As I read through the words and phrases in Australian English that date back to World War I, I am struck by two clusters of words. The first reflects the fact that any sphere of activity has not only its official names, but also its unofficial names. We tend to bond over words that are not imposed from above but spring directly from experience.
The second relates to humour, ranging from the cheerful domestic kind to bordering-on-hysterical. Black humour can be an attempt to prove, to ourselves and others, that we can deal with unspeakable horror.
The group of Australians and New Zealanders that joined the expeditionary force on the Gallipoli Peninsula was initially called the Australasian Army Corps. After New Zealanders objected to the colonial catch-all of ‘Australasia’, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps became the official name, quickly shortened to ANZAC.
But their informal name was the Diggers. The first specialised use of digger in Australian English dates back to the 1850s gold rush in Victoria. This use carried on through the century right up to the goldfields rush in WA in the 1890s.
In New Zealand a digger might be a miner in the goldfields, or someone digging for kauri gum, a fossilised resin used for jewellery.
When Australian and New Zealand soldiers went to World War I in France and were introduced to trench warfare, the term digger perhaps came more naturally than the British sapper. While it was the soldiers at the front line digging the trenches who earned this name, it began to encompass Australian and New Zealand soldiers of any rank and was used as a form of greeting. Prime Minister Billy Hughes was affectionately nicknamed ‘the Little Digger’ by the Australian troops he visited in France.
The diggers referred to the Turkish soldiers as Abdul, a common first name in Turkey. Following a similar logic, the Turks called the Anzacs Johnnies and themselves Mehmets. As Mustafa Kelmet Atatürk wrote in 1934, ‘There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.’
A discussion of significant locations during this period must begin with Gallipoli. The irony of ironies is that the name meant ‘beautiful city’ from the Ancient Greek kallos ‘beautiful’ and polis ‘city’. The other landmarks of the region are so well known that we can pass on to the unofficial naming that was part of the job of the soldier.