This film re­minds us many thou­sands of Dig­gers rest in for­eign fields

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THE seeds of a re­mark­able fight­ing tra­di­tion were sewn, we learn from this fine doc­u­men­tary, in a bleak ex­panse of land at Elands River in South Africa.

The year was 1900. And of the 500 troops who stopped al­most 3000 Boer gueril­las in their tracks in this place, 300 were fiercely de­ter­mined, badly be­haved Aus­tralians.

Their Bri­tish com­man­der ex­plained his sit­u­a­tion, un­der a flag of truce, to a Boer com­man­der who had sought their sur­ren­der.

‘‘ I am in charge of Aus­tralian troops who would cut my throat if I sur­ren­dered,’’ he said. And he was prob­a­bly right.

How­ever, the name ‘‘ Dig­ger’’ was not ap­plied un­til the next skir­mish — rather a large one — in which Aus­tralians were in­volved. It was called the Great War, and it be­gan in Europe just over a decade later. By the time it had ended, in 1918, some 60,000 of the 330,000 Aus­tralians who had fought in that war had died.

Aus­tralian troops en­tered the fray with few mil­i­tary tra­di­tions of their own. But in the mud and the blood of Flan­ders and Gal­lipoli and other un­speak­able places, the Dig­ger tra­di­tion was shaped and bat­tered and forged.

In that and sub­se­quent wars, Dig­gers demon­strated a te­nac­ity that iden­ti­fied them as the finest in­fantry­men on earth— as well as a re­luc­tance to salute se­nior of­fi­cers, a flair for find­ing hu­mour in deeply un­funny sit­u­a­tions, and sheer, all-round bloody-mind­ed­ness.

The Dig­ger is nar­rated ex­traor­di­nar­ily well by Neil Pigot, re­mem­bered by most view­ers as trou­ble­some In­spec­tor Rus­sell Fal­con-Price from Blue Heel­ers. This is a fea­ture-length, fast-mov­ing mix of archival footage and pho­to­graphs, en­livened with bet­ter-than-av­er­age re­cre- ations. Ter­rific stuff, in fact.

From World War I, the tra­di­tions are given time to dis­til be­fore it all be­gan again, a lit­tle over two decades later. Dig­gers, a more dis­ci­plined but no more re­spect­ful fight­ing force, helped re­shape the war with their fierce re­sis­tance at To­bruk, and more of the same in Milne Bay and Kokoda.

Af­ter the war in the Pa­cific was won, Dig­gers were again in ac­tion in Korea and, less than 20 years later, in Viet­nam. In each war, Dig­gers dis­tin­guished them­selves on the bat­tle­fields and, more of­ten than not, cre­ated a mea­sure of chaos away from the fight­ing.

This film, as it should, re­minds us that many thou­sands of Dig­gers, or­di­nary Aus­tralians, rest in for­eign fields. And that ev­ery year, we prom­ise not to for­get them.

But have we? Good job: Neil Pigot is ter­rific nar­rat­ing

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