The Digger: the image of the Australian soldier in his own writings

by Georgia Appleby*

Although the official birth of the Australian nation occurred in 1901 at Federation, a national identity remained dormant until the Anzacs stepped onto the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915. Despite the abysmal failure of the campaign, the Australian forces came to be known as some of the fiercest and most courageous fighters, and the men themselves were not afraid to brag about it.

Newspapers and periodicals published in the field were popular in the First AIF as light reading, and featured writings by soldiers that embodied and helped to promote the lively digger image and the fighting abilities of the Australian soldiers. The journal of the 22nd battalion, Twenty-Second’s Echo, typified this attitude.  The 22nd battalion considered themselves excellent fighters, and celebrated the fact in their publication:

[T]he Aussies came—a dinkum lot;
The Kaiser got a fright.
Young Willie cried out ‘ach mein gott!’
‘They’re devils these for fight.’

He counted up the divvies there,
And each battalion reckoned.
One unit drove him to despair,
It was the Twenty-Second. (15 April 1918, p.7)

This example also illustrates the distinctive colloquial language of the digger, shared by many Australian soldiers.  Dinkum is used here as an adjective meaning ‘reliable, genuine, honest, true’; first recorded in Australian English in 1908, this term was used often during the war years. Divvy is an abbreviation of a military unit, the ‘division’. This distinctive use of the vernacular is also evident in a story found in Aussie: the Australian Soldiers’ Magazine (an Australian trench journal produced on the Western Front in 1918), which noted that outside French bars and cafes patronised by diggers would be the sign: ‘English spoken here—Australian understood.’ Australian soldiers took pride in this unique speech, and it quickly became part of the digger image and identity.

According to this stereotypical image of the Australian soldier, the typical digger was known to be a heavy drinker, brawler, and womaniser, who managed to fight a war in his spare time.

This First World War cartoon captures the stereotypical image of the Australian soldier, as well as his humour

 

A telling example of this is seen in a piece in Honk, another magazine produced by the soldiers, titled ‘The Plan of Campaign’:

To visit Leicester Lounge.
To climb the Pyramids.
To drink beer.
To shoot the Kaiser.
To drink more beer.
To capture Constantinople.
To raid the Sultan’s Harem.
To drink more beer.
To flirt with French girls.
To return home covered with medals, and
To drink more beer.  (No. 11, 7 December 1915)

 

 

While this example is not an accurate picture of the real Australian experience of the First World War, it is indicative of the distinctive humour of the Australian soldier and his ability to laugh in the face of adversity and hardship.

*Georgia Appleby is an Honours student in the School of History, College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU.

For more on some of the language of Australian soldiers during the First World War, see our blog on C.E.W. Bean.