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