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Amanda Laugesen

The relationship between the world of soldiers and the world of civilians has long been a topic of interest to historians and other scholars of war. Joan Beaumont’s significant new book Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (reviewed in ABR, February 2014) emphasises the importance of considering the war front and home front side by side, and a ...

W hat book would you want to read in hell, or in one of humanity’s remarkably competent imitations of it? Tristram Shandy seemed about right to one young Yorkshireman who reached the Western Front in 1915. A year later he found an anthology for soldiers edited by Robert Bridges, the poet laureate, but it seemed so lofty in purpose, so earnest in its morality, and so abstract in its idealism that it simply wilted in the mud and blood. When World War II began, the Yorkshireman, now famous as the poet and art critic Herbert Read, assembled his own sturdier anthology, The Knapsack (1944), mixing Spinoza with Edward Lear. Read’s little volume seemed perfectly pitched to William Loh, a Western Australian soldier in New Guinea in 1943, where ‘hardship and boredom walked hand in hand’, films and concert tours rarely reached the front line, and newspapers and precious letters from home arrived far too late, or so Loh complained. He suggested getting an Australian version of Read’s book to the troops. Just give it a different title, he advised: ‘Knapsacks are too bulky up here.’

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While I was reading this book, news came that Peter Casserly, the last surviving digger who fought on the Western Front in World War I, had died, aged 107. Like Marcel Caux, who died in 2004, aged 105, Casserly always repudiated the Australian glorification of Gallipoli, refusing to participate in Anzac Day marches, join the RSL or even to talk about his wartime experiences. Yet after eighty-seven years of silence on the subject, Casserly had not forgotten the language that diggers used in 1917. The Sydney Morning Herald report of his death quoted from an interview he gave. ‘Another time Fritz derailed a train with English soldiers on board,’ he recollected, adding that, ‘Jerry was always trying to blow up the train with all its ammo.’ The soldiers’ terms to refer to their enemy, the Germans (or ‘the Hun’, as it pleased supporters of the conflict to say then), were Fritz, the pet-form of the common German given name Friedrich, and Jerry, an English pet-name that echoed the word German. Likewise, the Turks were called Abdul and Johnny Turk.

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Amanda Laugesen’s Convict Words is a dictionary of the characteristic or salient words of early colonial discourse, the lexis of the convict system and transportation, which survived until 1840 in New South Wales, 1852 in Van Diemen’s Land, and 1868 in Western Australia. It is not immediately clear what sort of readership is envisaged for the book. It would not occur to many people interested in Australian colonial history to address the subject through the words the actors in that history used, and the book does not directly answer most of the questions the enquirer might have in mind, unless of course it were convictism itself. As for word-buffs, the limited range of the target lexis – convict words in this narrow sense, and not necessarily Australianisms – may not have suggested itself as an engrossing topic.

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