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Aussie diggers' pen as mighty as their sword


Cartoon from 'Aussie'

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. All proceeds in peace time went towards building what became the Australian War Memorial. Every issue of the paper is crammed with a variety of pieces: cartoons, drawings, poetry, tributes to Australian writers such as Banjo Paterson and C.J. Dennis, and jokes about the diggers being on leave in France: Grandfather said the only French he ever learned was for the girls: Voulez-vous promener avec moi ce soir? Sure enough, there is a cartoon about Voulay vous. And translations such as Tray beans, the Diggers’ version of the French for very good.

A soldier’s life is usually one of bursts of brief action followed by extended periods of drudgery and boredom, and never was this more true than during this dreadful war of attrition that dragged on apparently interminably. One huge problem is always that of the necessity of maintaining morale; Harris and his team succeeded magnificently in this, and were indefatigable in their efforts, travelling long distances in appalling circumstances in order to collect contributions, grappling with formidable distribution problems, and scouring bomb sites for paper and equipment: they once found ten tons of paper in an Armentieres cellar. Their reward came in the flow of contributions and in the paper’s popularity: circulation grew to 60,000.

Aussie seems very dated, inevitably, and often the contributions are clumsily predictable. One cartoon, for example, concerns the 1918 conscription referendum, in which soldiers had to vote. Returning Officer: In what State did you enlist, Private? Private: In a state of drunkenness, sir!

But none of this matters. What matters is that these soldiers, bearing terrible burdens, were able to celebrate and practise creativity in the midst of destruction. For a little time they could believe that the pen was mightier than the sword, and in doing so were able to hurl their own spears at death.

Gillian Bouras

Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.


Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, war, World War I, AIF, war literature



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Existing comments

The Australian soldiers in WW 1 were virtually all volunteers except for a small cadre of mainly officers who were there for training purposes prior to the commencement of hostilities. They were far less hidebound by "tradition" and class consciousness than the Brits. That is probably why they produced people like Monash and Jacka VC. Wonderful little piece of social history there, Gillian. Thank you.

Edward Fido | 16 December 2014  

It's an old saying "the pen is mightier than the sword" and I believe it is. Built in 1871, our local School of Arts building houses our library which was about to be put to the sword by our Council. They were looking at selling it off to a commercial enterprise but people power, in the form of the pen, prevailed this afternoon. Not much to do with WW1 but a battle nevertheless. Tray beans, Gillian.

Pam | 16 December 2014  

Gillian, I wrote to you once and said how valuable your writing is to me, and to all of us. I still never miss your pieces, and I enjoy and learn from each and every one. Happy Christmas!

Pauline Small | 17 December 2014  

Thanks for the article. Stories and cartoons by first world war soldiers filtered into popular culture throughout the 20th century and are still relevant. I bought either the same or a similar book in the 1960s and was absorbed by it. I will now hunt it out again.

Robert Smith | 17 December 2014  

Wouldn't it be great if this could be reproduced today as part of the 100-year commemorations of WW1

Pat | 17 December 2014  

"Practising creativity in the midst of destruction". What resilience human nature can have in the face of great adversity! Thanks Gillian for your article; I must say had not heard of "Aussie", but certainly know it now. Your article has moved me to thumb through an old book that I have, only an arms length away, entitled "Khaki and Green", though a WW2 book about The Australian Army at home and overseas.

John Whitehead | 17 December 2014  

Oh, Gillian! What a perfect tribute to the human spirit and the need for us all (indeed) to have both humour and a place for reflection within the darkest of times. And especially now on the eve of the ANZAC centenary for which jingoistic politicians are already jostling for unmerited associated "glory"! I was intrigued you mentioned the Sherwood Foresters because in an earlier incarnation - Daniel DOYLE - my Irish great x 3 grand-father from Dromore in County Down fought and died under the command of the Duke of Wellington at Fuentes de Oñoro in western Spain during the Peninsular Wars against theFrench on May 5th, 1811. HQ was Nottingham (of course) where my grandfather's paternal grand-mother Eliza DOYLE was born. She died in Carwell near Rylstone in 1854 after giving birth to 15 children, 13 of whom survived! I'm off track here - but that's called resonance - out of your reflective historical piece on "Aussie". My maternal grand-father had tales from his time in France asking for two ("twa oeufs") - receiving three (trois oeufs) - and giving one back - having achieved his intention!

Jim KABLE | 17 December 2014  

Thank you so much for your article on creativity in the midst of war.I poured over "Khaki and green"as a child because of the lovely drawings.Australian soldiers are not always uncivilised louts.Witness Parer's beautiful film which included my Dad's unit in P.N.G. In W.W 2.

Anne Ramsay | 19 December 2014  

Another thought provoking piece showing as usual an individual and novel view . Thank you Gillian. Keep finding those gems.

Maggie | 12 January 2015  

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