The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - BA­BETTE SMITH

ONCE again, Aus­tralians have gath­ered in their thou­sands at Gal­lipoli. Some op­po­nents of this an­nual pil­grim­age by a younger gen­er­a­tion claim it glo­ri­fies war. Oth­ers blame politi­cians for overem­pha­sis­ing the com­mem­o­ra­tion of Gal­lipoli.

Young Aus­tralians re­main stead­fast in their de­ter­mi­na­tion to mark Anzac Day with the jour­ney, how­ever, de­spite claims that their faith and their in­ter­est is mis­placed.

At Gal­lipoli in 2006, one young Aus­tralian ex­plained quite clearly what it meant to them, telling a jour­nal­ist, ‘‘ It’s not about em­pire. It’s about us.’’ And they are right. The qual­i­ties that this gen­er­a­tion iden­ti­fies with in World War I Dig­gers run deep in Aus­tralian so­ci­ety, right back to the con­vict era.

No con­nec­tion is gen­er­ally recog­nised be­tween the colonies’ pris­on­ers and their mil­i­tary heirs, but ev­i­dence for the link is not hard to find.

The re­luc­tance of Dig­gers to salute is one ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple. Reared in an egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety that em­pha­sised re­spect for the per­son rather than the badge they wore, why would they? But be­hind the boys stood thou­sands of grand­fa­thers, and in some cases fa­thers, who had too of­ten been com­pelled to do so. The rules and reg­u­la­tions of the pe­nal set­tle­ment at Port Arthur, for in­stance, stip­u­lated: 284. They ( the con­victs) will in­vari­ably touch their caps on pass­ing an of­fi­cer, and are never to ad­dress any of­fi­cer, or re­main in an apart­ment where one is present, with­out tak­ing off their caps; they are also to stand up when any of the prin­ci­pal of­fi­cers en­ter their mess­room or other apart­ment, or the ex­er­cise yards; this or­der also ap­plies to of­fi­cers of the army and navy, dressed in uni­form, or known to be such. With that cul­tural his­tory, any self- re­spect­ing Aus­tralian would have to be forced to salute.

Their ir­rev­er­ence also drew strength from an­other quar­ter. Most are ig­no­rant that about 6000 of the bad boys of the Bri­tish army were trans­ported to Aus­tralia as con­victs. They helped cre­ate the tem­plate for how to be­have in the army.

Charles Bean de­scribed a qual­ity of the Dig­gers as ‘‘ a sort of sup­pressed re­sent­ful­ness — never very se­ri­ous but yet no­tice­able — of the whole sys­tem of of­fi­cers’’. Bean would not have known about the sol­dier con­victs and would have been re­luc­tant to link them with the Dig­gers if he had. Court- mar­tialled in the far reaches of the em­pire, their of­fences in­cluded not only de­ser­tion ( an am­bigu­ous of­fence since it of­ten in­volved visit­ing a wife or par­ents) but other mil­i­tary crimes di­rectly rel­e­vant to Bean’s ob­ser­va­tion, such as muti­nous con­duct, strik­ing a sergeant, strik­ing two sergeants, in­sub­or­di­na­tion. Ex- sol­diers such as th­ese were spread among the shiploads of con­victs trans­ported to NSW, Van Diemen’s Land and West­ern Aus­tralia.

Their sub­ver­sive mes­sage was dis­sem­i­nated on the ships and in the set­tle­ments of the pe­nal colonies. It per­me­ated the cul­ture of Aus­tralia. As English poet John Mase­field recorded about the men at Gal­lipoli, ‘‘ they didn’t care a damn for any­body’’.

An even more pro­found link be­tween con­victs and Dig­gers is re­vealed in gen­eral John Monash’s de­scrip­tion of his Aus­tralian troops in 1918. ‘‘ Psy­cho­log­i­cally, he was easy to lead but dif­fi­cult to drive . . . Tak­ing him all in all, the Aus­tralian sol­dier was, when un­der­stood, not dif­fi­cult to han­dle. But he re­quired a sym­pa­thetic han­dling which ap­pealed to his intelligence and sat­is­fied his in­stinct for a ‘ square deal’.’’

In other words, they were not like Bri­tish troops, who were trained to obey an or­der, ‘‘ do or die’’. Aus­tralian sol­diers were re­sis­tant to di­rec­tion, to or­ders. They would deign to obey only when they judged that the re­quest made sense. And re­spect for the man who was ask­ing was es­sen­tial.

Com­pare Monash with the com­ments of an Aus­tralian squat­ter about his con­vict and ex- con­vict work­force in the 1840s. From his run at the Dar­ling Downs in south­ern Queens­land, C. P. Hodg­son said: ‘‘ They must be led, not driven; they must be hu­moured, not or­dered; for know­ing their own worth, they will only ex­ert them­selves ( ac­cord­ing to) the treat­ment they re­ceive.’’

The Dig­gers’ qual­i­ties were not a per­for­mance. They were not a con­struct cre­ated by peer pres­sure and ex­pec­ta­tions at home. The Dig­gers were or­ganic to Aus­tralian so­ci­ety, home- grown prod­ucts of the con­vict era. They car­ried in them the cul­tural in­flu­ences of that time, as well as the hu­man qual­i­ties of their fa­thers and grand­fa­thers, the con­victs.

Any close study of the crimes of the lat­ter, not to men­tion their be­hav­iour in the pe­nal colonies, re­veals that they ex­celled in wit, dar­ing, op­por­tunism, the abil­ity to keep their nerve, the courage not to weep, the sto­icism to en­dure and the de­ter­mi­na­tion to find a way when ev­ery­thing was ranged against them.

Their boys com­bined th­ese qual­i­ties with a joy­ous, devil- may- care light­ness of be­ing that was the legacy of those who un­der­stood the dif­fer­ence be­tween cap­tiv­ity and free­dom. Some called this lat­ter qual­ity lar­rikin­ism.

Ig­no­rance of our his­tory pro­vokes th­ese dis­agree­ments about the im­por­tance of the World War I Dig­gers. They re­veal us as vic­tims of the so­cial am­ne­sia cre­ated by shame about our years as a pe­nal colony that led to peo­ple cov­er­ing up what hap­pened dur­ing that time.

It was an in­duced shame, cre­ated by peo­ple who wanted to end trans­porta­tion, but it was real. As a con­se­quence, it be­came im­pos­si­ble to dis­cuss our pe­nal foun­da­tions, let alone iden­tify as a con­vict fam­ily. Peo­ple stopped talk­ing about con­victs. They were glossed over in his­tory books and dropped from com­mu­nity cel­e­bra­tions. Even­tu­ally me­mory of what they were re­ally like was lost. With that loss went our abil­ity to see the link to the Dig­gers. In turn, the sol­diers re­ceive their em­pha­sis partly be­cause of the his­tor­i­cal vac­uum cre­ated by si­lence about the men who were trans­ported.

‘‘ It’s about us,’’ say young Aus­tralians gath­er­ing at Gal­lipoli. Too right it is. And don’t let any­one tell you dif­fer­ently.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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