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Aussie diggers' pen as mighty as their sword

  • 17 December 2014

Many historians argue that the First World War is not yet over, and indeed, speaking personally, the conflict has always been part of my consciousness, for my Grandfather saw action in Belgium and France, and the framed photograph of the uniformed young man I could hardly recognise is one of my earliest memories.

Grandfather was lucky: nearly 40 per cent of the Australian male population enlisted, and the casualty rate ran at 65 per cent.

All these decades later a book has just surfaced from my motley collection. It was published in 1920, when Grandfather was rebuilding his life after his repatriation in 1919. I bought this book at a second-hand shop in Kings Cross, Sydney, in 1965, and gave it to him. So a note on the flyleaf tells me.

The book’s title is simply Aussie, and this copy is battered and stained, badly foxed; it has clearly been in wars of its own. It is a bound collection of ‘the Diggers’ own paper of the battlefield, wholly written, illustrated and printed in the field by members of the AIF’ There had been a precedent: British soldiers of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters discovered a printing press in early 1916, during the battle of Ypres, and started to produce the Wipers Times: the BBC made a TV film about the paper in 2013.

But Aussie was different. It was edited by one Lieutenant Phillip Harris, who had taken a printing press with him when he went to war in November 1914. The press was used for various purposes, and then in 1918 began to print Aussie, which as Harris said, ‘was not a paper done for the Diggers, but by them. That’s why it reflects their spirit.’

The cover of each issue bore a pen-and-ink drawing of ‘Aussie,’ who wore the uniform, complete with slouch hat and a gun slung over his shoulder. But his head cleverly forms the map of Australia: his neck is Western Australia, while his chin is the Northern Territory, and his nose is Northern Queensland. In the Christmas issue of 1918, Aussie has flung his hat in the air, his rifle has gone, and he is looking upwards with a grin on his face. The drawing bears the message Next Year At Home.

Harris and his team, despite a multitude of difficulties, succeeded in bringing the periodical out every month of 1918, and it continued as a monthly until 1929.