Anzac Day: Digging beneath the myth of the unruly Australian digger

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By Christian Nielsen

Despite their reputation for being undisciplined and insubordinate, Australian soldiers who fought in World War I, known as ‘diggers’, were fiercely courageous and disciplined where it mattered – on the battlefield. These rebels with a cause would play a pivotal role in defining modern Australian identity.

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Thursday 25 April 2019

One doctrine has dominated military thinking for centuries: only well-trained and disciplined soldiers win wars. That explains why when word reached the top brass in London of unruly and, God forbid, unshaven Australian soldiers (‘diggers’) on the battlefields of Gallipoli, an investigation was launched.

Sir Maurice Hankey, the War Cabinet’s Secretary, visited the front line in Turkey and reported to then Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith: “I do hope that we shall hear no more of the indiscipline of these extraordinary Corps, for I dont believe that for military qualities of every kind their equal exists. Their physique is wonderful and their intelligence of a high order.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig once wrote in his diary that the Australians were “very hard and determined-looking … and mad keen to kill Germans, and to start doing it at once!”

But despite reports of the incredible bravery exhibited by Australians dispatched to key battles of the war including Pozières, Fromelles, Péronne, Ypres and, of course, Villers-Bretonneaux, the Diggers never shook off their reputation as mischief-makers.

Hard-earned reputation

When it came down to it, the War Cabinet put up with a lot of this ‘indiscipline’, provided the Australians got the job done. Recapturing Villers-Bretonneux was just one example of this unpredictable brand of what war historian Rob Roggenberg calls “collective discipline ‘and’ individualism” to achieve their objective.

This idea of collective individualism is echoed in a Bartleby essay on the importance of military discipline and values: “Discipline is created within a unit by instilling a sense of confidence and responsibility in each individual.”

The ‘troublemaker’ moniker was not confined to rank and file soldiers either. According to records, Australian Brigadier-General Thomas William Glasgow demonstrated his own version of irreverence towards British command when his battalion was ordered to attack Villers-Bretonneux from a vulnerable position. Fearing too many lives would be lost, Glasgow famously replied: ”Tell us what you want us to do … but you must let us do it our own way.”

While the Diggers on-field antics seemed to be tacitly tolerated, a much shorter leash existed behind the lines, and for good reason. Right up until February 1918, according to Roggenberg, Haig noted that the Diggers were still proving to be a handful: “We have had to separate [them] into Convalescent Camps of their own, because they were giving so much trouble when along with our men and put such revolutionary ideas into their heads.”

Nine in every 1,000 Australian soldiers in the European theatre languished in military prison in 1918. That was nearly six times more than the average for Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans – so generally wild colonial exuberance was no excuse for the Australian misbehaviour. Haig was prepared to admit that the off-field trouble probably flowed from the low standard of discipline throughout the Australian divisions. 

Bravery under fire

What British command had long failed to understand was that individual fighting spirit combined with bravery could coalesce into a collective sense of purpose – driven by mateship not military protocol.

But by the closing chapters of World War I, it could be argued that traditional rank and file doctrines of decorum were blurring. The two Battles of Villers-Bretonneux in northern France cemented the reputation of Australian soldiers as not only as individually brave under fire but also collectively disciplined when it counted most – in the heat of battle.

On 23 April 1918, Australian forces played an instrumental role in repelling the German Spring Offensive which was using Villers-Bretonneux (and its strategic location just south of the River Somme) as a springboard to the nearby cathedral town of Amiens.

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

During the night of 24 April, a systematic counter-attack by Australian and British brigades had Villers-Bretonneux partly surrounded to the north and south. By the morning of 25 April, exactly three years after the Anzac landings at Gallipoli, French and Australian flags were raised over the town, and remain there to this day.

In just a few days of the fiercest fighting, the Australian, British and French (including Moroccan) troops had almost completely restored the original front line after the First Battle of the Somme and, arguably, turned the tide on the First World War. The now famous battle is also the first on record in which tanks fought against each other.

Australian soldiers certainly distinguished themselves at Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day, says Lydie Vandepitte of Somme Tourism in Amiens, but their involvement in the Great War was much more than a single battle. It was a founding element in the story of this young nation exerting its independence from Britain, she adds.

But the Diggers extreme bravery came at a huge cost, according to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Some 2,400 Australians died in the effort to recapture Villers-Bretonneux in April 2018, half of them in that one fateful night.

Their sacrifice is commemorated in the Australian National Memorial outside town where the heaviest fighting took place, and in the continuing gratitude of the townspeople who pay tribute alongside Australian officials and pilgrims at the annual Anzac Day memorial celebrations on 25 April.

“Do not forget Australia”

The Australian National Memorial stands on the grounds of a vast military cemetery honouring Australian soldiers who fought bravely in France and Belgium during the First World War. Nestled into the rear of the site is the imposing central tower offering panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, where the Allies battled to retake control of the Somme from the Germans. A memorial wall commemorates the 10,732 Australian casualties who died in France and who have no known grave. Also on the site is the Sir John Monash Centre, which uses multimedia wizardry to present the Diggers’ side of the story on the Western Front as part of a dedicated Remembrance Trail 1914-2018. In just nine months since opening in April 2018, nearly 48,700 have visited the Centre alone.

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

The relationship between Australia and the Somme will forever be strong and eternal,” says Vandepitte, which together with the Amiens Tourist Board host upwards of 25,000 Australians during Anzac Week, and scores more across WWI memorial sites (second only to British visitors in terms of total numbers each year).

In fact, cities and small towns across Australia, such as Amiens and Pozières in Queensland, Hamel in Western Australia, Pèronne in Victoria, bear the name of places in the Somme region,” she noted.

Back in Villers-Bretonneux, the local Franco-Australian museum on the grounds of the Victoria School, which was rebuilt and named thanks to donations from schools in the state of Victoria, has a rich collection of original WWI artefacts shipped back to France (free of charge by QANTAS) after a nationwide call. On classroom walls in the functioning school, inscriptions remind pupils of the enduring goodwill between the two countries: “Do not forget Australia.”

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Ending America’s arms race with… America

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America’s addiction to weapons is destructive abroad and at home. Time to end this devastating arms race.

Image: Oregon Department of Transport

Wednesday 19 December 2018

“I am certain that, at some time in the future, President Xi and I,together with President Putin of Russia, will start talking about a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race,” tweetedDonald Trump.

This is not Donald Trump’s most incoherent tweet – at least not at first sight. It is not even a hateful tweet. In fact, it seemingly holds out hope for a safer, more peaceful world. Nevertheless, it is bizarre and, though not a straight-out lie, it is misleading to the extreme.

If America is, indeed, in the throes of an arms race, it is locked in one against its longstanding arch rival… America.

The United States spends more than 2.8 times what second-ranked China spends on its military and as much as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan combined, according to the National Priorities Project.

Moreover,the United States has been outspending the rest of the world for decades, meaning that Washington also possesses cumulative military superiority. This trend accelerated following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, skyrocketing by 50% in the decade following 9/11.

What this means is that, if Trump were to successfully negotiate and conclude a disarmament accord with himself, Washington could easily halve its military expenditure without harming its military superiority – at least, not for the foreseeable future.

The scale of the resources America sinks into warcraft can be appreciated when one considers that Washington has spent an estimated $6 trillion on wars since 2001.To unpack that for you, that is $6,000,000,000,000.

That is an awful lot of zeros to expend on expending the lives of others, and to zero positive effect. To put that into context, that is the equivalent of almost three centuries of Afghanistan’s minisicule GDP or 30 years of Iraq’s larger national income.

If Washington had dropped those trillions in the form of cash bombs on Afghanistan and Iraq, it would have done a lot more for those two countries and for the US’s national security interests than its invasions. Now imagine what kind of effect those kind of resources would have had had they been invested in targeted development projects. In fact, for 60% of the $6 trillion, the world could eliminate the most extreme forms of poverty in the world.

Even if such altruistic, universalist pursuits do not interest an ‘America First’ US, imagine what the United States could have achieved on the domestic front with $6 trillion. For one, it could make Americans healthy again, while automatically improving the health of foreign citizens, by inoculating them against the transnational epidemic of American bombs.

The trillions spent on wars in distant lands could, for example, pay for a huge chunk of the single-payer, universal healthcare plan unveiled by Bernie Sanders, which would cost the state an estimated $1.3 trillion a year for a decade (as a bonus, universal healthcare would save the US economy $6 trillion within 10 years).

Those who wrongly believed Trump would be the ‘non-interventionist’ president and those who believed his bashing of Clinton’s warmongering was anything more than transparent political posturing and grandstanding, likely expected their saviour president would save on defence in his self-proclaimed effort to put his country first.

Despite Trump’s sensible earlier position that the United States spends way too much on the military, the US president has not slashed military spending. Ever since he started his presidential campaign, Trump has constantly expressed his intention to beef up the armed forces.

The president has been boosting US military spending and aggressively bullying, even threatening, NATO allies to do the same, which appears to be an effort to sell them more US arms, rather than to reduce the financial burden on his country, as he claims.

Through the enormously lucrative exporting of arms, Washington (alongside Russia, France and the UK) is also helping escalate a devastating and destructive arms race in the Middle East. Not only is this flow of arms fuelling conflicts and wars across the region, especially in Yemen, Iraq and Gaza, it is also putting advanced weaponry in the hands of unstable and fragile regimes. As occurred with the Shah’s regime in Iran or with ISIS in Iraq, this could lead to American weapons falling into the hands of hostile groups, undermining US interests and the security of its allies.

This deadly flood of US weapons is not just directed outwards, but increasingly being turned inwards. In recent decades, American policing has undergone immense militarisation,which is stoking police violence and brutality. Moreover, with more guns than people in the United States, the NRA and its supporters have facilitated a veritable and escalating arms race, not between nations, but between US citizens, with the right owning the lion’s shareof the national arsenal.

Anxious about their slipping status, conservative white men, in particular,have been building up immense and rapidly growing stockpiles of guns as a phallic totem to regain their eroded sense of worth and‘masculinity’, not only by protecting themselves and their families against the ‘bad guys’ looming in the peripheries of their imaginations, but also, casting themselves as the ‘good guys’, in a desperate attempt to unlock and unleash their inner hero.

These arsenals are bad news both for the far right’s designated bad guys– including blacks, Jews, Muslims, LGBT communities and other minorities, not to mention the eternal target of male rage, women – but also for random citizens going about their business who get caught in the cross-fire of mass shootings. One oft-overlooked victim of the harrowing levels of gun violence in America is, with suicides accounting for two-thirds of firearms deaths, the gun owner.

What this shows is that restrictive gun ownership laws would not deprive conservative Americans, contrary to their paranoid convictions, of the means to defend themselves but would protect white people from the largest killer targeting them: white people.

As the above clearly demonstrates, gun and arms control are not just ethical issues for wish-washy, limp-wristed pacifists like myself. There is also a pragmatic, America-centric case for reining in the country’s weapons addiction. It would save American lives abroad and at home, while freeing up astonishing amounts of wasted resources that could be used to improve the health, welfare and wealth of Americans.

A smaller American military and restricted US arms exports will have immediate beneficial effects for the rest of the world, as it will safeguard for people living in areas targeted by American arms the most fundamental right of all – the right to breathe.

Despite the clear gains for America and Americans, I won’t hold my breath that unilateralist Donald Trump will unilaterally end America’s unilateral arms race. There is just too much gain to be made from people’s pain.


This article was first published by The New Arab on 6 December 2018.

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