An excerpt from Mal’s book Us Aussies that was used at an Anzac service at the War Memorial in Canberra, Australia.
“Central to every Australian country town is a monument. If there is a human figure on the monument it will not symbolise or represent any great statesman, philosopher or artist. It will be a statue that represents the ordinary man. Everybody who left our shores to fight has their name hammered out in stone. Those who did not return have a star beside their name. Everyone gets a guernsey! These special monuments tell a story that brought the Australian into focus. A self shaped by our own special history, it put them on the international scene in a traumatic way the young nation was never to forget.
Lieutenant Aiken explained the uniqueness of our fighting men when he said, “The Australian is not a soldier but he is a fighter – a born fighter. Each Australian had his separate individuality and his priceless initiative which made him infinitely better than the clockwork soldiers of the other armies.”
General John Monash writing to his wife was to say of the same soldier, “For the most perilous enterprises, whenever volunteers are called for, every man in sight offers instantly, although it often means certain death to many of them.”
Lloyd George the British Prime Minister would say of them, “They make the finest shock troops I’ve ever seen.”
Throughout the First World War, be it Flanders, Mesopotamia or Gallipoli, the tall bronzed Australian soldiers striding on to the world scene for the first time, made a remarkable impression.
C.D.Montague who saw them go into action on the Somme, said of our battalions, “They are men startlingly taller, stronger, handsomer, prouder, firmer in nerve, better skilled, more boldly interested in life, quicker to take means to an end, and to parry and counter any new blow of circumstance, men who had learned already to look at our men with a half curious look of a higher, happier caste, at a lower.
Towards the end of the war a British General said of them, “If the world fell apart tomorrow an Australian would put it together again with three bits of string and a fencing wire.”
The Australian soldier in the main did not glory in the war. His view was, “It’s a dirty job. Some mug has to do it, so let’s get into it and clear out as soon as we can.”
Within that setting, other more personable aspects came sharply into focus. Australian humour, art, and attachment to a mate seemed to intensify where life itself was in question. The cheeky Aussie grin is a constant companion to the black experience of war. They laughed at their generals, they laughed at themselves and they laughed at the enemy, as if to shrink the whole terrifying experience to a manageable size.
Laughing at disaster was a trait that had helped them survive in the bush back home – a trait well illustrated by an event in the desert when an Aussie signalman was semaphoring to his artillery, the position of the German tanks. All the time, his mates nervously watched him keep up his courageous but important communication, while desperate German mortars tried to knock him off. On one occasion there was a great explosion and a cloud of dust which appeared, through the glasses, to be a direct hit. His mates dropped their jaws in horror until he scrambled up again, brushed the dirt from his face, grinned and turned back to the Germans to signal with the same flag, the single word, “Missed.”
They came back from the wars chastened, saddened, and hating war. They had seen the worst horror and survived it with dignity. One digger was heard to say, “Everyone is proud of being an Australian now.”