Humour provided a safety valve for Australian soldiers confined to the trenches during the First World War.
Professor Véronique Duché, Professor of French at the University of Melbourne, found that members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) learned the language of their Allies, and the enemy, and then modified it into slang for comedic effect.
“The Australian troops arrived on the Western Front in 1916, two years after the French had begun fighting there, but they nevertheless embraced this means of expression.”
Following the French journals Bochophage and Rigolboche (1915–1918), ‘boche’ meaning German soldier, the Australians produced Aussie magazine from 1918 to 1919.
In the first edition, the editor Phillip Harris used inclusive new terms such as ‘Aussie’ and ‘digger’:
“Others don’t like our slanguage. But Aussie would remind these friendly critics that there is a lot of slang in the talk of our Army. And whatever defects our Aussie vernacular may have, it certainly has the virtue of being expressive. Aussie merely aims at being a dinkum Aussie … And, after all, the slang to-day is the language of to-morrow.”
Aussie magazine was unapologetically Australian, celebrating the spirit of the soldiery:
‘Here’s Aussie. He comes on the strength of the A.I.F. … His one object in life is to be bright and cheerful and interesting — to reflect that happy spirit and good humour so strongly evidenced throughout the Aussie Army. … Aussie does not consider that it shows a lack of education for a Digger to call a gentleman a Digger — and the Digger who objects to being called a Digger doesn’t deserve the compliment.”
Professor Duché said slang from the journals included ‘Fritz’, a shortening of the common German name ‘Friedrich’, to mean ‘German’ and ‘Alleyman’, a phonetic rendering of ‘Allemand’, a French term for ‘German’.
Multicultural Australia had a strong German population at the time of the First World War, with 10,000 Germans comprising the largest group of non-British people in Victoria from 1861. Perhaps this was one reason why the Australian cartoons were fairly good natured.
Professor Duché said many of the words had since disappeared, apart from ‘Jerry’ which re-emerged during the Second World War.
“These trench publications provide an unequalled insight into everyday life and death during the Great War and they reveal the mood of the time,” she said.
“In describing the enemy, the authors may end up revealing more about themselves. To talk about ‘the other’ is to talk about oneself.”