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.