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The Genesis of Digger by Tim Lycett

Countering this explanation, Captain Cyril Longmore, the author of the Western Australian 44th Battalion history, ‘Eggs a Cook’ recorded that the term ‘digger’ originated while the battalion was training on Salisbury Plain in England during 1916. He further clarified the timing and circumstances of the event in letters published in both the Reveille magazine and Western Mail newspaper during 1930,

“….the word as applied to the A.I.F. originated in September or October 1916, when Brigadier-General Cannan, in an address to the 11th Brigade, eulogised the digging prowess of the 44th Battalion after a three days’ occupation by the brigade of the Bustard trench system on Salisbury Plain. The other three battalions derisively labelled the 44th “the diggers” as they marched off the parade. Never mentioned before, it became the common mode of address from that time and when the Third Division went to France a month later it spread rapidly throughout the A.I.F.”

But what is missing from these various post-war accounts is primary evidence contemporary with the events described. Does written or recorded evidence of any kind exist to support one or more of these theories? Appearing in Kalgoorlie’s ‘Western Argus’ newspaper on 19th December 1916, two letters may help to solve the riddle. 4684 Private Harry William Bromley had been a Kalgoorlie jeweller leading into the war and had finally enlisted with the 12th Reinforcements, 28th Battalion in February 1916. First sent to Egypt, he later embarked for England where in the latter half of 1916 he found himself undergoing further training on Salisbury Plain. It was from here during October 1916 that he penned the letters to his family back home in Western Australia. The lengthy correspondences describing his experiences up to that date were subsequently supplied to the Kalgoorlie newspaper and no doubt published because of their local interest. But more importantly for future historians, they inadvertently provided a clue to the origins of ‘digger’.

In the first of the two letters from Salisbury Plain, amid the tales of his soldiering adventures, Bromley remarks,

“In a large camp like this, it is remarkable the amount of good feeling the boys have for one another. As a rule, sociability appears to be the password. You can hear on every side, ‘Give’s a match Digger’ or ‘Give’s a cigarette Cobber’. It’s all Cobber and Digger here.”

And in the second letter written later that month, Bromley makes further mention of the emerging ‘Digger’,

“Of course drafts of men are being sent to the front at intervals from here, and it would appear as if just sufficient are being sent to maintain a good fighting front until the weather breaks. We recognise that if all the ‘diggers’ and ‘cobbers’ who are here now were sent, and under present weather conditions at the front, the losses from pneumonia and other freezing weather complaints would be increased many fold.”

Clearly Bromley’s letters signal a transitional period between the common usage of ‘cobber’ and ‘digger’ but even more remarkably coincide exactly in both time and place with the post-war account provided by Cyril Longmore. Of course, this evidence doesn’t discount all the other theories and it is feasible that there was more than one source. The nature of its pre-existence in civilian times before the war means ‘digger’ can arguably be linked to all manner of conjecture and speculation with some degree of truth.

It may also be true that both the New Zealanders and A.I.F. ushered in the use of ‘digger’ quite independently of each other. It is interesting to note that Pugsley’s version of events surrounding the Maori pioneers digging trenches near Flers also occurred at precisely the same time that the 44th Battalion was in training on Salisbury Plain. Although Bromley’s letters would appear to refute Pugsley’s notion that ‘digger’ then spread from the New Zealanders to the A.I.F. later in 1917, it remains possible that both incidents are coincidentally responsible for the emergence of the title.

Nevertheless, regardless of what other narratives may claim, based on the explanation offered by Cyril Longmore and the accompanying supporting primary evidence provided in Harry Bromley’s letters, there can be no denying that the 44th Battalion and its occupation of the Bustard trench system on Salisbury Plain in September-October 1916 is, at least in part, responsible for the genesis of the title ‘Digger’. But perhaps even more accurately we can now arguably name the very person responsible for planting the seed; the commander of the 11th Brigade, Brigadier-General James Harold Cannan.

First published in DIGGER, the magazine of the Familes and Friends of the First AIF Inc.

Other useful links:
Australian Dictionary of Biography – click here
Australian War Memorial war diaries – click here
Australian War Graves Photographic Archive – click here
The Digger: A Study in Democracy by Alan Butler – click here
New Zealand History Online – click here

9780670075362
Fromelles: The Final Chapters by Tim Lycett & Sandra Playle

The Battle of Fromelles in France during the First World War was Australia’s worst 24 hours. Thousands of men were shot down amid the horror of that blundered attack. The whereabouts of hundreds of dead soldiers was unknown for almost a century until the discovery in 2008 of unmarked mass graves at Pheasant Wood. The remains of these 250 men sparked a mission to reclaim their identities.

Tim Lycett and Sandra Playle became key players in the identification project, volunteering their time and working alongside other amateur advocates and international experts. Tim tells how they pieced together fragments of information from relics, military records and family histories using genealogy data and DNA analysis. They fought to have authorities reopen investigations in their quest to find the untold stories of the diggers and reconnect them with their families. This is an inspiring, heart-rending account of war, its aftermath and its effect on the lives of the lost diggers’ descendants“.

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