Soldiers of the First Brigade in the trenches
at Lone Pine, August 1915


The Diggers



C.E.W. Bean


Yet at heart even the oldest Australian soldier was incorrigibly civilian. However thoroughly he accepted the rigid army methods as conditions temporarily necessary, he never became reconciled to continuous obedience to orders, existence by rule, and lack of privacy. His individualism had been so strongly implanted as to stand out after years of subordination. Even on the Western Front he had exercised his vote in the Australian elections and in the referendums as to conscription, and it was largely through his own act in these ballots that the Australian people had rejected conscription and that, to the end, the A.I.F. consisted entirely of volunteers. He was subject to no death penalty for disobedience or failure to face the enemy.


His outlook contrasted sharply with that of most English soldiers of that time, whose discipline was largely founded on the social division of their nation into upper, middle and lower classes. English officers were mainly drawn from the two former, and their troops accepted the principle that the general business of the great world was the affair of their superiors alone rather than of themselves; if action outside routine was called for, they looked to their officers to tell them what to do and how to do it. In Australia the distinction into social classes was so resented that it was difficult to get born Australians to serve as officers' batmen and grooms, who by the English tradition were servants... Those Australians who did so serve regarded themselves as their officers' guardians or helpers; they could look after the boss in those matters in which he was deemed incapable of looking after himself... From early childhood the average Australian had regarded himself and everyone around him as masters of their own lives... He was accustomed to make decisions; and was always ready to run risks for an object in which he was interested - whether the saving of a mate, the securing of a souvenir or an unlicensed trip to Paris (or, after the war, to Cologne). He was less affected than most men by risk of punishment, but was bound to his fellows, and to the Old Country and the Allies, by a tense bond of democratic loyalty - a man must "stand by his mates" at all costs; and as he knew only one social horizon, that of race, most of these officers came within that category. He was the easiest men in the world to interest and lead, but was intolerant of incompetent or uninteresting leaders...

Except for a few demoniac spirits, one immersion in a great battle more than satisfied the eagerness that had led many to enlist, and left in almost all minds an often sub-conscious but never-absent dread. Most Australians yearned for return to their country with an intensity of longing of which they had not believed themselves capable, but which was remarked by most other soldiers who met them; so much so, that their word-pictures of their try, sunlit, war-free land freely sketched by them to their British friends amid the smoke and vin rouge of the estaminets, or to their girl admirers on English leave, not infrequently determined their hearers to seek homes there after the war.



Source: C.E.W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France During the Allied Offensive, 1918; reprinted in The Australian: Yarns, Ballads, Legends, Traditions of the Australian People (edited by Bill Wannan), Australasian Book Society, Melbourne, 1958, pp. 31-32.



The National Heroes of Australia

Australian Nationalism Information Database - www.ausnatinfo.angelfire.com