G’day, Digger!

Fellers of Australier,

Blokes an’ coves an’ coots,

Shift yer bloody carcases,

Move yer bloody boots.

Gird yer bloody loins up,

Get yer bloody gun,

Set the bloody enermy

An’ watch the buggers run.

C. J. DENNIS, The Austra-Bloody-Laise

And what about Archie?

Michael had been right about the National Archives in Canberra. It was almost embarrassingly simple to download a copy of Archie’s military dossier, though decoding the twenty-page file of multicolored forms, peppered with rubber stamps and minutely annotated in often unreadable handwriting, would have challenged an Egyptologist.

Troop ship leaving Australia, 1916

Poring over these documents with a magnifying glass, I did discover that, on October 7, 1916, Archie boarded His Majesty’s Australian Transport Ceramic with five hundred other volunteers, for the voyage to Britain.

In a ritual that became familiar for all passenger ships leaving Australia, hundreds of relatives and friends gathered on the dock, each clutching one end of a long colored paper streamer held by a loved one on board. Pulling away, the ship stretched the streamers until they parted, the torn ends fluttering into the murky water of the harbor—a foretaste, though none could know it, of the mud and slush of the Somme.

By the standards of troop transportation, the Ceramic was superior. Only four years old, Belfast-built, she had speed enough to outrun German submarines, and two 4.7-inch guns to defend herself. All the same, the voyage was no tropical cruise. More than sixty years later, I came to Britain in almost the same way, creeping across southern oceans in a ship that seemed barely to move. Archie took even longer—forty-six days, against our thirty. We went east, stopping in Fiji, Acapulco, Miami, and both ends of the Panama Canal. The Ceramic headed west, along the hard-luck route dictated by places where they could take on coal: around the southern coast of Australia, across the Indian Ocean to Colombo, then through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, or alternatively, via Capetown and Sierra Leone, but in both cases up the Atlantic coast of France to dock in Plymouth.

“We have to put our watches back about twenty minutes every day,” wrote one soldier. “They alter the time on the ship at midnight so we get that much longer in bed.”As each degree of longitude added a little to darkness and deducted it from the next day’s dawn, Archie may have felt, as I had, a sense of Europe creeping over him like a thrilling sickness. He would have lain sleepless at night in his stifling bunk, only to nod off during the day—probably during droning lectures designed to keep out of mischief the wilder element among the volunteers.

The behavior of the Aussies rattled British officers. “They acted as if they were on holiday,” said one—which, to many Australians, they were. Historian James Curran points out that

foreign wars have performed a valuable historical purpose in closing the cultural distance between Australia and the world. Between 1914 and 1919, Australian soldiers visited well-known tourist destinations such as Colombo, Cairo, London, Paris, Edinburgh, Belgium and Rome. At various stages they trained in the shadow of archetypal tourist landmarks such as the pyramids at Giza and Stonehenge. They documented their travels for those back home, bought postcards, took photos and collected souvenirs.

Some volunteers had been itinerant shearers or fruit pickers in civilian life. To them, the army was a handy way to see the world at government expense. Others had migrated to Australia and looked on enlistment as a free ticket back home. Some were criminals. Every military unit attracts bad characters, but the AIF had more than most. Plenty of petty thieves recognized the opportunities for larceny in the confusion of war. Most of these volunteered without coercion, though some did so under pressure from a judge who offered the choice of enlistment or prison.

Boxing match on board Ceramic

Seldom having taken an order in their lives, these men sneered at military discipline. Each troop ship had a prison, or “clink.” They were never empty. Fights were common. Sometimes officers exploited enmities, giving two men boxing gloves and letting them duke it out for the entertainment of the rest, but generally the fights were bloody bare-knuckle affairs, private and vicious. Most involved theft. Systematic looting, known as “ratting,” was commonplace. Any item left unguarded even for a few minutes could disappear, and soldiers learned to carry their valuables everywhere.

Two-up school, 1920s

Gambling was rife. One officer described his vessel as “a regular Monte Carlo.” Large sums changed hands at round-the-clock sessions of Housie Housie, aka Bingo, and Crown and Anchor, a Royal Navy favorite that used special dice and a baize mat marked out in squares for betting.

Nothing, however, trumped Two-up. As simplistic as a nursery game, Two-up has evinced an inexhaustible appeal to Australians at war. Two coins are flipped in the air, and bets laid on whether they land heads or tails uppermost. With its blanket spread on the floor, two big copper pennies with their “tails” sides marked with a white cross for easy identification, the wooden “kip” used to flip them, a “cockatoo” to keep watch, and the ritual shouts of “Come in, spinner!,” the clandestine Two-up school is as emblematic of Australian service life as American craps.

Public gambling remains illegal in Australia, but on Anzac Day police ignore the Two-up schools that spring up behind every pub. In wartime, wise commanders also turned a blind eye, even when dishonest “tossers” rang in double-headed pennies, used superior mental arithmetic to shade the odds, or employed “stand-over men” or enforcers to extract their winnings. Better for an officer to be thought too lax, a “good bloke,” than to be labeled a spoilsport, a “wowser,” particularly since Australians took unkindly to discipline anyway.

In their eyes, a commander didn’t lead by right of military law and the chain of command but with the approval of his men—an approval earned through experience. Of Australian soldiers, Peter Stanley wrote, “they could be led but not driven; would obey but also question. They would exercise their judgement; needed to be told not just what to do but why. They demanded a degree of freedom foreign to essentially regular armies like that of Britain.”

Australian attitudes to authority were embodied in the song “Waltzing Matilda.” Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson wrote it in 1895, and by 1914 it was well on the way to becoming an informal national anthem. Paterson was inspired by an incident in the 1894 strike of shearers. Notoriously anti-authority, they clashed with “squatters,” ranchers who opposed trade unions. The owner of Dagworth station in Queensland led three policemen in a chase after Samuel “Frenchy” Hoffmeister, an agitator who had burned down his shearing shed. Cornered, Hoffmeister is supposed to have committed suicide, though a descendant of the dead man challenged that account in his own colorful brand of English.

The shearers camp nicknamed him as “Frenchy” was out of ignorance from his origines of being a german really from “Alsass Lorrein” and Berlin Germany where his family took him to live as a child! The Shearers (some couple men) of Murdered Samuel by shooting him in the open mouth while the other held him and then threw the pistol of “thiers” down by his side against that tree where his body was propped against until discovered!!!! So they got off with plain MURDER those bastard unionist because the police didnt do their jobs properly.

Paterson recognized the iconic power to Australians of a rebel who would kill himself rather than submit to authority. He made Hoffmeister a wandering tramp, a “jolly swagman,” who kills a “jumbuck,” or sheep. Ordered by the squatter and troopers to show what’s in his “tucker bag,” he quixotically leaps into the “billabong,” the waterhole, and drowns.

Australian conceptions of discipline first clashed with British military law during the Boer War. After an ambush in which two hundred men died, a general called the All-Australian Victorian Mounted Rifles “a damned fat, round-shouldered, useless crowd of wasters; a lot of white-livered curs.” When three soldiers answered back, then deserted, they were court-martialed and sentenced to be shot. British soldiers could be executed for more than a dozen crimes, but the Australian army didn’t impose the death sentence. After a near-mutiny, General Kitchener commuted the sentences, then rushed the men back to Australia before they could serve them.

He was not so lenient with Harry “Breaker” Morant, bush poet, noted horse breaker, and a lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers. Morant captured some Boers he believed had killed a comrade, and summarily shot them, as well as some complicit witnesses, under what he claimed was an unwritten rule condemning hostiles found wearing items of British uniform. At his court-martial, the British denied any such rule existed. Morant responded sarcastically that, in that case, he’d applied his own “Rule 303”—the caliber of the Lee-Enfield rifle. Memories of Morant’s fate were still fresh when the first Australian volunteers sailed for Europe. On the Ceramic, the issue would have been as immediate as was the loss of Alsace to the French.

At every refueling port, scores of men disobeyed orders and sneaked ashore to find booze and women. In Colombo, capital of the future Sri Lanka, hundreds climbed down mooring ropes and were soon reeling drunkenly and, in some cases, half-naked through the town, though what really scandalized British officers was a rumor that a colonel dining at the Grand Oriental Hotel had found himself sharing a table with an Australian private and a stoker.

Rounded up the next day, the men showed no remorse. Too numerous for the clink, they were corraled on deck awaiting discipline, from where they derisively harmonized on “Rule Britannia,” emphasizing the line that “Britons never ever ever shall be slaves.” Some men never came back on board, bribing a local to hide them until the ship sailed. By the end of the war, four times more men had deserted from the AIF than from any other Dominion force.

Boredom and frustration led to clashes between the British and the Australians, who, at six shillings a day, were paid twice what a British Tommy received and were eager to spend it. Tempers frayed even more when, as happened increasingly, troops were ordered to shovel coal in African ports when local labor was short, were debarked before arriving in Europe, or, once they got there, held in reserve in so-called rest camps, where they did nothing all day but drill.

In December 1914, the first Australian volunteers, instead of going on to Europe, were kept in Egypt to relieve British troops guarding the Suez Canal. Cairo’s brothel district, the Harret el Wasa’, aka The Wazza, offered one of the few places to let off steam. In April and July 1915, already weary of the heat, the flies and the sand, they trashed establishments where they’d been cheated or robbed. The Australian government paid off the Egyptians and hushed up the disturbance, but similar clashes occurred wherever bored Australians were kept from what they saw as their rightful recreation.

Early in 1915, Australian poet Leon Gellert spent seven weeks on a ship off the Greek island of Lemnos, waiting to go into battle on the Gallipoli peninsula. He vented his frustration in the poem “Dreams of France.”

Oh, France, that I had ever dreamed of thee!

I thought to help thee bear the brandished lance,

But, lo, I sail the blue Aegean sea!

Sweet thoughts of thee still stand before mine eyes,

While I lie fettered in this stagnant cage;

Unseen by me the golden Grecian skies,

Forgotten is the Grecian Golden Age.

Drear and dank this stale Ionian bark

That plods its path along Aegean ways.

As much as he sounds like a Mediterranean cruise passenger moaning about the itinerary, the poem does express the sense of entitlement felt by Australian volunteers. They’d been promised a war, and they were bloody well going to get it, or know the reason why. Archie would have arrived in Europe with a similar belief that in return for his service, he was owed some excitement before he returned to the stodginess of life as a Sydney grocer, weighed down with the responsibility of a wife and family.

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