Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 39

A “Trace of History”: Cartoons from the Australian War Memorial Christmas Books of the Second World War

Authors: Dr Carmen Moran & Margaret Massam

“then there was the need of laughter, only - it was not easy”
QX6905, Khaki and Green (1943), p.188.

{1} Much of the literature dealing with humour in war takes a broad perspective, generally treating humour as an integral part of the Australian character and documenting humorous actions of soldiers as examples of that character. The most frequent exemplars of war humour are found in the anecdotes about a soldier’s witty remark in some extreme circumstance, such as during combat. This type of humour is accepted as a prominent and typical characteristic of the Australian soldier. Humour is also frequently discussed in iconic terms, such as the following: “Humour has played an important part in Australian images of their military heroes”.1 In such usage, the historical perspective on humour tends to refer to the individual, personal use of humour, rather than the presentation of humour in other forms, such as that documented in official yearbooks or service magazines. This does not mean there is no discussion of the variety of humour that can occur during war. Indeed, there is a relatively large and established literature that makes reference to war humour, so it can seem superfluous to revisit the notion of the Australian soldier’s humour and to ask again what function it served. This article does just that, but this time with reference to a specific type of humour: that is, the humour in the cartoons in the Australian War Memorial Christmas Books of the Second World War. Cartoons have a special place in wartime histories, so a focus on them is not new, but contextualising this discussion in the framework of contemporary research in humour studies is.

{2} This article, therefore, discusses humour that has been documented in cartoons, first in their own right and second as they are linked to the soldier that is represented in the cartoons. Wartime cartoons have been seen as vehicles which can show the difference between soldiers’ experiences of war and official reports of that experience.2 At the very least, wartime cartoons offer what the Australian contemporary cartoonist Brian Snowden has labeled a “trace of history”.3

{3} There are numerous ways to define humour and to relate it to personal characteristics of individuals, be it soldier or civilian.4 Humour can be a stimulus, such as a joke or a cartoon, it can be a response, such as laughter, and it can be a personal characteristic, such as a habitual coping strategy. Humour may also be much more, including a complicated process that involves cognitive, emotional and physical activities. In many discussions on humour, the focus tends to be on “sense of humour” - that is, humour as a personality characteristic. The literature in humour studies highlights the fact that there are various types of humour that serve many functions, which should warn against any wide generalizations about humour during war. Just as recent publications have acknowledged the fallacy of expecting a stereotypical definition of the Australian soldier, so too contemporary humour research indicates the fallacies of stereotyping the functions of and responses to humour. Yet there has been a tendency to do this with Australian war humour, perhaps because so much has focused on the spontaneous jokes and witticisms, and when mentioned frequently enough they themselves become a stereotype. The term “sense of humour” is sometimes used to indicate the personality dimension associated with humour, but recent research has found it extremely difficult to narrow this concept and an increasing number of independent types of humour are now seen as integral to the notion of sense of humour.5 That is, sense of humour is not just made up of an ability to say something funny, nor to laugh at something funny. Furthermore, recent studies, as well as common sense observation, indicate that the person producing the humour is usually in the minority. Writers who address humour as a characteristic of the soldier, often speak of the ability to laugh, not just make the joke or wisecrack that causes others to laugh. This approach to humour points to an overlap between the soldiers’ sense of humour and the documented humour of the Christmas Books. Further overlap occurs because the soldiers are listed as the contributors to the Christmas Books, which are presented as revealing the experiences of Australian soldiers during the Second World War. The soldiers are thus identified with the cartoons, which depict not only what they say that is funny or witty but also what they can laugh at. In short, the cartoons present another side of the Australian soldier’s sense of humour.

{4} There are various claims about the role humour played in the Second World War. Two are of special interest here, and they can be categorized as indicating one of two basic functions: (a) humour was a coping strategy that helped individual soldiers deal with stressors of war and (b) humour was used in the representation of the soldier in a war that mythologised him in “heroic” terms. Thus, one view of humour is typically positive and personal, while the other view is of humour as negative and social. While it is possible to separate these functions in discussing humour in war, it is more realistic to combine them in discussion. This is because very often one aspect of humour, such as its role in coping, comes up in the discussion of its putative role in another area, such as mythologizing. The real distinction between sources of humour, for example the personal (the soldier) versus the social (the cartoon), is therefore not a realistic one in this discussion of humour. Consequently, we cannot discuss a cartoon that depicts the soldier laughing during combat without considering what this says about soldiers’ actual response during combat and what function such humour might serve in situ. Hence, although we are primarily concerned with the representation of the soldier through documented humour of cartoons of the Christmas Books, we cannot but consider what function the humour as depicted might have served in real life.

{5} The Christmas Book cartoons allow us to examine the proposition that humour was part of the heroic mythologizing of the Australian soldier and compare it with an alternative view that humour was a non-heroic means of coping with war. It would be expected that if humour were part of a wide tendency to mythologize the soldier, it would have “heroic” characteristics in official and semi-official documents, such as the Christmas Books. The coping view of humour, on the other hand, predicts humour would ventilate soldiers’ concerns or show ways to deal with being in the military. Cartoons have the advantage that these two views can be analysed through both the punchline (or verbal) component of the humour and the drawn (or visual) component. The potential for humour to change across the time frame of war is an important consideration in any representation of wartime humour, so the analysis is not of a static humour, but rather one which has the potential to change over time.

Humour in the context of heroic mythologizing

{6} Humour has been seen as an integral part of the Australian character. When used under duress, humour becomes a heroic quality. Not surprisingly, therefore, it also is included in descriptions of the heroic descriptions of the Australian soldier.6 It should be borne in mind that this Australian soldier-hero is not necessarily the hero of the Homeric tradition. This more traditional view of the hero did apply with writers of the First World War, but the notion of hero soon metamorphosed into a specifically Australian type, and continued to include soldiers of the Second World War. The Australian soldier-hero is the larrikin, easygoing man who does extraordinary things but not necessarily in heroic circumstances. Thus, despite a soldier’s experience in places redolent of heroic myth, such as the plains and cities of the Middle East, the Australian soldier-hero can also be found in a variety of places and circumstances of a different scale. Gerster has analyzed a large part of the literature on the heroic mythologizing of the Australian Soldier. In this, he has included references to humour during (and after) war, including humour in the war-novel. Based on the humour in his sources, Gerster has concluded that humour is an essential part of the “big-noting” or heroic mythologizing of the Australian soldier.7 Thus, the “hero” could not be portrayed without an exaggerated portrayal of the Australian larrikin sense of humour. As a result, however, the humour itself has become mythologised. Other writers, such as John Barrett and Mark Johnston, have continued the discussion of the heroic myth, but contrasted this against the words and documents of the soldiers themselves.8 While less critical of claims about humour, they do not mythologise it. Indeed, their works cast doubt on the alleged frequency of humour that is included in heroic representations of the Australian soldier.

{7} The image presented in the heroic mythologizing is one of the Australian soldier as physically superior, willing and carefree, yet skilled and effective, and - as noted - with a good sense of humour. This view of the soldier was more or less summarized in Lambert’s phrase “terrible laughing men in the slouch hats”.9 Accompanying the notion that humour was omnipresent was the belief that humour contributed to the Australian soldier’s resilient personality. Laffin’s view provides a good example of this perspective: “Women … emotions … rations … death … boredom - the standard Digger rule was to treat everything the same way; that is, laugh at it.”10

{8} Both the amount and the type of humour were often seen as uniquely Australian. Ken Clift, for example, writes of “… a peculiar sense of humour which only Australians seemed to possess”.11 Its uniqueness is a common theme in histories of Australian humour. Davies notes that until recently this purportedly unique Australian humour was exemplified in servicemen’s wartime humour, characterized by the solely male perspective and replete with obscenities.12 Jones has also described Australian humour up to the recent past as historically male oriented, with myths of place and identity, mostly the bush hero.13 The bush hero became the war hero, both of whom were characterized by the same putatively unique humour. Not all agree that this view is so simple. Australians soldiers have written of a debt to British troops and “their sense of humour”14and also acknowledged German soldiers’ “surprising sense of humour”.15 Some cartoons, for example those in Bill Maudlin’s Army, depict soldiers in other armies drinking, gambling, out of their depth in some combat environments and very uncomfortable in others, such as in rain and mud.16 Some of Maudlin’s cartoons also show the soldiers with women, but sexual references are fairly mild. These themes resemble those found in Australian war cartoons. However, there are elements that distinguish Maudlin’s cartoons from Australian ones, an obvious example of which is the uniform. Other examples include frequent references to Italy and Italian solders, and many American soldiers’ Italian heritage, and cartoons that occasionally show a soldier meeting a relative among the “enemy”. Thus some aspects of war-time cartoons are similar to those created by Australians, and others are different. As noted in the Oxford Companion to Military History: “The question of whether or not Australian military humour can be taken as evidence of a distinctive Australian comic tradition is a difficult one”.17

{9} There is an alternative view that humour, rather than being part of a heroic representation of the soldier, was simply an integral part of coping in war. Frank Nicklin, in his preface to A treasury of ANZAC humour, noted, “The grim business of war overworks the safety valve in man, his sense of humour”.18 Others have extended this view of wartime humor, seeing it as a tool that allowed soldiers to communicate concerns that might otherwise have been taboo, especially fear and uncertainty. Forrester and Rensch have presented a interesting, albeit brief, discussion of cartoons from the Second World War which they concluded provided a way to communicate soldiers’ concerns, particularly the difficulties they experienced in moving from civilian to soldier life.19 The alternative view that humour was part of coping with being a soldier in war is not new. It fits in with a broader body of research that sees humour as a coping strategy associated with awareness and sensitivity, rather than denial and insensitivity.20 This view, therefore, acknowledges that war was horrific and oppressive, not something easily laughed at. Humour that did occur was an expression of awareness of one’s circumstances. This is a direct contrast to the heroic view, which often suggested soldiers’ humour revealed an obliviousness to suffering, theirs and others’. This view of humour as a sign of insensitivity was expressed both by those who contributed to the heroic view and those who criticized it. Regardless of perspective, therefore, once humour is associated with a heroic theme it is interpreted as a type that blocks feeling and sensitivity.

{10} A non-heroic view of the soldier is not the same as the anti-heroic view, which has been typically located in post-war novels. The post war anti-heroic novel challenged many things about the heroic view of the soldier, including the role of humour, by portraying humour as part of a set of negative personality characteristics which include denial of feelings, insensitivity, and lack of insight. Even when humour was presented as a way of dealing with the absurdity of war, it was construed as part of a negative interaction with one’s circumstances. A negative view was sometimes seen as the more honest view of reactions and behaviours in extreme contexts. Gerster verged on this when he claimed soldiers’ memoirs that focused on suffering presented “a refreshingly reflective and impartial[my italics] departure from most Australian battle narratives”. 21 While there is no doubt that war involved suffering, an acceptance of only negative views of everyday experience is itself a form of distortion. Even Gerster came close to challenging the assumption that the more negative version of events was necessarily more impartial, claiming that sometimes “What purports to be documentary realism veers towards lurid expressionism”.22 If too extreme, a negative portrayal can be another type of myth-making. Discussions on humour, therefore, can be invalidated by an overly negative bias on the topic of soldiers’ humour, as much as an overly positive one.

{11} Seal has separated heroic mythologizing into two traditions, the Digger tradition and the ANZAC tradition.23 The Digger tradition is a folkloric tradition that arises from the “ground up”. Its sources are the writings, jokes, songs and tales of soldiers themselves. An example is the following excerpt from Middle East Song cited by Seal: “They fed us on stale biscuits, On camels’ piss and stew, And we wandered round in circles, With sweet fuck all to do”.24 While the Digger tradition includes the ribald, sexually explicit jokes and limericks that are seen as characteristic of some Australian humour, they are not necessarily unique to Australians. The relationship of humour to the heroic image and Seal’s ANZAC tradition, however, may be more characteristically Australian. The ANZAC tradition, according to Seal, is the invented or manufactured view of the soldiers as presented in formal Australian publications or propaganda, often under government auspices, but also including films, television and historical writings. Such examples might also include war novels or historical works designed for mass consumption, such as Laffin’s Digger: the story of the Australian soldier.25 This tradition is heroic and the actions, including humour, are portrayed in the heroic inflated style. How humour and its place as a unique characteristic of the Australian soldier is viewed will depend, therefore, on where examples have been obtained. Using Seal’s terms, humour may be from materials in the Digger or the ANZAC tradition and the final assessment of the nature and function of humour will vary according to which source is used.

Humour in the cartoons of the Australian War Memorial’s Christmas Books

{12} The Australian War Memorial’s Christmas Books are of special interest, as they stand midway between Seal’s Digger and ANZAC traditions. They represent humour from members of the services themselves and thus should reflect humour in the Digger tradition, but they are also documents produced under the auspices of the government, and thus may be subject to the ANZAC tradition.[26] The Christmas Books of interest here, the Australian Army (AIF/AMF) Christmas Books from the Second World War, were published between 1941-1945 and include Active Service (1941), Soldiering On (1942), Khaki and Green (1943), Jungle Warfare (1944) and Stand Easy (1945). These books contain material contributed by members of the Australian Military Forces, including those overseas and at the front. Contributions also came from official war artists. Cartoons were most likely accompanied by a signature rather than a service number, as is the case with other contributions. In the foreword to the first of these, Active Service (1941), General Blamey described the contributions as offering “an informal greeting to their homeland from Australians serving in the Middle East”. Women occasionally contributed to these books, but as the by far the larger part of the material was from and about men, the masculine terms will be used here.

{13} If the Christmas Book cartoons contributed to the heroic mythology, they should show the Australian soldier and his activities, feelings and reactions in ways reminiscent of the heroic prose. On the other hand, the cartoons could show the concerns of the men themselves, the soldiers of the AIF and AMF over the course of the war from 1941 to 1945. The soldiers referred to here were most frequently volunteers in the early part of the war, but over the course of the war they included increasing proportions of conscripted men. Further, these soldiers sometimes moved from the Militia to the AIF, so a reasonable proportion came from both armies. Many were young men on enlisting, and even the more mature ones were still young in terms of years or experience. Most were single and, from their own reports, had had little sexual experience before and even during the war. A smaller group was married. Some were introduced to a wider range of sexual experience in the course of the war, particularly through brothels according to their own accounts, as noted in Barrett’s We Were There. In that same book, a preponderance of men nominated themselves as Christian, albeit with variable levels of commitment to religion. Some explicitly stated they did not like the vulgarity or “obscene language” noted among soldiers, or the crudity often revealed in their humour.27 The level of education was wide ranging, although there was a large bias towards those with only primary or partial high school education. Many of these men came from families who had suffered hardship during the depression, and the result was that they were seldom financially well off. Thus, soldiers represented a range of types to be found in Australia of the period, but not necessarily in the same proportions. Any claims about the men and their humour needs to be appraised in this context of variability. Thus, claims about soldiers’ humour, whether a spontaneous aggressive male humour with constant reference to sex or a simpler humour are best evaluated with recognition of the wide range of individual characteristics. Further, the soldier-contributors to Barrett’s book seldom mentioned the topic of humour and the term is not included in the index. In Johnson’s more recent work, humour is mentioned only four times in the index, although it is covered a little more in the text.28 Therefore, to assume humour was always present and always appreciated equally by men who were all the same, even if not heroic, is not supported by comments from soldiers themselves.

{14} The one and only cartoon from the Christmas Books used by Gerster in Big-Noting originated in the first of the series, Active Service (see Cartoon 1 below). This cartoon does suggest a degree of heroic mythologizing, in that the soldiers are portrayed in a fairly realistic style of drawing as tall, strong and lean, confidently offering a critique of the women they have seen in their “travels”. They are instant experts in multicultural sexual attraction. The cartoon refers to “French lessons”, a term with sexual connotations that would have been understood by some readers but missed by many others. (The term has more than one meaning, including oral sex and sex with a prostitute.) Thus, the message is that these men are sexually able and experienced, and wanting more. At most, there are only a few cartoons of this type in the Christmas Books. One approximation to this “heroic” style is found in Stand Easy, published in 1945. Once again, the soldier is portrayed in a fairly realistic style of drawing, and again with a woman, in a happy, dancing posture. This later cartoon does not appear to be a bragging one as much as a joyously exuberant one: “Got reclassified today - No more marching”. The humour, of course is that the soldier is still on his feet, albeit dancing rather than marching, but seemingly oblivious to the irony of his comment. This is not the bragging of a hero. Of course, sexual references can be missed, as in the case of “French Lessons”, or ambiguous references can be open to interpretation. In Stand Easy a cartoon shows a soldier sitting outdoors viewing a romantic film on a makeshift screen, with his arm around the soldier seated next to him. This cartoon and its caption “Don’t get carried away, Fred” could be interpreted as a reference to homosexual involvement among some soldiers. Alternatively, it could be taken as showing that the soldier has been so long without a woman he gets caught up in the romance of the heterosexual involvement on the screen. In this case, the humour arises because of the incongruity of his approach to his fellow soldier and the understated rejection by his colleague. In cartoons the humour, including the aggressive and sexual implications thereof, may depend as much on the person looking at the cartoon as on the intent of the cartoonist.

{15} There are many serious drawings in the Christmas Books, which are purportedly realistic and show the soldier as confident, strong and good looking. A few of these drawings also have a mildly humorous side, for example the drawing of men playing cricket in the desert in Soldiering On, but most provide a clear stylistic contrast to the cartoons.29 The drawings become more somber over the course of the war. Thus, the comic portrayal of the soldiers in the cartoons contrasts with representations in the serious drawings and indicates the cartoons do not glorify the soldiers in the heroic tradition. This does not mean there are no suggestions of bravado or carefree attitudes in the cartoons. However, the combination of caption and drawing are often ironic and often self-deprecating in their presentation of these attitudes.

Cartoons over the course of the war

{16} The cartoons changed somewhat across the course of the war, as a comparison across yearbooks indicates. In Active Service (1941), General Blamey highlighted the laugher and joking as typical of the Australian soldier. These were seen as characteristics shared with others in the British Empire armies but, according to Blamey, the Australian soldier “has his own way of expressing them”. He is a soldier who “endures, laughs, … grumbles at times, faces fire with courage, quenches misery in a joke, and has a contempt for heroics”.30 Given this introduction to the first of the Christmas Books, it might be expected that it would have had many cartoons, but this was not so. The number of cartoons in Active Service was modest, with the first cartoon appearing more than halfway into the book. The cartoons portrayed both realistic and comical looking servicemen dealing with food, conditions, and women. The cartoons also tended to focus on “where we are” (Libya, Egypt). While the first cartoons occasionally approached heroic mythologizing, it was not a common theme. The change across time reflected the change in the theatre of war. Soldiering On (1942) presented material from soldiers serving in the Middle East and South-west Pacific. There was an increased focus on the experience of being a soldier, being in foreign parts and seeing foreign ways. The cartoons presented potentially threatening incidents and injuries in a slapstick manner. In Khaki and Green (1943) there was occasional reference to rank, the enemy (Japanese) and injury, particularly from mines or explosions.

{17} By the time Jungle Warfare appeared in 1944, the proportion of cartoons had increased. Send-up of injury was still mild by most standards. Contributions by women had increased in this publication, but not humour about them. In Stand Easy (1945) the cartoons did not show any new trends other than a reference to returning home.

{18} Apart from some change in the representation of the soldier over time and an increased focus on place and combat, the majority of the cartoons consistently depicted the soldiers in comic fashion - that is, as squat and portly, or long and stringy, and dressed in clothes often too big or oddly shaped, in gauche or comical poses. Rank was occasionally sent up as self-serving or self-centred. Women did not have an especially high presence in the cartoons when compared with their presence in photographs and drawings. The cartoons suggest concerns over matters ranging from the mundane, such as food and clothing, to the more intense activities, such as ammunition and combat. The cartoons showed men’s bodies as vulnerable to explosions but individuals were rarely portrayed as injured, and there was no evidence of death. Over time, the cartoons increasingly addressed topics that appeared to express rather than deny the personal concerns about being a soldier in the Second World War. It should be remembered that such fears were not only to do with combat. Barrett, for example, has noted how men talked of their fears of drowning or of heights.31

{19} Cartoon humour will differ from other forms of humour during war, particularly spontaneous humour. While much information can be gained from the recollections about spontaneous humour, it is difficult to be certain of the accuracy of each example. For instance, a story relating a humorous episode from one war sometimes re-emerges again as a story from another war. There are often genuine similarities of experience that remain the same across time and thus account for a similarity in humour. It also the case that altered circumstances, including experience of combat, may cause humour to change. Ad lib humour and the laughter that accompanies it are especially sensitive to this influence of time and experience. This is noted within MacDougall’s ANZACs: Australians at war, in which joking and laughing which were prominent early in the Second World War were less frequently observed as the war progressed and men’s experiences changed. The poignancy of the loss of this type of humour has been captured in one pilot’s comment about the demeanor of RAF crews (including Australians) towards the end of 1943:

Accustomed as I had already become to the gaiety and laughter of fighter pilots, I was distressed by the tense bearing and drawn faces of the bomber crews. …There was nothing but lip biting gloom registered on their face.32

{20} Spontaneous humour in those with close and recent experience of death and suffering is likely to be much rarer compared with those who fear they will have to face these things in some future time, and especially with those who are distant from those events. Humour may also seem seriously out of place, so that even those who would wish to make a joke restrain themselves for fear of seeming to minimize the suffering around them, including their own. Thus, the need for humour may increase in certain circumstances, but the ability or willingness to generate it may fall dramatically.

{21} The soldiers’ experiences changed as the war extended from the Middle East into the jungles of South East Asia and Papua New Guinea, so it might be expected that the nature of the cartoons would also change. In fact, the oppressiveness and hopelessness of the jungle experience added to the link between humour and claims of the soldier as hero, albeit one under a different type of duress. This view is exemplified by statements such as “… the pressures and circumstances of jungle warfare produced a revival of that cathartic, macabre brand of Digger wit originally memorized in The ANZAC Book.”33 The Christmas Book Jungle Warfare, which is obviously set in the context of the jungle, did not show any revival in cathartic, macabre humour. The humour was not depleted by the experience of the jungle warfare, but it did not show any sudden change in its characteristics in the last two Christmas Books.

The role of humour in war

{22} The humour of the cartoons in the Christmas Books may appear to be constrained by their target audience, the people at home. However, apart from a reduction in overt sexual and aggressive material, analysis of the Christmas Book cartoons suggests there is nothing particularly different about humour in the extreme environment of war. Humour functions as it frequently does in extreme environments, that is, as a safe way of communicating important and potentially sensitive information. In stressful circumstances, humour allows people to communicate matters they would not wish to reveal in more serious discussions. Not all view humour positively, which is not surprising given that humour can serve different functions. Mark Johnston indicated the more negative view when he stated “the fear of showing fear … helps to account for the forced humour often seen in Australians as they entered battle.”34 From a more general perspective, the humour scholar Oring has accepted that humour may at times be used to suppress expression of genuine sentiment and may signal that any message in a humorous remark should be ignored.35 However, he has concluded that humour also may be used as a vehicle to express sentiments and emotions that are otherwise proscribed. Recent work on humour in disasters also supports the view that people use humour to acknowledge discomfort, hurt and fear, rather that use it to disguise these emotions.36 Thus in war, humour may convey an emotion without a soldier feeling that he then has to dwell deeply on it. Johnston also acknowledges this message-bearing quality of humour when citing the reactions of soldiers who felt they were being treated like animals when transported in “cattle trucks” during training. The soldiers began bleating like sheep and Johnston notes “There was humour in these impersonations but essentially they were a waggish recognition of and protest at loss of individuality and dignity”.37 Thus the bleating was not “just a joke”; the men resented the treatment they were receiving but could not convey this resentment in more direct or sustained ways.

{23} Humour may communicate fear, but it may also communicate grievances, dislikes and misgivings not stated overtly in serious discussion. Page believes it is not the four-letter words that made soldiers’ Second World War songs and limericks unsuitable for those at home, it was “the intensity of bitterness that comes through in the humour”.38 Letting others know of this bitterness would somehow have betrayed those soldiers who died in war, hating what they were doing but portrayed as willing heroes by people at home. Hampes has observed “those high in humour also tend to be high in trust.”39 In the context of war the notion of trust is reminiscent of the Australian concept of “mateship”. A mate is a person to be trusted, and self-disclosing humour follows from this trust. In such humour, a fear or other emotion may be expressed and shared with those who understand, but it does not have to be analyzed, dissected, and cured, nor does it need to be defended. This is not to say that emotions, especially negative ones, were only portrayed in humour or with trusted companions. There were many books and articles that presented a bitter, hostile or frank portrayal of war experiences but most originated outside the war arena or were published some time after the war. Humour, in the other hand, offered an immediacy to the expression of those emotions.

{24} Given the ability of humour to convey emotions, it was rather surprising to note there was relatively little gallows humour in the Christmas Books. Gallows humour refers to joking by the condemned man who, if he is not actually on the gallows, is in potentially threatening or awful circumstances. It is distinguished from black or sick humour, which involves jokes about people in awful circumstances. Gallows humour, like sick humour, can look like bad taste to an outsider, so it requires trust in those one shares it with. Gallows humour is relatively commonplace in professionals dealing with extreme environments, for example in emergency service workers who also value trust and mateship among work colleagues.40 Given the threatening circumstances of war, soldiers would be expected to appreciate gallows humour. The “bomb” cartoons were a fairly mild form of this (see cartoons 4 & 5). The conditions required for true gallows humour were removed in the Christmas Books. The need to present a non-threatening view to the home audience would further reduce the likelihood of more extreme gallows humour being included. At the same time, the extreme environment of combat is only part of war experience and many soldiers had lengthy periods in other activities or duties, including enduring long periods of boredom. While not minimizing the potential stress of boredom, it is also possible long periods of boredom contributed to a focus on the minor aspects of life and these found their way into the cartoons, with the resulting references about food, clothing and equipment. Further, gallows humour sometimes has an ephemeral nature, requiring a location in a context to be truly appreciated.

{25} The portrayal of the enemy was not as frequent as might be expected. The Germans and Italians were absent in these cartoons. The Japanese were once or twice portrayed in terms that could be interpreted as empathic. In one of these cartoons (Cartoon 6) a Japanese soldier was shown to be doing similar things as an Australian soldier would be, taking a break to write home to family and reassure them of his well-being, somewhat fetchingly ignorant of the many dangers in the jungle around him. This moderated approach is particularly noticeable when such cartoons are compared with civilian and commercial cartoons of the same period. The Australian family periodical of the time, Humour, is a good example. In Humour, Japanese soldiers were drawn as half simian or rat-like.41 A later compilation of wartime cartoons provides a greater show of emotion in the title alone, Years of Wrath,42 compared with the contributions in the Christmas Books. It is possible that hostile cartoons were formally censored, possibly to portray the soldiers (i.e. the contributors to the year books) as fair minded. It might also be argued many cartoons were aggressive, but covertly so. Accordingly, some might see cartoons 6 and 7 as latently hostile to the Japanese. One theory of humour proposes that humour presents aggression (and sex) in a way that distracts the censor.43 The term “censor” is most often meant to imply one’s own psychological censor, but the theory has implications for the way aggressive humour, when clever or funny enough, can survive in social contexts where a non-humorous expression of the same aggression would be proscribed. In war, however, presenting the enemy in aggressive or hostile fashion is not typically constrained. Accordingly, one might have expected more anti-Japanese cartoons especially in the later years.

{26} One explanation for the relative lack of aggressive humour in these Christmas Books is that these cartoons demonstrate respect among soldiers, including the enemy. Even George Sprod included the Japanese in his Changi cartoons and occasionally showed some humanizing side to his captors.44 Soldiers nearest the front line may have more respect for the enemy than those further away or those removed from combat. According to this view, it is not surprising that civilian publications show more disgust and hate in their cartoons involving the enemy - civilians at home were furthest removed from them. Ken Lovell’s cartoons suggest this was not always the case, as some of his drawings of the Japanese soldier showed them with animal faces or their body parts flying through the air when they encountered an Australian soldier.45 The concept of the soldier’s respect for the enemy may be yet another aspect of mythologizing, which fits with Seal’s view of the ANZAC tradition of mythologizing the Australian soldier.46 In this case, one aspect of the heroic myth (the avenging soldier) has been played down in favour of another aspect of the myth (the noble soldier).

{27} Having cartoons, jokes, or anecdotes showing soldiers laughing and joking is not the same as depicting them as heroes. Thus, the presence of humour cannot be equated with a heroic approach. The humour in the Christmas Book cartoons makes fun of army life, makes brief mention of women and uses language in fairly innocent ways. There may be a disregard of danger, but it is often ironic and the cartoons do not portray a soldier who is impervious to danger. In other words, there is little big-noting or braggadocio.

{28} Concern over the audience at home would have been responsible for a large part of the obvious omissions of swearing, sexual references, and more overtly aggressive humour, which often is part of bragging. However, we must also remember these omissions were not unusual in publications of that time. Some civilian humour from the same period also shows a decorous approach to language and sexuality, especially in magazines intended for family reading. Other collections of war humour indicate it was not always decorous. Many war songs and limericks, for example, are highly aggressive and often debasing to higher ranks, other services, or the enemy. The swearing is often strong even by today’s standards and sex is explicitly portrayed. More ribald styles are often also found in one-to-one styles of humour, such as reported in anecdotal accounts. Whether anecdotal humour or published humour reflects the more accurate view of the Australian soldier’s humour is open to debate, but both have to be considered as valid sources. As Barrett has noted, not all soldiers claimed the same standards of behaviour and values.47 So, whereas anecdotal humour may seem more honest with its sex and aggression, is not always so.

{29} There are functions of humour that go beyond sex and aggression. Humour can help people gain perspective on matters because it allows them to look at things in a different light. This is commonly referred to as a consequence of humour’s essential incongruity, or what Latta labelled the “cognitive shift” engendered by humour.48 “Things aren't that bad if I can laugh” is one example of this type of shift. Whether it is reasonable to assume that cognitive shifts helped soldiers cope with war is debatable. It certainly may have helped them deal with the stresses of war in the short term. As the Soldier VX876 noted in We Were There, humour could be a simple quip deliberately used to ease the tension in a difficult situation. In his example, despite the fact the men were under fire, an officer’s humorous quip led to “laughter from all” and helped reduce the strain.49

{30} Currently, there is such a strong belief that humour helps people cope, it can be difficult to consider that it might not do so or that any effect may be minor at best. Recent literature on stress and coping indicates that veterans from the Second World War who coped with extreme stresses at the time they were a soldier may show signs of post-trauma stress later in life. In its extreme form, this reaction - known as Delayed Onset Posttraumatic Stress Disorder - tends to occur when people reach their 60s or 70s. If humour was commonly used to cope at the time, does the onset of later post-trauma suffering suggest it was not a very good form of coping? Recently, we asked some Second World War veterans about their experiences of humour during war. They reported it was important at the time, but they were not sure that any beneficial effects were long lasting. It is possible that the use of a wide range of humour at the time made our question “did it help?” too simplistic. Recent research has also demonstrated the fallacy of simplifying humour, with results that can be counterintuitive. In one major study, Rod Martin and colleagues found that aggressive humour, normally considered undesirable and unhealthy, was similar in its effects to self-deprecating humour, normally considered a more desirable and harmless form of humour. Both forms were associated with reduced measures of wellbeing.50 Those who characterise Australian soldiers’ humour as self-deprecating, and see this as a positive feature, may want to consider their evaluation in view of this research finding.

{31} While it is well documented that some experiences of humour during war included the hostile, sexually explicit or denigrative types, we also need to remember that humour is often pleasurable and much humour may simply arise for this reason. That is, it may be that humour per se is more important than the content of the humour at certain times. Under the various stressors of the war, humour was especially important because many other normal sources of pleasure were absent in the soldier’s everyday life. Humour might have occurred as a response to a particular incident in a war context, but the humour was not peculiar to war. For example, Laffin’s account of Australian soldiers laughing at the discomfort of an enemy general after his carriage overturned, could just as easily be laughter at any person of rank in an ignominious situation.51 The poem Horseferry Road is offered by Seal as an example of a sardonic Digger verse from the First World War and by Page as an example from the Second World War, although in the latter case the swearing is considerably more explicit.52 Jokes, cartoons and anecdotes thus reappear from one war to the next and indicate that the humour was not exclusive to the time.

{32} In some instances humour may be generated simply to entertain others. Thus, the primary concern of the person generating humour need not be to convey a message or reflect any particular concerns, just cause laughter. A play on words may be made purely for the enjoyment of looking at the alternative meanings. Certain theories argue that humour is suffused with meaning that reflects important and often unconscious concerns, both of those who generate and those who appreciate the humour. It is quite possible that humour does serve this function occasionally. It would be oversimplifying the nature of humour, however, to assume that this is always its function or consequence. The soldier who changed the Starview Hotel into the Starve-U Hotel probably did it more for the pleasure of the verbal cleverness than to convey a message that soldiers in that location were truly starving. Similarly, while humour may be incorporated in the heroic image of the Australian soldier, some soldiers will be witty or funny, or readily amused without any tendentious implications.

Starve-U Hotel at Port Moresby, July 1947.

{33} In analyzing humour of the Second World War, it may be too easy to read into the material issues that are more salient to the present day researcher than to the soldiers of the Second World War, and to miss issues that were important to them in their own place and time. The Christmas Book cartoons help to show this, with their focus on food, rank, location and isolation. They may not show sex and aggression in the same way as other forms of humour, but that does not mean that they are less relevant as a “trace of history” informing us of the experiences of men in the Second World War. Thus, this analysis of the Christmas Book illustrates how humour serves more than one function, and certainly does not have to be equated with heroic mythologizing. Using one source of humour, such as cartoons, can be a useful platform which can then be related to and contrasted with other types of humour, which collectively help define the historical representation of the Australian soldier.

© Carmen Moran and Margaret Massam

The authors

Dr Carmen Moran is a senior lecturer in Human Behaviour, in the Schoool of Social Work at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. She researches and publishes in the areas of stress and coping, with particular emphasis on anxiety, emergency service stress, and humour as a coping strategy in extreme environments. Her interest in humor and war was a natural development arising from her observations with emergency service workers. Margaret Massam was a research assistant at UNSW during the data collection phase of this project. She has also researched in the areas of domestic violence, public health, stress and humour. She currently does part-time teaching and research in various institutions, including RMIT and Open Learning Australia.


1 Peter Dennis et al, The Oxford companion to Australian military history (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995).

2 G.H. Roeder, The censored war (London: Yale University Press, 1993).

3 Brian Snowden, “Caricature and the Art of Going Public: Political Cartooning in Australia”, paper presented at the Humor Scholars Network Symposium, University of New South Wales, November 2000.

4 It is beyond the scope of this paper to expand on the numerous definitions and theories of humour. The interested reader may want to consider Humor: The Journal of the International Society of Humor Studies, which presents research and theory from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

5 Willibad Ruch, The sense of humor (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1998).

6 Robin Gerster, Big-Noting: the heroic theme in Australian war writing (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1987); Jane Ross, The myth of the Digger: the Australian soldier in two world wars (London: Hale and Ironmonger, 1985).

6 Gerster, chaps 6 & 7.

7 Gerster.

8 John Barrett, We were there (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin (Penguin Edition), 1995); Mark Johnston, At the front line (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

9 Eric Lambert, The twenty thousand thieves (London: Muller, 1952), p.19.

10 John Laffin, Digger; the story of the Australian soldier (London: Cassell, 1959), p.213.

11 Ken Clift, War dance (Sydney: Fowler, 1980), Prologue.

12 Christie Davies, “The Progress of Australian Humour in Britain”, Australian Journal of Comedy, vol.3, no.1, 1997, pp.15-32.

13 Dorothy Jones, “Setting Limits: Humour and Australian National Identity”, Australian Journal of Comedy, vol.3, no.1, 1997, pp.33-42.

14 Barrett, p.304.

15 Barrett, p.309.

16 Bill Maudlin, Bill Maudlin’s Army (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1995 edition)

17 Dennis et al, p.229.

18 Frank Nicklin, preface in Roger Fair (ed), A treasury of ANZAC humour (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1965).

19 Simon Forrester and Elena Rensch, “Army daze: Soldiers’ cartoons from the Second World War”, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no.21, October 1992.

20 Carmen Moran and Margaret Massam, “An evaluation of humour in emergency work.” The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, vol.3, 1997, pp.26-38.

21 Gerster, p.225.

22 Gerster, p.8.

23 Graham Seal, “Two Traditions: The Folklore of the Digger and the Invention of ANZAC”, Australian Folklore, no.5, 1990.

24 Seal, p.45.

25 Laffin, 1959.

26 Active Service (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1941); Soldiering On (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1942); Khaki and Green (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1943); Jungle Warfare (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1944); Stand Easy 1945 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1945).

27 Barrett.

28 Barrett, Johnston.

29 Soldiering On, p.92.

30 Active Service, pix.

31 Barrett. A small number of cartoons on these themes may be found in the Navy and RAAF Christmas Books.

32 A. K. MacDougall, ANZACS: Australians at war (Sydney: Reed Books, 1990), p.254.

33 Gerster, p.224.

34 Johnston, p.88.

35 Elliott Oring, “Humor and the suppression of sentiment”. Humor, vol.7, 1994, pp.7-26.

36 Moran & Massam, 1997.

37 Johnston, p.92.

38 Martin Page, The bawdy songs and ballads of World War II (London: Granada, 1982).

39 William P. Hampes, “The relationship between humor and trust”. Humor, vol.12, 1999, pp.253-260.

40 Moran & Massam, 1997.

41 Humour (Sydney: New Century Press, various years).

42 David Low, Years of wrath (London: Victor Gollancz, 1986).

43 Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious, Pelican Freud Library, vol.6 (1976) (London: Penguin, 1905); R. A. Martin, “Approaches to the sense of humour: a historical review”, in W. Ruch, 1998, pp.15-60.

44 George Sprod, Bamboo around my shoulder: Changi, the lighter side.

45 Ken Lovell, I carried my sketchbook (Hughesdale, Vic.: John Sissons, 1984)

46 Seal, 1990, p.51.

47 Barrett.

48 R. L. Latta, The basic humor process: a cognitive-shift theory and the case against incongruity (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1998).

49 Barrett, p.6.

50 Rod A. Martin et al, “Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: development of the Humor Style Questionnaire”, Journal of Research in Personality, vol.37, 2003, pp.48-75.

51 Laffin, p.108.

52 Seal, p.136; Page, p.136. Both Seal and Page were aware of the use of this and other poems across different wars, sometimes with different words.