Book Review – Dale Blair, Dinkum Diggers. An Australian Battalion at War (Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2001)

Dale Blair’s book compares the historical construction of the ‘digger’, the fabled Australian volunteer soldier who fought during the Great War, against the actual experience of ordinary Australian infantryman who fought with the 1st Battalion, Australian Imperial Force (AIF) at Gallipoli and Flanders.

The ‘digger’ ideal emerged during the Great War. One description was cited from a newspaper in the 1920s. This claimed the Anzacs were made up of men of the ‘greatest physical perfection that the world has seen. Trained in at the highest athletic pitch, briefly, but effectively, instructed in the use of unfamiliar weapons, untested in battle, these laughing paladins of the South…Accomplished feats of arms which placed Australia’s high upon the scroll of gallant adventure…heroism unequalled…to these pioneers of Anazc will always belong the place of honour won in dramatic preface.’[1]

In addition to this, the ‘digger’ was a ‘uncomplicated common man’ who was loyal to his mates and demonstrated resourcefulness, initiative and resilience in his fight against Turk or German. His relationship with his officers was informal, close and characterised by an egalitarian ethos.[2]

He unsurprisingly concludes that the assumed traits of the ‘digger’ don’t match the historical reality of experience.[3] For example, he dismisses the idea of harmonious inter-rank relations instead suggesting hostility plagued relations between leader and led.[4]

It is Blair’s heavy focus on undermining the ‘digger’ myth that is the main weakness of the book and gives the book the feel of a polemic.

However, much of the book focuses on the social and experiential history of the men who served in the unit and this is what gives the book its strength. Blair sets out considerable research on the social and occupational background of the men which he uses to explore soldiers’ behaviour. For example, he notes that one characteristic of the mutineers who mutinied in September 1918 were drawn from a labour and trade union background.[5]

In many ways, it is a pity that more focus was not given to exploring experience of soldier. Blair highlights some interesting evidence but does not investigate it further. For example, he says the unit had a large number ‘accidental injuries’ that rose by tenfold between 1916 and 1918.[6] He does not examine the extent and nature of these injuries but states in a single line that this rise was due to men ‘wanting to escape the frontline’.[7]

Despite these minor problems, this is an excellent social and cultural history that, despite being over 20 years old, is still worth reading.

[1] Dale Blair, Dinkum Diggers. An Australian Battalion at War (Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2001), p.172.

[2] Ibid., pp.1-2, 37.

[3] Ibid., p.188.

[4] Ibid., pp.53, 46, 157-164.

[5] Ibid., pp.23-29, 161.

[6] Ibid., p.179.

[7] Ibid., p.179.