Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918

The Two Leaves

page 8

The Two Leaves

It is in terse phrases that the Infantryman and the Light Horseman are accustomed to give a concentrated opinion of their respective fields. And for those who know both countries in war time each is perfectly true. But there's no comparing the fields. They have nothing in common. France has the more intense and ceaseless fighting; Palestine the more intense discomfort. France offers endless variety in the country and people of its war-zone; Palestine is monotonous.

The lot of the Digger and of the Horseman acquire nothing in common when leave comes. If the one goes to London, and the other to Cairo, they are separated by more than distance —by as deep a gulf in atmosphere as though they still inhabited the Somme region and the Jordan Valley respectively.

The difference begins with the journey towards the enchanted City-of-Leave. The Digger entrains for Boulogne. With luck, he has some companions; not always; because leave is a bit scarce and he finds himself sometimes in a part of the war zone from which a leave train does not run. He may then be inhabiting a third class compartment with a company entirely civilian. But this will not bore him. He gets on well with the French, amazingly well. There is an extraordinary sympathy between theFrench and the Australian. The Australian is intensely domesticated. He wouldn't admit it; but he is. Where other soldiers spend night after night in estaminets, the Australian seeks out his French family with whom he is a friend of long standing, and spends his evenings there —playing with the kiddies and kidding all the demoiselles a treat. And if he is not in the house, he's walking out with the family. The Digger is extremely faithful in these friendships. He wears well as a friend of the French. If he comes back in the old area to rest, he does not forget his old friends. Neither do they forget him. The French like this consistency. It's a libel that the French are fickle in their friendships; just as it is untrue to say that, in France, Jamily-life is dying. On the contrary, there is as much natural affection within the French family as in any family on earth.

But the Digger was on his way to Boulogne to get the leave-boat, making good with the civvies in the carriage, The nearest the Light Horseman comes to traversing the water to get his leave is to run across the Canal.

At Boulogne the Digger will probably stay a night. Unless he has come down in a leave train he will give the rest-camp a miss and put up at a decent pub.—and get the first sleep that he has had between sheets for many months. The run to Folkestone is very short—much shorter than the run by train to London through the hop-fields of Kent and the pleasant country of Southern England. It is not as deep a contrast to him to run over this beautiful land, after France, as it is for the Light Horseman to find himself in the Delta after the Desert.

It's a curious thing that the Digger does not find himself so much at home in London—generally speaking—as the Light Horseman in Cairo. There is an everlasting incompatibility between him and his London environment. Australian hats and tunics slouching about the Metropolis always brought me a sense of incongruity.

They're out of their setting. Somehow the Light Horseman fits in better at Cairo— better with the informality of dress and manner of the Egyptian, and even with the dry heat of Cairo—as distinct from the everlasting London murk. You can always raise a laugh with the Gyppo, who has a lovely sense of humour. You miss that lightness and irresponsibility in the denizens of the London streets. They seem to have caught a sombreness from their climate. There is something heavy and formal in the deportment of the citizens—even in the way the traffic moves. Australians in London feel this so keenly that those who have no special reason for going there generally flee off to the more compatible atmosphere of Scotland—for the Scotch and the Australian mix well. A still greater number go to Paris or the South of France, where they seem quite at home. A great many go to Genoa, Rome, Naples, Venice, and loll about for two weeks in a climate that suits them down to the tendons of their hind legs. It is nothing to them that they understand not a word of the language beyond "Bon journo!" and "Grazzia!"

This term Digger is a very universal one in France; and it's fairly recent in origin. It has supplanted "Billjim" and "Billzac" as generic terms—and even "Cobber," as a name by which you accost your friends, is quite out of it "Hullo, Digger", is the greeting now. It is a title very jealously guarded. Bean has celebrated the triumph of the entente cordiule between the Australians and the Americans, by declaring that, after the second German push, when they fought together, all Americans became technically classified as Diggers. The origin of the term is a bit obscure. I don't think it connotes the habit of digging-in, peculiar to the Infantryman.

I rather think it began amongst the West Australian battalions, where the miner was so frequent. Anyhow, it's a very honourable appellation now.

The Digger in London is rather famous for his reckless expenditure on taxi-cabs aud hotel bills—and for his tendency to take excursions into the outskirts of the city. When he doesn't go into the suburbs he mopes—that's the only word—hangs about Horseferry Road to yarn with his friends, plods up and down the Strand in the most disconsolate fashion, or leans against the lamp-post on the street-island, looking at the mob. He often takes long spells in conversation with the policeman directing traffic there.

Far dearer to the Australian than any number of St. Pauls or Westminsters or Towers of London is a yarn with another bloke. Outside the Anzac Buffet at Horseferry Road you'll see, at any time of the day, a row of a hundred of them squatting on the low wall under the iron railings, smoking fags and talking fitfully. The stone wall about Trafalgar Square is another favourite haunt. The Australian is not a fluent conversationalist, and never was—thank God! Words are not cheap with him. His hat on the back of his head, his fag in the corner of his mouth, he converses jerkily, in chunks. A good deal of the conversation is shrewd and amusing criticism of passers-by. His wittiest comments are made off-hand, without a smile on his dial.

You don't find many fellows lounging about Headquarters in Cairo—except round the Pay Office. Light Horsemen always seem to find something better to do. But there is no Mousky in London—and there are no London slums to interesting (in spite of the stinks) as the Cairene alleys. Nor are there any outside excursions so informal as you get on donks at the Pyramids and Sakkhara.

All Diggers are not so unfortunate as to be compelled to mope in London. Sometimes by accident, sometimes by introduction, they get into the homes of the English. Once they have done that, no hospitality is quite so kind, generous and lasting as that of the English family. It beats the French. There are some Diggers who will bless forever the day they got introduced into the bosom of an English family. There ate few things so charming in this world. And once you have the friendship of English mothers and girls and younger brothers, you can be sure it will last. The heavy, crushing formalism of London is public only. Within the heart of a good English family there is none of it.

The man on leave in Cairo suffers from the want of domesticity—so small is the Enelish colony here. But I know some men from Palestine who have got to know English and French families in Cairo whose friends they will be forever. But they are not many.

Of course the Digger scores in theatres. The revue and the Opera and the plays of London batten on the man on leave—and some of them are pretty good: some are not. Cairo, with its cabarets, cinema-shows and music-halls, is liable to leave a bloke rather starved of decent theatrical entertainment. But the man in Cairo scores in grub. In England there are more than a few Diggers who are actually deterred from accepting English hospitality by the scarcity of sugar, fruit, and butter. It's quite the custom in London now for people visitng their friends for a few days to take a supply of sugar and margarine. The Londoners don't enjoy such generous meals as you can get in Cairo—with as much sugar, butter, beef, fruit, cream and other luxuries as you want. This is important; for going on leave is an exhausting thing and makes people infernally hungry.

There are air-raids, of course, in London. Diggers on leave sometimes see exhibitions of fireworks that you'll never see in Cairo. But if you are caught in a tube station during a raid the beauty of the fireworks that you saw is quite washed out by the horde of aliens that crowd into the tube-mouth, and crush women and children in the effort to secure their own miserable lives. It's not they who get outed in a raid, but the English who have harboured them.

In subsequent sketches—if the readers of this journal can bear it—I may perhaps try to give some notion of the kind of leave the Digger enjoys in Italy.