PostHeaderIcon Diggers True Blue

Diggers True Blue

First published in The Australian 26 April 2008

Once again, Australians have gathered in their thousands at Gallipoli and, as we have seen in recent years, a younger generation has taken over from those who lived through twentieth century wars.

Some opponents of their pilgrimage claim it glorifies war. Others blame politicians for overemphasising the commemoration of Gallipoli. One commentator even argued that the behaviour and character of the diggers was nothing more than 'a performance' to placate the audience back home.

Despite such claims that their faith and their interest is misplaced, young Australians remain steadfast in their view

At Gallipoli in 2006, one of the young explained quite clearly what it meant to them, telling a journalist, 'Its not about empire. Its about us.'

And they are right. The World War 1 diggers run deep in our society, right back to the convict era..

No connection is generally recognised between the prisoners and their military heirs but evidence for the link is not hard to find.

The reluctance of the World War I diggers to salute is one obvious example. Raised in an egalitarian society that emphasised respect for the person rather than the badge they wore, why would they? But behind the boys stood thousands of grandfathers, and in some cases fathers, who had too often been compelled to do so. The Rules and Regulations of the penal settlement at Port Arthur, for instance, stipulated:

284. They [the convicts] will invariably touch their caps on passing an Officer, and are never to address any Officer or remain in an apartment where one is present, without taking off their caps; they are also to stand up when any of the principal Officers enter their messroom or other apartment, or the exercise-yards; this order also applies to Officers of the Army and Navy, dressed in uniform, or known to be such.

With that cultural history, any self-respecting Australian would have to be dragged to salute.

Their irreverence drew extra strength from another quarter too. We are ignorant that approximately six thousand of the bad boys of the British army were transported to Australia as convicts. They helped create the template for how to behave in the army.

C.E.W. Bean described a quality of the diggers as 'a sort of supressed resentfulness, never very serious but yet noticeable, of the whole system of officers.' Bean would not have known about the soldier convicts and would have been loath to link them with the diggers if he had. Court-martialled in the far reaches of the Empire, their offences included not only desertion (an ambiguous offence since it often involved visiting a wife or parents), but other military 'crimes' directly relevant to Bean's observation, such as - mutinous conduct; striking a sergeant; striking two sergeants; insubordination.

Ex-soldiers like these were spread throughout the shiploads of convicts transported to New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land and Western Australia. Their subversive message was disseminated on the ships and in the settlements of the penal colonies. It permeated the culture of Australia. As the English poet John Masefield recorded about the men at Gallipoli, '...they didn't care a damn for anybody.'

An even more profound link between convicts and diggers than their notorious irreverence is revealed in the description of his troops by General Monash in 1918.

Describing the Australian soldier, Monash said, 'Psychologically, he was easy to lead but difficult to drive...Taking him all in all, the Australian solder was, when understood, not difficult to handle. But he required a sympathetic handling, which appealed to his intelligence and satisfied his instinct for a "square deal"...'

In other words, the Australians were not like British troops who were trained to obey an order 'do or die'. Australian soldiers were resistant to direction - to orders. They would only deign to obey when they judged the 'request' made sense. And respect for the man who was asking was essential

Compare Monash on his troops with the comments of an Australian squatter about his convict and ex-convict workforce in the 1840s.

From his run at the Darling Downs, C.P. Hodgson said, 'They must be led, not driven; they must be humoured, not ordered; for knowing their own worth they will only exert themselves after [according to] the treatment they receive.'

The diggers' qualities were not a performance. They were not a 'construct' created by peer pressure and expectations at home. The diggers were organic to Australian society, home-grown products of the convict era.

They carried in them the cultural influences of that time, as well as the human qualities of their fathers and grandfathers - the convicts. Any close study of the crimes of the latter, not to mention their behaviour in the penal colonies, reveals that they excelled in wit, daring, opportunism, the ability to keep their nerve, the courage not to weep, the stoicism to endure and the determination to find a way when everything was ranged against them.

Their boys combined these qualities with a joyous devil-may-care 'lightness of being' that was the legacy of those who understood the difference between captivity and freedom. Some called this latter quality 'larrikinism'.

Ignorance of our history provokes these disagreements about the importance of the World War 1 diggers. They reveal us as victims of the social amnesia created by shame about our years as a penal colony which caused us to cover up what happened during that time.

It was an induced shame, created by people who wanted to end transportation, but it was real. As a consequence it became impossible to discuss our penal foundations, let alone identify as a convict family. People stopped talking about convicts. They were glossed over in history books and dropped from community celebrations. Eventually, memory of what they were really like was lost.

With that loss went our ability to see the link to the diggers. In turn, the soldiers receive their emphasis partly because of the historical vacuum created by silence about the men who were transported..

'Its about us,' say young Australians gathering at Gallipoli. Too right it is. And don't let anyone tell you differently.

© Babette Smith 2008
Babette Smith is the author of Australia's Birthstain, the startling legacy of the convict era