by Amanda Laugesen
During the First World War, soldiers who served overseas used and developed a great deal of slang. Much attention has been devoted to studying this slang (see for example, A.G. Pretty’s ‘Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms used in the A.I.F.’), but we know far less of the words of the home front. While those on the home front knew the words of war to some extent, as this language was reported on in the press and found in letters sent home from soldiers, there was also a vocabulary distinctive to the Australian home front experience.
The First World War in Australia had a significant impact on the home front. Large numbers of soldiers enlisted and left Australia, many of whom never returned. Families across Australia struggled with the anxiety of a loved one gone to fight, or the grief of a lost son, father, brother, or friend. Australia’s first significant military engagement was Gallipoli (for words from Gallipoli, see here), and large numbers of Australian lives were lost. From 1916, the day of the Australian (Anzac) landing, 25 April, was commemorated on what became known as Anzac Day. In the first few years after 1915, it was sometimes known as Gallipoli Day. Anzac Day services were held, Anzac buttons were sold to raise funds for the soldiers, and Anzac Day marches marked the occasion.
The war was divisive for the Australian community, particularly in the fierce debates held over whether or not conscription should be introduced to address the need for more soldiers. Britain introduced conscription in January 1916, and New Zealand in May 1916. The government of Billy Hughes (sometimes referred to during the war as the Little Digger) attempted to introduce conscription but two referendums on the issue – one held in October 1916 and another in December 1917 – saw it rejected. Those who opposed the introduction of conscription were known as the antis. Political opposition to the war and to government actions taken during the war, especially from those who held radical left-wing views (and who were often referred to derisively as red-raggers), led to government crack-downs and censorship.
One of the most hated figures in Australian society during the war was the man who failed to enlist. A variety of terms came to be used of him. These include cold foot and cold footer, terms that imply cowardice, and shirker and slacker, terms that imply an aversion to hard work and fighting. Those who objected to the war were conscientious objectors, often abbreviated to conchy or C.O. Men who weren’t in uniform were often given a white feather, seen to symbolise cowardice. Feathers were sometimes given to men who were in fact soldiers wounded or on leave, or ex-soldiers, as this quotation from an Australian newspaper suggests:
The idiotic practice of indiscriminately distributing white feathers appears to afford a peculiar pleasure to some people who have impudently taken on themselves the role of judging who should enlist for active service. If through an unfortunate lack of brains, this appears to them an effective means of aiding the recruiting movement, they might at least make enquiries as to whether their victims had not already offered to fight for King and country. (Hamilton Spectator, 2 August 1915, p. 4)
The vocabulary of the home front during the First World War attests to its impact in two significant areas. The need to grieve for those soldiers who never returned created a language of commemoration. Related to this were the strong emotions towards the war and towards those who didn’t enlist which created a language of censure.