Digger Smith and Australia’s Great War

In Sydney’s Chinatown, at a trestle table remainder bookstall, I found an illustrated hardcover titled ‘Digger Smith & Australia’s Great War’. It is a general history of WWI which uses the quirky device of relating the era only through contemporaries named Smith (or Schmidt). So broad is the cast of characters – soldiers, senior officers, politicians, clergy, mothers, pilots, veterans, lobbyists, nurses – that the book does succeed in showcasing the sheer complexity of the whole venture, in a relevant sense.

Not being able to put the book down, I am struck by how starkly it contrasts with a current climate of jingoism which draws heavily – if not centrally, when convenient – on the legends of the Gallipoli campaign. We are subject to this flag-draped, quasi-religious cult of sentimentality which generally steers well clear of any actual war history as such. In a vague, infantile opposition to this cult there also exists an equally simplistic, pithy school of so-called realists, themselves wont to dismiss the complexities of the Australian WWI experience. Both camps demonstrate lazy thinking, if not outright oafishness in the case of the former.

Of course, there’s a hell of a lot more to it than this. Author Peter Stanley is a military historian and is finely tuned to that aspect of the histories here, providing exact locations of battles and skirmishes. He is not always so good with more abstract concepts; regarding Australians on furlough in Britain, he writes “Australians saw Britain (‘England’) as ‘home’”. A sweeping statement, erroneous (by his own following accounts) but worth addressing as it relates to concepts of imperial involvement in the first place. A state of ‘British’ identity as an all-encompassing explanation is a wrongheaded assumption beloved by many within the dismissive, non-jingoistic camp. But the jingoists, if they actually examined a statement like that, would find it heretical, given the nature of their version of the war which seems to include the Australians as an expeditionary sporting association representing the country on some competitive national level. Listen to any politician speak on the matter and they always put it that way.  Given the size of the force, and the history of the country, there could only be a spectrum of ‘national’ concepts amongst the men of the A.I.F. A man who had emigrated from Britain as a child may understandably have had a different mindset from a  man of old colonial, even Georgian, Australian-born lineage. No doubt there were gradations of ‘dual identity’, and a median band of such identity amongst the sons and grandsons of migrants, and of more established Australians and migrants alike. But to simply state that the Edwardian Australian automatically attributed a sense of home to a distant country (and this all after the 19th Century Nativist/nationalist/republican movements) is to miss the whole ‘point’ of empire in the first place. Three generations after World War One, imperial vestiges were still remnant in Australia. It is easy to forget how innocuous they were, especially in this climate of deadly earnest, pseudo-political ‘identity’ fixation. The first time that I drank in a bar (on my last day of school, in a bowling club) it was under a portrait of the queen. The framed portrait dangling there was a formality, perhaps a vague anachronism, but it wasn’t seriously regarded as being ‘foreign’ or offensive. It is hard to convey this subtlety now, after the thousands of kilometres of editorials printed on the subject; likewise after the buffoonery of the conservative Prime Minister Howard and his pointless fetish for presenting himself as some sort of ‘neo-royalist’, whatever that sideshow was all supposed to mean.  But back to WWI; the identity of nation AND imperial member did of course prevail, though this by no means translated as a simple, uniform formula. ‘Digger Smith’ prompted me to revisit the overtly populist verse of C.J. Dennis. Here is the response of the titular Ginger Mick, in his Melbourne larrikin delivery, to the outbreak of the war:

“’E sez to me, “Wot’s orl this flamin’ war?

The papers torks uv nothin’ else but scraps.

An wot’s ole England got snake-‘eaded for?

An ‘ wot’s the strength uv callin’ out our chaps?”

‘E sez to me, “Struth! Don’t she rule the sea?

Wot does she want wiv us?” ‘e sez to me.”

Hardly the reaction of a flag-blinded acolyte of empire, Ginger Mick’s curt response to the war follows an introduction in which he’s been brawling with a drunken toff rival in a Melbourne Chinatown restaurant. Mick is the archetypal urban hooligan but the enshrined popularity of the text is significant. He goes on to become another archetype: the Australian soldier of WWI.

One of my own two veteran great-grandfathers was himself the son of Scottish migrants, but the loyalist call-to-arms was apparently not so strong that he didn’t enlist until 1916, after Gallipoli when, as Stanley clearly illustrates, the pressure to enlist was often insurmountable, (the Gallipoli campaign is afforded 10 pages in a 333 page book, which perhaps demonstrates just how Gallipoli-crazed contemporary Australian dialogue has become). Nonetheless, the concept of ‘old country’ could not have held for every man among the legions of Irish-Australians in uniform (despite a typical and general inclusion of the Irish diaspora among the British and allied forces), nor for those of miscellaneous lineage (American, Scandinavian) and certainly not for the German Australians who enlisted in the ranks, or tried to. Indeed, Stanley’s thorough interest Australia’s SCHMIDTS sets the book apart; the narratives of WWI often don’t take the German-Australian experience into full account. Had there never been a war, with its accompanying chorus of witch-hunting imperial jingoists – often self-interested cowards who used the convenient German ‘threat’ to ruin countrymen who happened to have German ancestry –  there would today be a great many more Australian towns, streets and people with German names.  Brief accounts from my grandfather of partial German lineage, are recalled by me as echoes as the crazy stigma and the national amnesia which followed.

Moving on from the quagmire of ‘identity’, Stanley writes in detail of a home front which never comes to mind in our own era of awful purple speeches and bleary, plastic-flag jingoism. We are so bludgeoned with the retrospective rhetoric of “sacrifice” that we’re in danger of losing sight of what that actually meant to real people.  Imagine a society where a trip to the local shops resulted in miserable tension between the women of families with men away at war, and the women of families with men at home. Imagine letters from the recruiting board, demanding to know why you were not in the trenches yourself, and then having to justify yourself by informing the authorities that your brothers were at war, or that you had six children to support, by way of an apology. Image the blunt courage and obvious moral intelligence of one Mr Smyth , a thirty seven year old railway carriage builder, who upon receiving just such a letter of demand, answered with “ I am a little surprised at the form of the letter as I am not aware that Conscription of any kind has been passed yet “. Stanley affirms the seething resentment resulting from the unsuccessful propositions for Conscription. Even before that particular turmoil, friends fell out forever over the issue of enlisting in the first place. Letters provide details of neighbours, old chums, cousins and brothers disowned by men at war, all previous goodwill soured and ruined by the expectations of military service. So much for the endless speeches we must all endure on “the values of mateship. . . etc. etc.”

Then there are facts regarding the unique military culture of the A.I.F. Australians had the highest proportion of deserters of any force in the war, and apparently by a long lead at that. Australians did not murder their miscreants or neurotics with firing squads, as every other army did as a matter of course, nor did they allow the British the chance to do so. And after 1916 especially, the Australian forces rewarded competence with field commissions going to men who would never, ever be considered as suitable officers in other armies, simply on account of their civilian status.

If contemporary Australia were to revise and expand its often one-eyed take on its own Great War history, it might find some unexpected avenues and take a real interest in the bigger picture.

Will Swan


golden blue sky, bared

stropped razor across the pint’s foam face

ten thousand kettle-heads are boiling


Will Swan

Keyser Söze goes jeans shopping

rain made of me a tiger moth, put me under an awning
tin dripping, dust-wet cobwebs long deserted, rippling in the rain wind
their spiders migrated with their stagecoaches and families
kid spiders and suitcases and Missus Spider in her best
rain beat a tattoo and splashed down the gutter as though
there were no men or women on this wet, rock, grey, sky planet
just the soaking grass and the peeling paint of our pipes
the man-turned-tiger moth looked down to the carpet
saw faded black jeans
‘Bluegrass’ jeans from Target, cheap and reliable
then the realization it was time for one of life’s kick-starts:
new jeans time, mundane and renewing
the slapstick of the change room
socks poking out like a clown
walking into Target, a concession crow goes stalking
through the brittle sodium lights and they’re cawing
“price check to homewares” over the top of us
like the girls of Bomber Command, but that war is over
and this is Target, and there are targets everywhere
I immediately conspire to the break the First Rule
that is: I consider buying some jeans which are not black
this never ever goes any further than the fitting room
but I insist on the rebellion
try on some $15 (…$15!) straight legs in an industrial silver-cola colour
they are as obvious and dumb as a gallows
with all the panache of a sex offender
that’s where your $15 goes
so the crow slumps back to menswear
“Security to maternity wear”
here’s a pair on a rack
not Bluegrass, and I came here specifically for Bluegrass
and not cheap, but still. . .
(I can NEVER find any jeans that are just right)
back to the fitting rooms, the big plastic token is handed to me
as a token gesture, and I thank the staff lady
and I almost say “wish me luck!”
now the stupidity of standing in that mirror
in boxer shorts and socks
but what’s this? These jeans fit!
not puffy bladder pouch, no absurd tightness
no knee bulges and just overlong enough
just well-fitting coal black jeans
the melancholy tiger moth flies off with the crow and
Keyser Söze emerges from the fitting room
hands back the big plastic token, magnanimous
Keyser Söze makes his way to the checkout queue
and for all the length of the main queue, the shelf is stacked
with bags of gummy lollies and
‘As Seen On TV’ shredding utensils and
enormous Toblerone bars at $10 each
here and there, among the queuers, someone hesitates
and claims something from the stacked shelf
clutching their prizes in posies, then
directed to a bull run of checkouts
where Keyser Söze cheerfully declines a bag
gets a one dollar coin of change and a docket
sallies forth

Will Swan


Protestantism isn’t really a virus, like some say

I reckon it’s a latency, like alcoholism

You have to activate it

For some, it’s a matter of standing on the planet’s crust

Mugging out into cold space, not liking the view

Then turning back to the planet and applying

The trowel of terrific self-confabulation to

Anyone in the immediate vicinity

For others, it’s merely a case of looking at that example from the crib-

Why wouldn’t you accept the model?


They’re not all bad guys – like any general grouping

They’re given a bad name by their genuinely unhinged representatives

Though it is also the rank-and-file who often grate the gentiles

With the concessions of their imagery, their language:

All the talk of sheep and flocks and shepherds

Once employed to win over the heathen or papist peasants

Doesn’t really translate very well in a world of telephones and aeroplanes

By contrast, the Catholics’ graven images might as well be Hindu figures

Pieces of anthropic architecture; the paint may be peeling

But they ain’t going nowhere.

Protestants, being among the midwives of modernity

Seem like Himalayan trekkers, trying to erect their tents

In shredding winds on the mountainside.

Then, of course, there’s the heart of the matter

When we say “heart” of the matter

We don’t mean the beating human heart

We mean the beating human pants

And the problems of containing those beating pants.

These being insurmountable, the Protestants have

A lot to ‘do’ with their lives

And a lot to say about other people’s lives


That they are repressed is not the issue

Sexual abandon is hardly a big deal anyway

The point is, the sexual repression only serves to represent

A terrible discomfort with being an animal in the first place

And Protestants are animals who don’t wish to be animals

So, even leaving sexploits out of the equation

It’s hard to picture them just lying around

Stretching, scratching, cracking their joints

Meandering in golden half-sleep

Or pissing over red sheaves of bark while

Watching the burly meat ants marauding their sneakers


The Anti-Protestant?

Not a ghostly Catholic, ecstatic with a higher pitch of incorporeal angst

Not an infidel or Moslem or animist of Borneo, no.

The Anti-Protestant rises in his simian fugue

Flips on Pink Floyd, urinates a tirade

Flushes, moans, licks up a minty spliff

Eats an All Day Breakfast some time around noon

Cycles out to the beach. Later on meets up with some dudes

At afternoon happy hour, talks Freda Kahlo and Warren Zevon

All night with a woman, over rounds of beer

Probably goes home with her.


Will Swan


Band Photos

If you haven’t posed for them, then your brother or flatmate has

And just what IS THAT expression?

Not quite delicate enough to be Brando

Not quite damaged enough to be Lemmy

In velodromes and industrial lanes and graveyards

Winching THAT expression into place

Staring down the lens, sort of saying:

“We’re outside your society, the lean hounds run wild

But we want you to look at us, will you!”

Even if they play a less-than-mean bass

In fact, especially if they DO play a less-than-mean bass

That LOOK carries the day

Those dull piggy eyes trying to muster laser energy

To convey the artist’s mysticism

Bon Scott swagger, booze-slingin’ outlaws

Then after the shoot, it’s off to Bi Lo for some

Detergent, toilet paper, frozen block of lasagna

Loaf of white bread


Will Swan