Digger newspapers of the first world war
© Dr Graham Seal
IntroductionIt is not widely known that during the first world war Australian soldiers produced a considerable body of publications on active service and even in the front line. Within six weeks of the landing on Gallipoli, for instance, a number of newspapers were circulating among the 'dugouts' and 'possies' of Anzac. Publications like these -known as trench newspapers -continued throughout the war. Some sophisticated magazines and journals were produced, such as the Digger and Aussie, the latter continuing into civilian life as the voice of returned servicemen.
Containing verse, rumour, anecdotes and various forms of written and graphic humour, trench newspapers were almost totally written by their readers, the diggers, and so provide an unequalled insight into everyday life and death during the 1914-18 war. The term 'trench newspaper' describes a variety of news-sheets, magazines and similar periodicals (in intent, at least, some only lasted one issue) produced on active service.
Trench newspapers were produced by soldiers on active service, often while at or near the front line. At their most basic level, such publications were extremely crudely produced, sometimes being created with a pencil, old pieces of notepaper and some sheets of carbon. Those produced in the relative calm of a headquarters often used reprographic equipment such as jelly or spirit duplicators, while some even had access to small printing presses. The most refined were produced by professional or semi-professional journalists and had official blessing and support.
Trench newspapers must be distinguished from the troopship newspapers discussed by David Kent in articles and his book From Trench and Troopship (1999). While there are similarities between troopship journals and trench newspapers, they can be distinguished by the circumstances of their production and by their intended functions. As Kent points out, troopship journals were intended to provide a diversion from the monotony and boredom of prolonged shipboard life. Entertainment was therefore the primary aim of this shipboard journalism. Trench papers, particularly of the most basic type, rarely had to combat boredom. Instead, they aimed to provide a kind of sounding-board in the uncertainty of front-line or near front-line existence. The newspapers became outlets for rumour-mongering, complaints, (suitably expressed in humorous verse, anecdote or, in the more sophisticated journals, the reader's letter), and various expressions and explorations of 'Australian -ness'.
While the differences between troopship and trench newspapers are important, recognition of them should not obscure the fact that the troopship publications acted as models for the tone and style of the trench journals. They were bright, breezy, and colloquial (within limits), with a slightly irreverent approach to army authority, morality, religion and the war itself. Both troopship and trench newspapers were largely written by their readers, the editors generally providing a suitable forum within which a variety of digger expressions could be articulated and broadcast further than by word of mouth. Included in the wider constituency of both types of publication were officers, their actions and attitudes frequently held up to implied criticism and correction through the humorous asides printed in the newspapers. 1
A distinction must also be made between trench newspapers and compilations like The Anzac book,2 , While trench newspapers were produced entirely for consumption by soldiers on active service, The Anzac Book was always intended as much, if not more, for " home front audiences. Unlike trench papers, The Anzac Book contained no news (spurious or otherwise) and was not much concerned with some of the other central genres of the trench newspaper, mainly the furphy and the humorous letter. The officers who first proposed an 'Anzac Annual' to Bean probably got the idea from the trench papers that circulated on Gallipoli. And although he included some material from these publications, Bean intended that The Anzac Book would present his own view of Anzac and its meaning to a broader readership of non-diggers.3
Trench newspapers can be conveniently grouped into three rough and overlapping categories, largely in terms of their relative sophistication. A survey of trench journals held in the Australian War Memorial's collection reveals that they can be ranked according to their frequency and regularity of issue, production location, cost, production media. the degree of official control or sanction to which they were subject, their page length, and the duration of their existence. While there are examples of trench journals that fit clearly into each of the three types these categories continually shade into each other.