trenches and provided Percy with comfortable ways of remembering.10

Percy’s masculine and military identity was also troubled by his redeployment to clerical duties behind the lines. Both on the ship and at the beginning of 1917, Percy protested that he did not want to leave the company, and he recalled the move as ‘unfortunate’. It was ‘unfortunate’ partly because it took Percy away from his friends in D Company, but also because Percy felt guilty about leaving his mates, and inferior in his non-combat role (a wound was a valid excuse, and Percy had no qualms about admitting that he was glad to get away to Australia after he was wounded). To compensate for feelings of guilt and masculine inadequacy, Percy seems to have revelled in the dangers of his life behind the lines, and to have highlighted them in his memory; indeed, there is far more military action and excitement in these stories than in his account of life in the line. He also developed a positive alternative identity for himself by taking pride in his competence as Orderly Room Sergeant and in the compliments of senior staff officers.11

Even more affirming for Percy’s military identity were the experiences of his life with the battalion out of the line, when front-line and support soldiers shared the common identity of the battalion. At these times Percy came into his own as a performer and enjoyed the acclamation of the soldiers as ‘Birdy’, a star of battalion concerts. For example, Percy represented D Company in a battalion concert competition in which prize money of one hundred francs was offered to the company with the best singers:

So I sang that night and I got an encore, and then when it was all over they had a committee passing the votes and everything. So the next morning the captain we had, oh thrilled to bits, we got the three first prizes and the best effort. Seventy out of a hundred [laughs].12

This was the story that Percy told when I first asked him about life on the Somme, and he subsequently repeated it with great gusto. Performance out of the line was the main way in which he gained affirmation from the men in his battalion, and the most positive aspect of Percy’s identity as a soldier. It became a central feature of his remembering of the war because in comparison with other aspects of his war experience it was entirely positive, and because the recreation of wartime performance — in stories punctuated by song — was popular with postwar audiences.

Percy also enjoyed his reputation as a scrounger of food; both officers and other ranks often came to him to share the food that he had acquired from local villagers. But he was less comfortable with other aspects of digger culture. Because of his job Percy mixed closely with staff and battalion officers and, in contrast with almost all my other interviewees, in his remembering he highlighted occasions when he sought and received their praise. Though Percy edited out of his remembering any tensions between officers and men in the 5th Battalion, even the battalion history recorded such tensions, and other sources note the diggers’ renowned antipathy to men who were overfamiliar with officers. It may be that some of the battalion’s other ranks frowned upon Percy’s comfortable relationship with his superiors.13

More obviously troubling for Percy were the differences between his social standards and what he perceived to be the prevailing standards of behaviour among the diggers. Because of his Presbyterian upbringing Percy didn’t drink or smoke, and he felt that he was unusual in this regard. In the interview he emphasised his differences in a recollection that his one ‘vice’ was lollies, and that he supplied the men with sweets when they ran out of cigarettes (‘Got any lollies, Birdy?’). Percy also felt that he was different in his attitude to women. He claimed that he ‘never worried about the women folk’ because he was engaged, and because he disapproved of the other fellows who ‘used to go to see the women there for certain purposes […] certain ones, unfortunately, they were caught, certain diseases’. He was also rather disgusted by the men’s jokes about sex and masturbation:

[…] where we were sleeping and that, somebody would yell out, ‘The old squire’s been foully murdered’. And of course, they’d all ‘What? Again?’ This seemed to be one of the little jokes. Poor joke I thought it was.

On one occasion at a new battalion billet when Percy was looking for a quiet place to read, he came upon a ‘young lady’ in a ‘lovely big place’. They swapped coins and talked, and for the next two nights Percy returned to sit with her. Yet he refused to tell his mates where he had been because he thought the relationship would be misunderstood and his character smeared.14

These stories suggest that despite his skills as a singer, story-teller and scrounger, Percy sometimes felt like an outsider among the diggers, excluded by his own ideal and practice of moral manhood from the more larrikin masculinity that he perceived to be predominant. When prompted by my questions, he expressed ambivalence about the diggers’ behaviour and concern that the digger reputation was not true for men like him, but on the whole he preferred not to discuss these aspects of life out of the line. This contrasts with some of the other interviewees who relished the drinking and gambling and highlighted it in their memories.15 Throughout the interview Percy referred to the Australian soldiers as ‘Anzacs’ or ‘Australians’ but never ‘diggers’, perhaps because he felt uncomfortable about the digger identity of the other ranks.

In contrast, the common unit identities of D Company, the 5th Battalion and the AIF were comfortable and affirming for Percy. The company and battalion identities were reinforced by the bonding of life together, in and out of the line, and by the inter-unit rivalry of battalion and brigade sports meetings and concerts. Thus Percy proudly identified himself as a ‘Don Company’ man. The memoir that he wrote for me about his war was an account of the 5th Battalion in France, because at the time and in memory the identity of the battalion was affirming for Percy, and because he had shaped his personal war story in terms of the battalion’s story.

National identity was also significant for Percy, and this, too, he used to help comprehend and articulate his experiences. Percy’s sense of his Australian identity was drawn, to some extent, from personal experience. For example, while loading supplies for English and French officers he noted that they treated the diggers with less respect than their own Australian officers, who were willing to negotiate about rights and responsibilities and got a better job as a result. He observed that, in contrast with his own battalion, English units often left their billets in a mess, and he overheard remarks by English officers who were surprised at the quality of an Australian drill, and by some French women who felt that they were ‘safe now, Australia’s here’.16

The specific, national meanings of these and other similar anecdotes were articulated within Percy’s unit, and in newspapers, books and even official commendations. The story about the French women was a common, apocryphal tale within the AIF, and ‘everybody reckoned the Australian soldiers … they made a big name for themselves, and they were the best soldiers to get anywhere’. Public opinion about the Australians thus helped Percy to articulate his experiences in a particular, nationalistic way, and in turn led him to highlight in his memory experiences that made sense in terms of this national pride. Although Percy could not relate his trench experiences in terms of the Anzac hero — the gap between his experience and that aspect of the legend was too great — he could enjoy the more general and official collective identity of the AIF. The Australian national identity worked for Percy because, like the identities of the company and the battalion, it was an affirming and inclusive identity that did not necessarily distinguish between Australians in and out of the line, between officers and others ranks, or between different standards of behaviour. In those terms, being an Australian was something Percy had in common with his fellows, which also proudly distinguished them from other soldiers.17

Yet during the war the affirmation of Percy’s experience through national identification was undermined by tensions between his own experiences and attitudes and the Anzac and digger prescriptions for masculinity. Only when the war finished and those tensions were no longer part of lived experience, would Percy’s war memory and identity become less troubled.

Bill Langham

Bill Langham was born in 1897 in Axedale, a small town about forty miles from the central Victorian provincial city of Bendigo. The Langham family of thirteen had to survive on the meagre income Bill’s father’s made from quarrying and woodcutting work — about a pound a week — and Bill’s memory of his childhood is summarised in the familiar language of his generation and class: ‘We were a good happy family, but we were very poor, and I don’t mind admitting how many a time I went to school with a bit of dry bread, in those days’. Apart from enjoying the outdoors’ freedom of a country boy, Bill loved to read, especially history, and he was awarded a framed Merit Certificate when he completed the last two grades of primary school within six months. He accepted a place at Bendigo High School but, as he recalled, ‘the war settled me as a student. That came along and I went to the war and there was no more education’. This claim that the war caused Bill to sacrifice opportunities for further school and university study was repeated in both interviews. Yet further questioning revealed that Bill actually ran away from high school and home before the outbreak of war because he’d ‘had school’. He got a casual job picking up fleeces in a shearing shed near Bendigo, and then headed to Melbourne to work in the Caulfield racing stables. He had been a keen rider as a boy, and now hoped to follow in the footsteps of a brother who was a country jockey: ‘course the war intervened and altered all that’.18

The war did disrupt Bill’s plans and aspirations, but in his remembering he highlighted that disruption and played down other factors for a number of reasons. The war provided an obvious and socially acceptable explanation for change and loss. Bill’s explanation allowed him the sympathy and understanding due to a victim of circumstance, and mitigated his own agency in the ‘sacrifice’ of his education, improved job prospects and enlistment. Finally, the disruption of war became the necessary backdrop for Bill’s conclusion that he was able to overcome his wartime sacrifices and make a success of the rest of his life. In his remembering Bill satisfied the need for an affirming memory by emphasising his active role in the successes of his life, and by implying that he was a victim of fate in less positive circumstances.

Bill’s various accounts of his enlistment in 1915 show that while he tried to compose an affirming memory of the event, his remembering was influenced by other, public accounts. In our first interview, Bill’s initial explanation for joining up was that it was a very personal, spur of the moment decision:

Oh, I don’t know. I think it just came suddenly. I used to pick up the papers and see fellows that I knew and mates that had been knocked over […] One of my very good mates, he was a bit older than I was, but he was a lovely fellow and I read in the paper one morning where he’d got knocked, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go and have a go at it’.19

In response to a follow-up question he denied that he felt under any pressure to enlist, yet at the time and subsequently there were a number of public influences that affected his decision and how he remembered it.

Firstly, even his initial explanation suggests that the decision was not entirely ‘personal’, and that mateship — feelings of guilt and inadequacy because he was not already with his mates — was a motivation for enlistment. Secondly, Bill recalled that there were a ‘lot of people’ who said after the war that he only went away because he thought he was going to have a good trip. Bill was very clear that that was ‘fartherest from my mind, because […] I’d read a lot of history in my day, when I went to school, and I realised that war wasn’t a picnic’.20

Thirdly, Bill described how he was ‘a real Royalist in those days’ and used to love reading British and Empire history. This reading, and the celebration of Empire Day at school, confirmed some degree of affection for the ‘old Dart’ which had been the home of his forefathers. These feelings, and their exuberant public declaration during the early years of the war, may have been a motivating factor behind the decision for which his mate’s death was a catalyst. He may also have eagerly anticipated a proud martial identity, which he had relished as a cadet, and which he certainly enjoyed after he enlisted: ‘We used to march, we’d have a band and we used to march in from Royal Park to the city. Oh, it used to be lovely, striding out behind that band, you know. You thought you were king’.21 For Bill this personal pleasure and pride seems to have been more important than any deep-rooted patriotic sentiment. Bill never said that national or imperial sentiment affected his decision, and of Empire Day he recalled that his main interest was in the spread of food that was provided for school children on the day.22

Fourthly, he recalled that ‘we used to hear bad stories about them [the Germans], about carrying babies on their bayonets and all that’. He claimed that the stories were ‘a lot of hooey’, but it is difficult to tell if he was so critical when he enlisted, and whether or not they might have been another background influence on his decision. In response to a question in the second interview asking how he felt about joining up, Bill remarked:

Oh that’s pretty hard, that’s a pretty hard question. I just thought I was doing the right thing anyway. By the things that we’d been told I suppose when the war first started, they, the press reports and things, they gave us stories of German soldiers marching along with babies on their bayonets. Well, that sort of got under your skin. You know. You thought to yourself well you want to try and put a stop to this, if that’s true.23

The quote suggests that when he enlisted Bill may have shared some of the mystification of the barbaric enemy, and that his rejection of the stories as ‘hooey’ was at least partly due to subsequent events during the war, but that he had shifted his criticism back in time so as not to associate his own enlistment with an attitude that had become publicly unacceptable.24

Finally, in the context of a discussion on recent feminist Anzac Day protests, which Bill denounced as ungrateful to the men who had made sacrifices without which ‘we wouldn’t be living under the conditions we’re living under now’, he remarked that if he lived his life over he would ‘do the same again’ and enlist (my emphases, in italics, show how Bill slipped from singular to plural when he ascribed general motivations to himself):

Because I thought it was right, I had to do it. We only went, we went away, we tried to save the world from a fate worse than we’ve got now, I think. But I don’t think we succeeded somehow. That’s the trouble.25

The context of these comments influenced the explanation of his motivation to enlist. In discussion of a movement that he perceived to be critical of soldiers like himself and other comrades who were ‘crippled, maimed and ruined for life’, Bill needed to assert the worth of the men’s sacrifices and the validity of enlistment. He adopted the standard rhetoric used by newspapers and Anzac Day speakers to denounce the feminist protests because it matched his own indignation.

In another context, however, with different associations and emotional needs, Bill articulated the worth of the war and the validity of his enlistment in different terms. A meeting with some German prisoners, which he described in an account of his experiences on the Western Front, ‘sort of altered my attitude altogether’, and made him realise that ‘we shouldn’t be fighting fellows that didn’t want to fight’. At the time and in his remembering he blamed the ‘big nobs’, sitting in their comfortable office chairs back home, for sending ordinary men to fight their war for them. Criticism of the ‘big nobs’ was reinforced by a feeling that they had not rewarded the soldiers sufficiently when they came home. This same anger about the neglect of ex-servicemen by civilians after the war also informed Bill’s anger at the feminist opponents of the ‘diggers’ day’, but resulted in a very different assessment of the value of war service.26

Bill’s account of his enlistment thus comprises several layers of memories, in which the contradictions derive from the complexity of his decision and his own shifting attitudes and identity. Those shifts are in turn related to the ways in which public versions of enlistment and the war have changed over time, and to the various contexts and associations that were operative when Bill was remembering.

Once Bill Langham had decided to join up he worked hard to be accepted. His father refused to sign the consent forms, which were necessary because Bill was under age, so the lad lied about his age at the Bendigo Recruiting Depot. He then had himself posted to a training camp in Melbourne to avoid being discovered and so that he could visit the big city for the first time. He was transferred to Maribyrnong Camp where he joined recruits from every State in the artillery unit of the Eighth Brigade of the Third Division of the AIF. The unit sailed to England via South Africa — Bill had a vivid memory of one exotic day in Durban — and then spent several months training with the new division. From there he was sent to France and saw his first action at Messines in the British campaign of 1916.

Bill’s job was to help drive a team of horses loaded with fresh ammunition for the divisional artillery, and to move the guns when necessary. The artillery driver’s work engendered a special relationship with his horse:

He came first, your horse. He came before you or anybody else. Because you couldn’t get horses but you could always get men. Your horse was always number one. Anyway, he was the fellow that had to carry you through.

Grooming the horses and cleaning the harnesses took up a lot of time when the unit came out of action, and for that reason drivers were paid a shilling more per week than gunners and infantry privates: ‘we reckoned we were millionaires too’.27

On 1 October 1918, Bill’s luck ran out when an explosion tore a great hole in the side of his horse’s head. A small piece of shrapnel lodged in Bill’s skull, though the sight and stench of the horse’s blood which drenched his clothes made his wound seem much worse than it really was. One eye was paralysed forever and, though this did not impair his eyesight, it required him to turn his head to look sideways. Hospitalised in London and Manchester, Bill was disappointed not to be with his mates, who wrote that they were having a lovely time in Belgium now that the war was over. Yet when he came out of hospital he said that he did not want to return to his unit — ‘I’ve seen enough of that’ — and was given a job guarding the AIF headquarters in London and escorting the AIF payroll. Another reason for declining the opportunity to return to his mates was that Bill had ‘a little girl’ up in Manchester. During Christmas Bill and a mate went absent without leave so that they could visit this girl. When he returned to London he was dismissed from his job and sent to camp on Salisbury Plain. There he reported his misdemeanour to the officer in charge, who happened to be Captain Jacka, the famous Australian Victoria Cross winner: ‘Well’, he said, ‘The bloody war’s over. Do you want to make anything out of it?’ Two days later Bill was on a boat and on his way home.28

In general, Bill remembered that a soldier had ‘a good life’:

I mean it’s a good healthy job […] you’re fit and well. You get well looked after. You get well clothed. You get well fed […] you learn some discipline, which is very badly needed in the world at the present time.

The last comment suggests that this satisfaction was at least partly retrospective, especially as he also recalled that at the time he didn’t like taking orders.29

But there was a negative side: ‘the only part that’s not good is the war part’. Like Percy Bird, a main issue for Bill, at the time and in his memory, was how he fared in battle. In a number of ways the nature of Bill’s experience in battle, and his ability to cope, was determined by his specific role in the artillery. Bill felt that he was lucky compared with the men in the infantry. Although the horse-wagon lines could be wet and miserable, they were relatively comfortable and safe when compared with the trenches. The artillery men rarely had direct contact with the enemy or knew if they had killed anyone, whereas ‘the infantryman must have, specially a man that’s been in bayonet charges, he must have some awful memories’. The artillery driving job was active and mobile, and sometimes even exhilarating, in comparison with the static, passive lot of the infantryman. As they could respond actively to danger and fear in battle, there was perhaps less likelihood of drivers developing battle-induced nervous conditions. Yet their work could also be terrifying and traumatic. Out in the open with no form of protection, the ammunition teams were at the mercy of enemy artillery who were quick to train their guns on an inviting target. Bill knew what an explosive shell or bullet could do to a body, and freely admitted that he was scared:

Percy Bird before he went to war in 1915, photographed in the backyard of the family home in Williamstown. (Kath Hunter)

Goulburn Training Camp 1916, after the ‘Kangaroo’ recruitment march from Wagga, with a very young-looking Fred Farrall holding his rifle (bottom right). (Fred Farrall)

Postcard from Fred Farrall, Goulburn Camp: ‘Dear Mother & Father, This is a photo of last Friday’s Guard. I am standing behind Lieut. Beattie. W.W. Hall is on the left [with cap on]. Les Hall is second from the end [sitting] on the right, from Fred, 1916.’ (Fred Farrall)

Driver W. (Bill) Langham, 22942, 30th Battery, 8th Australian Field Artillery Brigade, pictured in Footscray in 1916 before embarkation. (Bill Langham)

A photograph taken by the author’s grandfather, John Rogers, in the trenches at Gallipoli with Australian soldiers striking a typical Anzac pose. (John Rogers/Campbell Thomson)

Members of the Australian 2nd Brigade killed in the advance at Helles in May 1915, as photographed by John Rogers. (John Rogers/Campbell Thomson)

Captain C.E.W Bean with members of the Australian 6th Battalion in the trenches at Helles, Gallipoli. John Rogers is second from the right. (John Rogers/Campbell Thomson)

Postcard from Fred Farrall, France: ‘Dear Auntie, This is a dinkum War Service photo & pretty rough of course, but still a little like Fred.’ (Fred Farrall)

Bill Langham (centre) with digger mates at Sutton Veney, 1916, celebrating Jack McCannon’s (in front of Bill) twenty-first birthday. (Bill Langham)

Jack Beard, Bill Langham and Phil Macumber, Armentières, 1916. (Bill Langham)

Percy Bird with other wounded soldiers returning to Australia in 1917. Percy is slightly below left of the man in the back row with the chin bandage. (Kath Hunter)

Percy Bird in Melbourne after returning from the war, 1918. (Kath Hunter)

[There are] people who say you’re not scared, but that’s all bunkum. I don’t give a damn who it is. Whether he’s a VC winner or what he is, he’s scared, at times, that’s only natural. He gets used to it after a while, but you still, you still wonder whether your name’s on one.30

There were also many gruelling moments in Bill’s war. He told the following story with a particularly pained expression on his face:

One of the worst things I … things I don’t like, I very seldom mention it, but when we made the big push on the 4th of August [1918] … we were taking up ammunition. We had to go through this cutting, there was only room for your wagon to go through, and your team. And you know, that was full of Germans, lying there. We couldn’t go round. We had to go through. We had to go over them. That’s always been a very … something that … oh, it’s hard to explain. It hurts very much when you think of it, that you had to … you had to gallop over and pull your wagon over those dead Germans. It’s an awful feeling you know.

Seeing and hearing ‘the wheels of the wagons and things crushing them up’ was traumatic because Bill was forced to break powerful taboos about the sanctity of the body. It also made him imagine that it was ‘our fellows’ (perhaps even himself) under the wheels, and showed how all soldiers were just bodies that could be mutilated.31

Terrifying vulnerability and participation in mutilation tested Bill’s emotional well-being. Like Percy Bird he maintained his composure by relying on the support network of the diggers (he also shared Percy’s love for music, and found comfort playing his harmonica). Bill highlighted the material and emotional support of mates as the most positive feature of his war experience: ‘When you go to war you find real mates. They, they’ll die for you’. Though he recalled that ‘the odd one or two’ didn’t fit in with this mateship, there was little in his own character or attitude that might have excluded him from its support. Unlike Percy Bird, Bill felt entirely comfortable with the diggers’ larrikin comradeship and disdain for military regulation. He enjoyed drinking and gambling with the men of his unit when they were out of the line. He also emphasised the pleasure of the company of women, although he was guarded in his references to brothels.32

Among his soldier mates Bill developed a language of fatalistic acceptance which he found to be the easiest way to articulate troubling experience — in comparison with Percy Bird’s use of humour — and which helped him to maintain his emotional composure. He recalled that when he was expected to drive the wagon over the bodies he felt like disobeying the order, ‘but where were you going to go? Still, it had to be. That’s war’. Artillery barrages were regarded as a lottery of life — Bill recounted many lucky escapes — and you got ‘used to it after a while’. Over time, and in memory, this language solidified into a form that maintained a safe and almost formulaic distance from traumatic events and feelings, and that generalised experience so that the hard and painful edges of particular moments were smoothed out. Thus the work of the ammunition teams was remembered and safely defined by Bill as ‘some hectic times’, and during the interview his feelings of the time were often expressed in the second or third person (‘he’s scared at times, that’s only natural’).33

This fatalistic language intersected with public depictions of the hero of endurance. Bill recalled that he liked Bean’s war correspondence because it provided ‘the true facts’, and Bean’s writing, as well as the culture of the diggers, shaped and affirmed certain general understandings about the war and caused others to be played down. Sometimes my questions, and Bill’s genuine attempts at a full account, brought out the painful or repulsive particulars that were hidden in his memory — the damage caused by an explosive bullet through the penis, the sound of flesh and bone crushed beneath a wagon, the hole in his horse’s head — but for the most part, and in most company, Bill preferred to use relatively safe and painless generalisations for these experiences.34

One other aspect of Bill’s war experience threatened to undermine this emotional composure and his military resolve. He recalled that his attitude to the war was transformed by a meeting with German soldiers during the Passchendaele campaign. While Bill’s team was waiting in the cold and rain by the wagon lines, a digger returned from the front line with some German prisoners. The artillery men took pity on the Germans, who were ‘only bits of kids’ and looked miserable, and offered them some stew and a hot drink. The guard, who resented having to bring the prisoners out through the slush, ‘went crook about their generosity’.

That altered my, sort of altered my attitude altogether, I realised we shouldn’t be fighting. ‘Cause one of them said to me […] ‘I didn’t want to fight you, I was forced into fighting […] we were happy to be taken prisoner. Soon as we could’. I realised, we were fighting fellows that didn’t want to fight. I still got that attitude.35

This event had a dramatic, almost theatrical quality, which may have helped Bill to articulate incoherent feelings about the war, and which made it a good story and ensured that it stuck in his memory. Several of the men I interviewed described similar meetings with Germans as having a conversion effect, although Percy Bird’s encounter with a group of singing POWs had no such effect, and was only significant to him because of the ‘wonderful’ singing. Bill’s new attitude to the war was shared by at least some of the men in his unit; he also recalled that at one point ‘the whole bloody AIF’ almost went on strike because they kept getting pushed into the line and had no reinforcements. The experience of meeting German prisoners shattered the propaganda image of the demonic enemy and called into question the justifications for the war. It nurtured in Bill a critical view that perhaps the soldiers of both armies had been duped and used by the ‘big nobs’ sitting back home ‘in their office chairs’, and threatened to undermine his determination to keep on fighting.36

A number of factors sustained Bill’s resolve at the time and are at odds with the conversion story. In the interview Bill recalled that a sense of duty was one motivating force. He explained that despite his change of heart about the war I kept going because we took an oath […] when we joined the army … I wasn’t proud of the things we were forced to do, but I was proud that I did it and carried out to the best of my ability, what I had to do’. Bill did not mention that his choices were very limited, and it is difficult to judge the extent to which this attitude was a wartime motivation or a subsequent justification.37

At least as influential at the time were the perceived expectations of digger mates. The particular public of the other ranks sometimes helped the diggers to reject the behavioural prescriptions of newspapers and military officialdom. For example, although AIF leaders sought to persuade the diggers to vote in favour of conscription and then suppressed the voting figures which revealed considerable dissent, Bill and other diggers knew that many of them had voted ‘no’, and they were scornful of the official lies. Yet Bill’s account suggests that the dominant digger attitude to behaviour at the front also overlapped with official expectations, especially with the hero of endurance promoted by Bean and other writers. Bill remembered that the diggers regarded deserters and men with self-inflicted wounds as laughable (one man took off his boot to shoot himself in the foot, and then put the intact boot back on again) or disloyal: ‘well you’re leaving your mates […] to bear the brunt of it’. In an artillery unit the link between mateship and military resolve was especially strong; if a driver left the horse team his desertion affected his mates and was a cause for immediate official concern.38

The ways in which Bill used generalised, formulaic language to explain individual ‘weakness’ and his own resolve, suggest that he drew heavily upon the overlapping official and digger prescriptions for behaviour. At the time those prescriptions were affirming for men like Bill who did ‘keep going’, and they subsequently provided a positive self-image and a justification for participation in the war.

For Bill, the expectation of self-respect and resolve in battle was underpinned by his commitment to the code of appropriate masculine behaviour which was prevalent amongst the men of the AIF. Several of Bill’s stories show how bravery was respected as a virtue in the AIF, and that cowardice (though not fear, which was ‘natural’) was not. He enjoyed the recollection of walking down the Strand with a VC winner and meeting two military policeman who expected to be saluted, but had to do the saluting when they saw the decoration (‘you’re saluting the honour, and they deserve it too’). By implication the military policemen, who were not combat soldiers, were lesser men.39

This code of appropriate military masculinity also had a specifically Australian quality. The digger was just an ordinary bloke ‘until you got into action. And then […] he proved what a good soldier he was’, with ‘lots of guts’. Bill argued that the Australians were ‘star troops’, and implied that in this respect the diggers agreed with their public acclaim. Yet when Bill made this national distinction it was entirely general. He did not relate it to his own experiences or ability, and the relevant passages are all in the third person. Nor did he provide specific evidence to confirm the generalisations; the only example he used was a story he had heard about some American soldiers who were decimated because they ignored Australian experience and advice.40

Indeed, there were aspects of Bill’s own experience that might have caused him to question this identity. For example, the passage about the fighting ability of the Australians is followed by a story about Bill getting lost near the front line which implies that he was no great soldier. Yet in the interview Bill was not aware of any tension between his own remembered experience and the national generalisation. The story about getting lost was not given a more general significance because in the Australian army, and in Australian popular memory, there was no prevalent public narrative that he could use to articulate the experience in negative terms. Many of Bill’s war stories — such as the story about driving over German bodies — appeared in his remembering as isolated descriptive incidents but were not generalised in more meaningful terms because they had not found shape and strength from alternatives to the predominant Anzac narrative, or because the paradigm of the war as a chaotic personal hell was less appealing for Bill than the more positive paradigm of masculine and national identity. The conversion story did attain a more general, critical significance in Bill’s memory because both during and after the war it was affirmed by public narratives (my role as a historian of the post-Vietnam generation also encouraged Bill to emphasise this story in the interview). But it is discordant with the majority of Bill’s war stories, which emphasised his military resolve and matched the Anzac legend’s themes of endurance and national pride. At the time and in his remembering, the prevailing national definition of military manhood provided Bill with a powerfully validating sense of ‘doing the job’, and an affirming collective identity.41

Fred Farrall

Fred Farrall was born in Cobram, on the Victorian side of the Murray River, in 1897. His father ran a small carrier business until 1904 when he won a ballot for a block of farming land near Ganmain in the New South Wales Riverina: ‘we moved up there in 1905 and established ourselves in the wilderness’. For several years the two adults and six children (Fred was the fourth child) lived in a bark hut and then in a pine log cabin, until relatives helped them to build a four room weatherboard house. It was an isolated and primitive life. The nearest neighbour was five miles away, and there was no local school until 1908. Fred only had about four years of schooling and recalled that ‘we grew up just like brumbies’.42

The children worked hard to help get the farm established, but Fred did not enjoy farm life or work. In his spare time he loved to read newspapers about life beyond the Riverina, and he became a keen follower of far away sporting events. Fred was physically small and like many bush kids he could ride a horse. Although he had never seen a horse-race he decided that he wanted to be a jockey, but when the time came to think about employment Mr Farrall declared that no member of his family would be connected with horse-racing, and Fred stayed on the farm:

Rather reluctantly because it was all hard work. Early morning to late at night and seven days a week. With not much time for any amusement or sport or anything else that might be about.43

Fred’s political hindsight caused him to emphasise that the Farrall’s were a political family. His great grandfather had been a follower of the English socialist Robert Owen, and some of the Australian Farralls supported the early Labor Party and the Victorian Socialist Party. Although Fred’s father was not active in party politics he was politically minded, and Fred recalled that he gained notoriety among their conservative rural neighbours for supporting a Labor Party candidate in a State election and for paying higher wages to his farm workers. The Farrall children were also ostracised at school because their father backed the black boxer, Jack Johnson, in the 1908 world heavyweight title fight. In the interview Fred was ambiguous about the extent to which he was affected by this family political tradition. He described how an old school mate later remarked that ‘We knew when you were going to school that you’d be involved in politics’, and supposed that he was influenced by his father. But he also recalled that he was politically quite ignorant, and it is likely that the family tradition only became important for him, and emphasised in memory, later in his life when he was looking for political antecedents.44

Despite the family’s socialist background, the Farralls were avid supporters of the Australian war effort in 1914. Stories about the Gallipoli campaign became sacred texts within the Farrall family and the children relished the ‘religious’ atmosphere of patriotism. Fred was inspired by Anzac deeds and recruiting rhetoric, although his decision to enlist may have been equally influenced by his distaste for farm life and a desire to escape. In our interview Fred did not refer to his more personal motivation for enlistment, preferring to emphasise his identity as a duped patriot and to show that a large proportion of AIF recruits were motivated by patriotism. This emphasis fitted more neatly into Fred’s story of transformation from patriotism to disillusionment. The motivations of escape and adventure were less appealing to Fred the political activist who preferred to emphasise serious and principled motivations, even if they were mistaken.45

Fred joined a ‘Kangaroo’ recruiting march from Wagga to Sydney at Galong on 11 December 1915. His main recollection of the march was that it was interrupted by two strikes led by recruits from navvy gangs who were members of the Australian Workers’ Union. The first strike occurred when the captain in charge of the march reneged on his promise that the men could go home for Christmas and Boxing Day. That strike was successful, but the second strike, an attempt to enforce another promise of three days leave in Sydney, was defeated by the arrival of an armed regular army unit, ‘so we didn’t see much of Sydney, until we came back in 1919, those that were left’. Fred emphasised this memory of the strikes because it highlighted the influence of trade unionists in the AIF and confirmed the ideal of the independent and anti-authoritarian diggers that he developed during and after the war. In the interview he did not portray himself as a radical or argue that he was greatly influenced at the time by these actions; he preferred to stress his own passivity and ignorance: ‘I knew nothing about it, I just followed on like a sheep’.46

Fred had two photos of the men from the recruiting march, taken at Goulburn training camp, which suggest that the self-image in his memory was a fair representation of how he was and felt about himself at the time (see the first section of photographs in this book). In both photos Fred stands out as a very raw and awkward recruit amongst the older, tougher-looking diggers; in one it is striking that he is the only man in uniform. It may be that Fred had just come off duty, but it could also be that he did not easily share the men’s relaxed disregard for military dress or the manly camaraderie that the scene evokes. In the 1980s the photos reinforced Fred’s sense of inadequacy as a recruit and as a man. Fred reiterated this self-image in a story about Jack Carroll, a Ganmain Irish Catholic, who disregarded the qualms of the local Irish community about fighting an English war because, he said, ‘If a fellow like Fred Farrall can go to the war, anybody ought to be able to go’.47

Fred Farrall’s war experience was deeply troubling and, rather than providing solace, the nascent Anzac legend simply reinforced Fred’s feelings of inadequacy and alienation. At the end of several months at the Goulburn training camp, on 14 April 1916, Fred boarded the Seramic in Woolloomooloo Bay with 3000 other recruits. After a crowded and uncomfortable sea voyage during which Fred was shockingly sea sick — Fred as a weakling is a recurrent theme — the boat landed in Egypt, where the men were separated into different units for some more training. Then, late in the summer of 1916, Fred joined the 55th Battalion of the Fifth Division of the AIF at Fleurbaix, where the division was recovering after the slaughter at Fromelles in July. In October the battalion moved to the Somme, where Fred suffered the winter until December when he was hospitalised for six months with trench feet. He rejoined the battalion a few weeks before the attack on Polygon Wood in Flanders on 26 September 1917. In the attack he was wounded in the leg by a machine gun bullet and struggled back to a Regimental Aid Post, from where he was sent to a Casualty Clearing Station to have the bullet removed, and thence to hospitals in France and London. He had another long stay in hospital, lengthened by a ‘nervous condition that had developed that was probably more serious than the gunshot wound’. After more training on Salisbury Plain he eventually rejoined the battalion in France not long before the Armistice, and was then stationed in Belgium until he returned to Australia in the middle of 1919. In Sydney he spent another six months in Randwick Hospital being treated for his trench foot condition, and for rheumatism and a nasal complaint he had developed in the trenches. He was finally discharged from the AIF in January 1920.48

In Fred’s narrative these bare facts are related in a chronological sequence and enlivened by a richly detailed portrayal of places, events, people, conversations and feelings. Fred’s war story uses selection, emphasis and ironic reflection to make meanings about his experience. It is a confident, seamless narrative with few uncertain pauses or jerky shifts of direction; the opening story about ‘our introduction to the Somme’ filled the entire forty-five minutes of one side of a cassette, and it was not until I turned the cassette over that I felt able to interrupt Fred’s flow and ask questions about how he coped and about relations in the AIF. In retrospect I can see that Fred was already beginning to discuss these and other issues in his own narrative, and that it was a mistake to interrupt before he had told his own story, in his own way, from beginning to end. Still, that uninterrupted initial story, and the ways in which Fred often used my questions to continue his own story and emphasise its themes in other long passages, do reveal the main issues that were significant for Fred during the war, and that were reinforced or reworked in his memory over time.

One absence in Fred’s recollection of the war, and a corresponding emphasis, is particularly obvious. Fred’s war story is pre-eminently located in the trenches of the Western Front. Although he spent a large proportion of his war in hospitals, training camps and billets behind the lines, these experiences are relatively insignificant in his remembering, especially in comparison with other veterans like Percy Bird. In Fred’s story, hospitalisation and leave are interruptions to the real business of the war in the trenches. He emphasised his life in the line because it had an enormous physical and emotional effect upon him at the time and subsequently, and because in old age the main meanings that he wanted to make about his experiences between 1916 and 1918 were about the war in the trenches. As we shall see, Fred was not always so positive or talkative about that aspect of his war, and only became able to compose a coherent sense of it well after the war was over.

Mateship was one important theme in Fred’s memory of the trenches. He began his story about his arrival at the Western Front by describing the deaths of several friends at Fromelles and, on the day before he left the quiet Armentières sector, of his mate Gus Stevens from Ganmain. He then explained how these friendships were forged on the recruiting march back in New South Wales:

I was there on the night that Gus got wounded, of course. You see, when we were on the route march from Wagga to Sydney, people team up, according to their outlook on life, to a large extent, and on that route march was Harry Fleming, Gus Stevens who came from the same town, Les Hall and Bing Hall from Tumut, Bob Pettiford from Albury, Walter Allen from Coolamon that I’d known for many years, and Sam McKernan from Adelong. And we all seemed to have something in common, and others that had things in common teamed up too. We nearly always camped in the same tent and kept together, until we got to Egypt. Then there was some separation took place there. But out of all that lot, Harry Fleming, Gus Stevens, Walter Allen and Les Hall were killed. Bob Pettiford and Sam McKernan were badly wounded.49

The support of these friends had begun to help Fred to develop from farm boy to soldier, and to affirm a more positive self-image as a digger and man. Their loss shattered this new found security and identity. For the remainder of the war it was much harder for Fred to form close and supportive friendships, as he was often absent from the battalion and its personnel changed rapidly. When he returned to No. 9 Platoon in the summer of 1917 there were only three or four familiar faces: ‘the thing changed and changed and kept on changing, until it’d be hard to know what … how the fellows, you know, that you were with for a few weeks, what they were thinking of’. For Fred, mateship was something he had lost rather than gained during the war. Although he did not talk to me in detail about how he felt about the deaths of his friends, the manner and priority of the passages about their deaths evoke the grief, loneliness and even guilt that Fred felt at the time. As a way of coping with these feelings, he commemorated his friends at their funerals and recorded in his memory the exact dates, places and details of each of their deaths.50

In his wartime distress and confusion Fred did not compose a more general sense of the deaths of his friends. But in old age, with the hindsight of subsequent understandings of the war, their story was intended to convey the waste and futile sacrifice it entailed. Thus he told the story of Fromelles:

It was the first time that the Australians had crossed no man’s land on the Western Front and was possibly the most disastrous. And got nothing. They finished up the next day back where they started, with half the division casualties. Those losses were never recovered, ever. I lost a mate that night who has never been seen or heard, nothing of him left at all. He was reported missing for several years, but Harry Fleming must have been blown to pieces in such a way that nothing of him was ever found that could be identified.

For Fred the benefit of this method of making sense of the loss of his mates was that it attained meaning as part of a political critique. Fred was able to direct his grief and anger at clear targets, and he showed little pain when he described and explained the deaths of his friends in these terms. Fred’s political sense of mateship contrasted with the more nationalist meanings that it assumed in the Anzac legend; his story did not conclude that the deaths of his mates purchased a national tradition of loyalty and self-sacrifice.

The loss of many of his closest friends could not have come at a worse time for Fred, who needed all the support he could get when he went into the line. He did not cope at all well with life in the trenches, and his inadequacy as a soldier was a second major theme of his memory of the war. When the battalion first moved into the Somme it was:

[…] a different front line to what we were accustomed to up near Armentières. The shell fire for a start, never, never ceased. Never stopped. It was one constant barrage from both sides. So that was pretty disturbing for a start.51

The bombardment caused terrible casualties and chaos, and it was almost impossible to evacuate the wounded or bury the dead. With the onset of winter it became bitterly cold and conditions got worse. The shelling continued to pulverise the men and the mud, and to uncover rotting corpses. For Fred, one of the most upsetting consequences of the shelling was that he sometimes had to walk on dead and decaying men. He was also ‘scared stiff’. Fred’s memory of his inadequacy as a soldier was evoked by his account of the attack on Polygon Wood in September 1917. Before the attack the Australians were subjected to ‘a merciless barrage’:

The worse that I’d experienced. With little or no protection, only a shell hole, it went on and on. Even an hour seemed an eternity really. So in the darkness of all this I’d got separated from Panton [his lieutenant] and things were, generally speaking, in a bad way […] When our artillery made their attack, I’d lost my rifle, as a matter of fact I’d nearly lost my senses, and I’d lost Panton, and so I just started across no man’s land in a sort of haze.52

Hospitalised after being wounded in the attack, Fred also began to show the first signs of a nervous condition. At the time he received no recognition or treatment for this condition because he did not display the symptoms of a ‘dithering idiot’. After the war his nerves deteriorated, and the condition would produce debilitating physical symptoms and culminate in a nervous breakdown.

Part of Fred’s problem during the war was that he was neither able nor encouraged to express or resolve his feelings of anxiety, vulnerability and inadequacy. Digger friends might have been able to help but his closest mates were dead and, in comparison with Percy Bird and Bill Langham, he does not seem to have received a great deal of support from other soldiers (the fact that he refused to join his brother’s non-combatant unit suggests that his relationship with the men in his unit was closer than he remembered). Although Fred’s fears were shared by many diggers, his feelings of inadequacy were so acute that he could not show them.

Fred’s negative self-image was also reinforced by what he perceived to be the expectation ‘to put up with that sort of thing and carry on’, and by comparisons with other soldiers who seemed to be unaffected by the barrage: ‘I wouldn’t be in the same street as a whole lot of them’. The Australians had a reputation for bravado — Fred recounted ‘the casual everyday sort of way that the Australians went about doing what they had to do’ — and this code of masculine behaviour encouraged Fred to bottle up his feelings and fears. The platoon and the battalion, which were so affirming for Percy Bird and figured prominently in his testimony, were barely mentioned by Fred in the interview because they did not provide the support he required. Whereas Percy Bird and Bill Langham talked with other diggers to transform collective war experiences into relatively safe stories, Fred Farrall remained silent because his experience was so deeply troubling and his masculine self-image so negative, and because he could find no empathetic public audience.53

In contrast, as an old man Fred was able to tell the story of his wartime ‘inadequacy’ and its effects. Recent general histories which showed that Fred’s condition was relatively common, and which Fred read with enthusiasm, helped him to feel that the story of his un-manning was publicly acceptable. The more radical accounts of the soldier as a victim of the folly of war provided a political explanation of his experience. Thus, remembering the war no longer undermined Fred’s manhood and identity. In contrast to his previous silence, and unlike Percy Bird, in our interview Fred focused on conditions on the Western Front and highlighted his own misery and inadequacy. He no longer perceived his trench experiences to be unusual and isolated; rather, he told his story to represent the general experience of soldiers on the Western Front and to make political points about what modern warfare is really like for its participants.

In our interview Fred also represented the war as the first stage in his political conversion. He recalled that this conversion began after the Polygon Wood attack, when he found shelter in a concrete pill box with a mixture of British and Australian soldiers and German prisoners:

[…] lying there and sitting there and standing there quite peacefully. The Germans were as helpful as they could be and co-operative. A couple of miles further up they were carrying on with the job of killing one another as fast as they could. It seemed to me, that was the first time I began to think, ‘Well, what’s this all about? How silly can we be’. Course in the back of my mind was the old propaganda that had been implanted there years before that we were fighting for the British Empire, so it was the right thing to do. But side by side with that was of course, also planted, the thought that, well, we could get on very well with the Germans if we were left alone.54

Like other stories about Fred’s conversion, it is difficult to judge the extent to which this seed of change took root at the time or lay dormant until its postwar political fertilisation. There is no suggestion that Fred expressed his disillusionment in any way during the war when, by his own admission, he was very confused:

I just didn’t know where I was. I had an idea that war and everything connected to it was wrong, but I had no clear opinion on what should be done about it, and I didn’t find that out until, well that didn’t mature or materialise until, probably, fairly late into the ‘20s.55

Although moments of personal doubt or collective disillusionment began this questioning at the time, it seems that the subsequent ‘mature’ understanding caused Fred to highlight memories of the diggers’ opposition to the war and to generalise about it in terms of collective disillusionment (in comparison with Bill Langham who did not generalise his conversion experience in this way). Thus he recalled that of the front-line soldiers, many of whom he believed had enlisted for patriotic reasons, ninety per cent lost their enthusiasm and became anti-war, and he told two stories to support this view. He described a visit to an Australian Army Corps compound towards the end of the war, where he saw men from the 1st Battalion who were ‘in the clink’ because they had ‘walked out of the Hindenburg Line and declared the war off (‘or in other words, they went on strike’). He also recalled a church parade where the men of his own, depleted battalion hurled clods at a general who threatened to send them back into the line just before the Armistice: ‘that was the frame of mind that the soldiers had got into, generally speaking. They didn’t want any more front line, or talk about it’.56

Fred’s stories about the disillusionment of the soldiers were not explained in the usual terms of Australian antipathy towards British commanders. Some of my interviewees would have highlighted the British identity of the general at the church parade, but for Fred national tensions were less important than the anti-war theme. Although Fred did share the common digger hostility to the British headquarters’ staff, when that criticism was part of his remembering it was overlaid by the subsequent political critique of imperialism. Thus he noted that the British government charged the Australians for the use of wartime camps (‘the Australians had gone 10 000 miles to help the home government, and that’s how much they appreciated it’), and he cited recent historians’ claims that British generals used the Australians in the most dangerous sections of the line. Although Fred’s anti-British sentiments intersected with one theme of the Anzac legend, they were not primarily expressed in terms of Australian nationalism. Rather they were part of a broader political critique of imperialism and imperialist war. Fred’s war story was both socialist and internationalist. He argued that the war was fought for the imperial interests of political and military leaders on both sides, and wherever possible he highlighted moments of resistance by the men in the ranks.57

Though national character was not a significant theme of Fred’s war memory (he talked about the war for almost an hour before he was prompted by a question to consider national distinctions), when he did consider the distinctiveness of the Anzacs his analysis intersected with the Anzac legend but made very different meanings. He did not perceive the war in terms of the birth of the nation, and he believed that the diggers’ ‘national character’ derived from the working-class, trade-union strengths of Australian society and the AIF. He explained that because of the influence of trade unionists in the AIF, and of Henry Lawson’s writings about mateship, ‘the Australians had a reputation for being great mates, one in all in, whether you were right or wrong’, and the AIF was ‘by far the most democratic’ army in the war. This characterisation was developed by Fred in an interplay between wartime experience and postwar ideology, in which aspects of his experience became more prominent in his memory over time. He proved his characterisation of the AIF by using evidence from his own wartime experience (the Kangaroo march strikes, the diggers’ refusal to salute officers, and their opposition to the war in 1918), together with citations from recent histories and generalisations from his trade-unionist ideology. The result was an Anzac tradition with a radical inflection, in which digger mateship was expressed against authorities and the war. The staff officers and military policemen, who were recalled by Fred as the main targets of digger hostility, were identified during the interview in terms of their roles rather than their nationality.58

Fred was more ambivalent in his remembering about the relationship between diggers and AIF battalion officers. He described a shift in his own attitude to officers during the war. He was an extremely obedient recruit who believed that officers were ‘like Mohammed’s coffin, halfway to heaven’. But, as the victim of a number of bullying officers, ‘by the time I’d finished in the army, I’d got to the stage where I downgraded them terribly’ (an opinion which he later considered to be wrong, because like everyone else the officers had a job they had to do). Yet he also recalled some officers who treated him well and who were regarded as mates, and that it often ‘depended on the individual’ rather than the rank. He contrasted his relationships with Lieutenant Pye, the son of a millionaire who mixed with the men and understood their problems, with Captain Wilson, who was disliked because he would not ‘come down’ to the ranks and use first name terms, and with Lieutenant Panton, an authoritarian bully whom Fred and two mates planned to kill.59

The ways in which Fred, as an old man, generalised about the relationship between front-line officers and men were affected by a number of intersecting but contradictory traditions. He used Bean’s history to support a claim that many of the Australian officers were working men from the ranks, in contrast with British officers who needed ‘a certain social background’, but then stretched the notion of the egalitarian AIF officer much further than Bean. For example, he emphasised the story of the AIF hero Albert Jacka, a trade unionist who rose from the ranks, because Jacka treated the diggers as equals and shared their dislike for higher authority: ‘he had all the characteristics that were frowned upon by the high command, by the generals’. Without recognising the tensions within his own analysis, Fred also highlighted the issue of class, and recalled that the relative equality between officers and men in the line was not perpetuated out of the line, where officers had better pay and conditions and more freedom, and ‘lived a different sort of life’:

But generally speaking officers were officers and they knew it, and the rank and file knew they were the rank and file. Just the same as employers look upon the workers.60

Fred’s account of the ‘democratic AIF’ shows how even within one man’s memory that label could be pulled in various political directions, using different ideological frameworks. The account shows how the variety and contradictions of that aspect of Fred’s Anzac experience were smoothed out and generalised in his remembering through the use of both mainstream and radical traditions, and how easy it would be to plunder Fred’s story to make one or other statement about the AIF.

Although Fred relished stories about the independent, anti-authoritarian diggers, he was critical of their larrikin reputation. Because of his isolated and rather puritanical rural upbringing, Fred was an innocent and straight-laced soldier:

You know I can say this, and I’m not the only one. That all the time I was in the army I never smoked, although they were dished out free. I never drank, other than a few spoonfuls of rum, at one time on the Somme. I was never in a brothel and I never gambled. I never played two-up, crown and anchor, or anything else. Or poker. None of these things.61

In our interview Fred was critical of diggers who did over-indulge in these pastimes, such as the Australians who got ‘as full as googs, kicked up as much noise as they could, or laid in the gutter’ on the Anzac Day march through London in 1919. In comparison with these men Albert Jacka was Fred’s perfect hero because he was ‘a man of very high morals who didn’t drink, smoke or swear’. Yet Fred believed that among the diggers such morality was a handicap for men without Jacka’s warrior status, because more larrikin standards of behaviour were the norm. Like Percy Bird, Fred felt excluded by that norm, and this may be another reason why he was unable to use the digger identity as a resource to help him overcome his feelings of military inadequacy.

The public reputation of the larrikin Anzacs also made Fred feel uncomfortable. He was aggrieved that the drunks at the London march were ‘the ones that would be seen, possibly, as representing Australians’. In retrospect, Fred stressed — in terms very similar to those of C.E.W. Bean — that the ‘doubtful characters’ were a rather unsavoury minority in the AIF and that his own behaviour was more typical. He was thus especially critical of the ‘Anzacs’ television serial, which he thought played up the ‘don’t care type, larrikin type’ that came to be best known in the AIF. He concluded: ‘now a lot of people wouldn’t ever believe that there was anybody in the AIF that didn’t do that. But there would be a larger number that would be the same as me and some probably better’.

Whether or not larrikin behaviour was predominant among the diggers, Fred’s insistence was partly an attempt to overcome his lingering feeling of exclusion and to define his own identity as closer to the norm. It may also have been fuelled by the moral responsibility that had become a major ingredient of his personal political philosophy. Refusing to salute an officer was admirable because it asserted a particular attitude to authority; getting drunk made no such statement and was politically irresponsible. The development of Fred’s radical political philosophy, and the ways in which it helped him to compose his war experience in more positive terms, need to be situated in the context of postwar Australian society and politics. Fred Farrall’s war story was thus influenced almost as much by his return to Australia as by his experiences in Belgium and France.62

The aim of these three wartime memory biographies has been to use the rich, personal detail of three Australian soldiers’ stories in order to understand how the men comprehended and articulated their war experience, and to explore the interactions between personal war experiences and identities and the collective identities of the diggers and the Anzac legend. Even three lives can evoke some of the variety of the Anzac experience. For each of these men there were very different contexts, motivations and pressures for joining up, and they remembered enlistment in very different ways. War service in the artillery or the infantry, in the front line or as a noncombatant, made for contrasting experiences of war and different identities as soldiers. Within the AIF, Bill Langham relished the masculine comradeship of the diggers and participated in the larrikin lifestyle of digger culture, but both Percy Bird and Fred Farrall were ill at ease with that lifestyle.

The experience of battle and trench warfare had the greatest impact on all three men, and posed the most difficult problems for the composure of military masculinity. They dealt with those difficulties in different ways, depending on the nature of their combat experiences, the availability of material and emotional support, and the suitability of public narratives with which they could articulate combat. The particular public of the diggers was one important support network, and a resource for the recognition and articulation of combat experience. Yet while Bill Langham was sustained by his mates, and found in digger culture a language to make a comparatively positive and affirming sense of the war, Percy Bird suffered the loss of that resource when he was taken out of the line, and for Fred Farrall — who had lost his best mates in the early battles of 1916 — the apparent self-confidence and competence of the diggers simply reinforced his own feelings of masculine inadequacy.

The official Anzac legend that was fashioned during the war by Charles Bean and other publicists, and which drew upon digger culture and reshaped it in more respectable ways, provided another set of public meanings and identities which the Australians used to articulate their war experience. Percy Bird was uncomfortable with digger culture, but the proud Anzac identity of his unit and the AIF helped him to feel positive about his role and identity as a soldier. For Bill Langham, the wartime Anzac legend provided general interpretative categories to make sense of stories about the quality and effectiveness of the Australian soldiers, but it also made it difficult for him to articulate aspects of his war — such as his conversion experience — that did not fit the legend. For Fred Farrall, the gap between the legend’s characterisation of the Anzacs and his own experiences was so great that he felt utterly inadequate as a soldier, and was unable to express his feelings or articulate a positive military identity.

The memory biographies also show that the process of composing military identities did not end with the war. The war identities and memories of Australian soldiers who survived to return to Australia would be shaped and redefined by their postwar experiences as returned servicemen, by the new publics of postwar civilian life and ex-servicemen’s culture, and by changes in the definition of the digger and the legend of Anzac.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson