Journal of the Australian War Memorial
Dale Blair, Dinkum Diggers: an Australian battalion at war, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 2001, ix + 246 pp., bibliography and index, softcover, rrp $34.95
Reviewed by: PETER EDGAR, freelance historian
The title of this book is taken from a quote by Colonel A. G. Butler, the historian of Australia's medical services during the First World War. Citing the cases of a bushman, an artist, a townsman and a jack-of-all-trades who, despite their war injuries, had adapted their lives to new occupations without complaint, Butler said that, "[h]ere, in some ways most typically, we have the 'Dinkum Digger'." Dale Blair sets out to find what exactly was dinkum about the digger. His target is not so much people like Butler, but rather those journalists who get carried away each ANZAC Day and portray the digger as a kind of superhero, with few (if any) weaknesses, and strengths that won the war (despite being hampered by the allies). Some gruesome examples of this type of writing are given.
Blair's method is to take a unit of the First AIF, the 1st Battalion, and subject it to a rigorous analysis at different stages of the war, from the landing at Gallipoli to the major battles of Pozières (1916), Bullecourt (1917) and August 1918 (including Chipilly Spur). There is an interesting section on the raids, often unsuccessful, undertaken by the battalion, which contrast with the successful "peaceful penetration" of the 1918 summer. The war analysis concludes with a section on the mutiny of a company of the battalion in its final battle. Was this mutiny an ignominious exception to the digger legend, or was it only to be expected? Finally, there is a chapter on the return of the war-damaged soldier, which provides a useful corrective to the stereotype. Everyone with an interest in Australia's role in the First World War will want to read this book, but some may baulk at a few of its conclusions.
The ANZAC Legend is notoriously difficult to pin down but some elements of it are well accepted. For example, a quality attributed to the digger is that of egalitarianism. Blair presents some interesting statistics of occupation, religion and even height, to demonstrate that there was an "officer class" in the 1st Battalion. Another "ANZAC" quality is initiative, which Blair thinks has been exaggerated. He finds few examples. He notes the anti-British bias of the Legend (despite the large percentage of British-born in the AIF) and questions this. Moreover, he cites a British officer's comment on Dominion troops: "[they] were always happier if they had Imperial troops at the back of them because they were too impulsive and not steady under pressure". Blair points out that "[a]ssessments such as this are rarely acknowledged by Australian writers and historians."
After considering the straggling and disorganisation of the landing at Gallipoli, Blair concludes that "[t]he 1st Battalion had not shown itself to be an outstanding unit at the landing. It had straggled badly and not been well led. Courageously led at times, certainly, but not efficiently so." Yet Blair sees myth developing quickly. Within the month the battalion's soldiers had established in their own minds "a positive view of their abilities and one not necessarily supported by the Battalion's performance". Only in 1918 does Blair find a glimmer of professionalism in the 1st Battalion's work. He concludes:
While traits such as egalitarianism, resourcefulness and initiative are assumed and maintained in the nation's popular memory as a truthful representation, not only of Australia's First World War soldiers, but also, of the national character, they were not sufficiently evident in the experience of the 1st Battalion to justify their advancement as characteristics general to Australian soldiers or the nation.
Another conclusion is that "there is no conclusive evidence … to suggest that a state of harmony ever prevailed in the officer-man relationship." Again, the 1st Battalion mutiny in September 1918 exposed "the fragile nature of the much-vaunted esprit de corps of the Australian battalions." (Here, though, the narrow focus of the book is evidenced by the fact that the divisional commander, T. W. Glasgow, who was asked to forgive the mutineers - but never did - is not once mentioned.) There are many more confronting conclusions and plenty of examples of bungles, incompetent officers and failure. Blair himself, however, sums up by writing that, "while I do not seek to deride 'the digger', I do contest the legitimacy of some of the myths constructed around (and even by) the 'digger'".
The book is interesting but not entirely convincing. It does tend to rely too much on the views of disgruntled or disappointed 1st Battalion "diggers", whether in letters written from the battlefield or in the author's interviews of survivors. There is not enough demonstrated understanding of the battles fought by the AIF or of their context in the war as a whole. A battalion itself is really too small an entity to make possible a useful military analysis of its part in a great battle of the First World War, but the "ANZAC" qualities cannot really be separated from an analysis of the battles.
From time to time, Blair takes a swipe at the Official Historian, Dr C. E. W. Bean who he says, in one instance, "advanced an idealised view of sacrifice to provide the nation with higher meaning and comfort as compensation for the death of its soldiers". At the end of his six-volume history of the First AIF Bean wrote, "the greatness and smallness of their story will stand". Blair's book is about the smallness of the story of the First AIF. For the greatness it is necessary to turn elsewhere, notably to Bean himself.