It is the year 1887 in Bellender Ker, Queensland. A group of white settlers are, by force, clearing an area of natives. Thinking everyone has been killed or driven away, they are dismayed to stumble upon a baby, “a bloody picaninny,” whose mother they have already killed. One settler proposes leaving it for “the dogs” as the group compares the baby to an animal. Another settler nearly shoots it, until a Taxidermist comes along and stops them. The Taxidermist picks up the baby, describes it as a “perfect specimen,” tells the child it is lucky to be “back from the dead,” and sings it a hymn, which closes the scene as the other men “reassemble” themselves.
The opening scene of Black Diggers narrates the foundational event—the largely forgotten and downplayed genocide of Aboriginal Australians—that is fundamental to both the founding of the Australian state (through the conquering and expansion of land) and the history of Indigenous Australians, whose contemporary struggles are a result of colonization’s legacy. While the Taxidermist saves the child in this scene, he is not necessarily more sympathetic or less bloodthirsty than the other settlers; he only saves the child for being a physical curiosity, worth displaying in a museum or zoo because he exemplifies the “character” of Aboriginal Australians, whom scientists at this point in history believed could be demonstrated as less evolved than white people.
In 1914, “Somewhere on the Gwyndir,” a stick-carrying white Retired Schoolmaster tells a group of boys—Harry and his mates Norm, Bob, and Ern—about the “quiet war” that “could easily threaten all that is right, and true, and valuable to us all” happening in Europe. He implores them to think about their “duties” and fear “swathes of Mahommedan Turks or creeping armies of sausage-breathed Huns” occupying Australia. The boys laugh, but soon join the Retired Schoolmaster in a song, “Sons of the Southern Cross.” The song’s lyrics name icons of Australian nature and announce to “our brothers” that Australians will “be there” in the war. Though they at first join in jest, the boys’ “parade of mimicry becomes a rallying march.”
The Retired Schoolmaster’s speech is ironic both because the war is being fought on the other side of the world (and so Australia is only relevant because of its status as a British colony) and because he seems to forget that Australia itself was “founded” by “swathes” of foreign invaders. Clearly, when he refers to “us all” he is only thinking about white people, which shows how Indigenous people are erased from ideas of Australian identity even while they are still being massacred on Australian land. At the same time, white Australian nationalism is happy to claim indigenous land itself as a source of pride and identity, as the lyrics of “Sons of the Southern Cross" demonstrate. The boys’ mimicry—whether this symbolizes mocking or an attempt at fitting in—quickly turns them into soldiers, as though they, too, choose to forget the hypocrisies in the Schoolmaster’s view.
Later, in same group of boys, Harry asks his friends why some seen people (“they”) are going to fight in the Army, then insists that “no-one knows what it’s all about.” One of his mates explains the factors leading up to the war in scrupulous detail, citing “the culmination of structural problems in continental Europe that have been festering for over four decades,” but after a pause Harry repeats that “no-one knows what it’s about.” The boys then “become stuffed primates in a nineteenth-century museum.”
After Harry hears a detailed explanation of the war’s causes, it becomes clear that he is simply uninterested in understanding the conflict in which he will eventually fight. In fact, he is willfully denying the war’s futility. Harry’s friend’s explanation shows that the war is just a result of seemingly arbitrary alliances and systemic problems that have no identifiable culprit. They seek to make the war mean something else, something more, at least for themselves.
The scene shifts to 1895, when the Taxidermist takes a boy, Nigel, through Sydney’s Australian Museum, showing him the exhibits of stuffed animals (really the play’s actors). When Nigel asks whether the lowland gorilla is a man, the Taxidermist explains that humans are related to the animal. Nigel asks if he is related to the Taxidermist, and the Taxidermist calls himself Nigel’s father, then explains how people and apes evolved out of monkeys. Nigel then asks, “what happened to my aborigine parents?” The Taxidermist says they died, but refuses to explain how, “because you’re not ready yet.” He wants Nigel to enjoy his childhood rather than dealing with “the complicated, difficult” adult world. When Nigel asks if his parents were killed, the Taxidermist admits that they were. Nigel then asks if they were scared, but the Taxidermist has “vanished.” The exhibits attack Nigel, who runs away.
It quickly becomes clear in this scene that Nigel was the boy from the play’s opening scene, and that the Taxidermist has adopted him as his own son after saving him from the other white settlers. Although he does not explicitly say that his interest in Indigenous peoples is connected to his interest in apes, it is clear that his job involves proving nonwhite people less “evolved”—since, as a matter of historical fact, this was one of colonial anthropologists’ main goals. Just as the play stops short of explicitly stating this, the Taxidermist stops short of explicitly telling Nigel his role in the boy’s parents’ murder. When the exhibits attack Nigel, this represents the onslaught of racism, the sense of siege he feels at understanding that the world sees him as closer to an ape than a man.
In the year 1916, Norm, Bob, and Ern are in Brisbane’s Boundary Hotel wondering about what will happen to their “army pay,” and whether it will “go to the protector” (that is, the government agencies that run Aboriginal people’s lives). Ern suggests that they will get to keep their own wages, since “if you can fire a gun and stand in a sun, they might pretend to forget you’re …” Norm interrupts him: “What??”
In the first half of the 20th century, Aboriginal Protection Boards in Australia’s various states were charged with forcibly assimilating Indigenous Australians into a white way of life—this is the “protector” to whom the soldiers refer, and it functioned much more to prevent Indigenous people from winning autonomous control over their lives and property than to help them improve their quality of life. Ern is clearly implying that “they might pretend to forget you’re Aboriginal.” But the notion that whites would only “pretend to forget” shows that the diggers are already suspicious about whether any advancements they achieve would be permanent.
Flashing back to 1915 in Petrie Terrace, nineteen-year old Ern—full name Ernest Hopkins—goes to sign up for the Army. Upon learning Ern was born in Barambah, however, the Recruiting Corporal shouts that “you can’t come in here” because “you’re not a citizen.” He gives Ern a form calling him of “Deficient Physique” due to his “Strongly Aboriginal Appearance.” On the street, Norm reveals that his own form says “Flat feet (Aboriginal),” and Bob that his says “No White Parentage.”
Barambah, Ern’s hometown, was created as a segregated reservation for Aboriginal Australians in 1900. While Aboriginal Australians were subject to restrictive government policies, they were not even considered citizens, and the officers’ conflation of the men’s Aboriginal descent with “deficient physique[s]” of various sorts shows how (across multiple dimensions) political rights, now-discredited anthropological ideas of human “evolution,” and the ability to fight in World War One were considered inextricably tied.
Ern, Norm, and Bob go to another recruiting hall in order to “do it different this time.” A number of officials debate and consult books to figure out “what ‘Substantially European’ means” and “how dark” the boys can be if they want to enlist. The boys give fake names, then the same fake address and birthday. The Recruiting Sergeant decides they can be “Substantially European” because “your father was white, wasn’t he?” A doctor examines Ern and the clerk writes down “Very strongly aboriginal in type.” Laughing, the boys put on ill-fitting military uniforms.
Despite the official rules against Indigenous men enlisting, the Recruiting Sergeant, like the boys themselves, clearly understands that these rules are a farce. More interested in finding manpower for the war than enforcing the government’s desire for racial purity, the Sergeant shows that racism is ultimately up to individuals to enforce and offers hope that the Army might include the Aboriginal soldiers in a way Australian society does not.
It is 1915. A “voice from an old wireless” praises “extraordinary specimens” for their “toughness” and “the ingenuity of the land of their birth.” These “specimens” are white Australians fighting in Europe, “the finest of the British race cast anew under a southern sun.” They display “the greatness of the White Man” and fight to define Australian identity on the global stage.
The radio transmission expresses the racial ideology of the Australian nation, which conceives itself as great because it is white and Australian territory as great because white people live there. At the same time, the language of “extraordinary specimen” recalls the Taxidermist calling Nigel a “perfect specimen” in the opening scene and reiterates how racism reduces people’s humanity to their physical characteristics.
Ern, Norm, and Bob pose on Queen Street for a photo, joking that their families and friends “back home” will not believe they are fighting in the military, or else think they are police. They also note that people have started treating them differently since they put on the uniforms, “like they’ve forgotten you’re —”
Because authority has always persecuted and oppressed Aboriginal people, something seems inherently contradictory about Aboriginal men in official uniforms. But, again, Ern, Norm, and Bob stop short of uttering the word “Aboriginal,” as though avoiding naming their curse.
In the military in 1915, about to cross into France, Archie writes a letter to his Aunty May under lamplight. He hopes her well and affirms that he is praying and thinking of her.
Archie’s letters to Auntie May remind the audience that the soldiers’ struggles also impacted their families, and also echo the archival basis of the play (letters and records from Indigenous soldiers).
At the Dardanelles in 1915, on a boat approaching a beach amidst exploding shells, officials cower and prepare for the worst while a soldier named Laurie laughs, wondering “what the old folks would say” about “arriving in boats uninvited on someone’s beach.” He prays earnestly as the sounds of war grow louder.
The war arrives in shocking fashion, likely to shock the audience just as it does Laurie. His comment about “the old folks” points to the irony in invading another land after Australia was devastated by foreign (European) invaders.
In the Indian Ocean in 1916, an “Aggressive Private” named Jim takes issue with Harry’s presence during mealtime on a military ship. Harry insists “the world’s turned upside down,” and Jim agrees that it is “upside down when a coon thinks it’s all right” to share space, food, and utensils with a white man. Jim threatens Harry louder and louder; the other soldiers beat Jim up, and after the confrontation Harry reports that Jim is saying, “the world turned upside fucking down.” The aptly-named song “The World’s Turned Upside Down” plays, announcing that “the white man needs us coloured boys now” because “the world’s turned upside down.”
Jim and Harry both seem to see that the exceptional circumstances of the War have forced Australia to temporarily suspend its racism—of course, their attitudes toward this fact are opposite, and the song reflects the temporariness and conditionality of this shift. The fact that the other white soldiers come to Harry’s aid is good evidence that individual racism might be less rigid and more open to transformation through experience than institutional discrimination.
In a No Man’s Land foxhole at Passchendaele in 1917, a light sweeps past the characters, who fall to the ground. Two white soldiers accost Laurie, arguing that he should know where the light came from because “you have tracking skills […] you fellers all have a fifth sense or something.” Laurie insists that he “grew up in bloody Erskineville!” and the others ask why he kept getting sent “on recky” (reconnaissance). Laurie responds that he might have “better camouflage in the dark.”
Looking for a reason to avoid dangerous reconnaissance duty, the white soldiers find a racist joke about Laurie’s Indigenous heritage convenient, revealing their misconception that Aboriginal Australians live traditional lifestyles in the countryside, even though they have been forced into sedentary, urban settlements by the Australian colonial government.
At a battle in Bullecourt in 1917, having lost his unit, Nigel hides out with a different one. The soldiers are surprised to see he is black; they introduce themselves, reveal that one of their nicknames is “Darky,” and joke that they will have to “reconsider his name” because of their “recent reinforcements.”
Although the soldiers greet Nigel cordially, they also clearly see his race before considering anything else about him, and do not seem to understand how offensive the term “Darky” is.
Soldiers sing a song called Sandy Maranoa, about riding horses to watch cattle and returning home to Australia.
Again, Australian national pride is based on praise for the land, although this time for the way the land has been transformed (into cattle ranches) by white settlers.
On the battlefield in Villers-Bretonneux in 1918, a “voice in the dark” announces he “love[s] that song” and is from Australia. Ern says he is, too, and they discover they are from the same place. The man is from the pub owner’s family, and Ern explains that they have “passed in the road” before, when “your old man took his belt to mine a few times.” The other soldier asks, “why would he do that?” before seeing Ern’s face while lighting his pipe and realizes that Ern is Aboriginal. He promises that “if we both get home, you’ll be walking into the front bar, mate.”
The other soldier learns what he basically shares with Ern only before recognizing their racial difference; because he has already acknowledged Ern as an equal, now he must confront not only Australia’s violence toward Indigenous people but also his father’s personal role in perpetuating it. Still, the audience is left to wonder whether this exchange might have been possible if it had not started in the dark.
At Ypres in 1917, “Four West Indian ammunition haulers go past” and aboriginal soldier Mick wonders who they might be. The other soldiers joke that he “thought [he was] the only coloured bloke in Flanders” and suggest he chat with the men. But one of the four Trinidadians asks Mick, “What are you staring at, Australian nigger?” and another joins in in insulting him, saying that “them Australian niggers, live on the creek bank, never wash.” Mick punches all four of the Trinidadians.
While the Trinidadians are also black British subjects, they recognize that colonialism defines blackness as inhumanity and use this against Mick. Racism is not only about whites’ violence against blacks, but also about the internalized sense of inferiority that people of color and those living in colonies develop through their interactions with power. Ultimately, in this case, racism pits minority groups against each other rather than allowing them to see their shared interests (in the War, or in fighting racism).
Still in Bullecourt in 1917, Nigel gets sent to crawl into the battlefield and retrieve a telephone because his superior insists he is the shortest. He goes, but when he returns, all of his fellow soldiers are dead. The Germans come out, shocked, and ask, “Was auf der Erde bist du?” (“What on Earth are you?”)
Ironically, the dangerous assignment Nigel receives because of his superior officer’s racism ends up saving his life. And yet, when he confronts the German soldier, his race clearly remains at the front of the man’s mind.
Back in Australia two years earlier, at Frying Pan Creek in New South Wales, a woman is working with her son Bertie, who asks her to lie and say he was born in 1898, which would be easy because “there are no other records, no-one would know.” She asks why, and he says she will “get [him] out of [her] hair,” but she insists that he is only “a boy” and is wrong to expect “that they’ll make life easy for you” in the military, or that he’ll suddenly become a white man.
Bertie, like Norm, Ern, and Bob, sees joining the military as a way to escape the incredibly restricted life afforded to a young indigenous man like him in Australia. For his mother, the War is an extension of the government’s past exploitative policies toward Indigenous people, just another way to take advantage of their labor power. The lack of records about Bertie’s birth—which recalls Ern, Norm, and Bob signing up for the military even though they were not “Substantially European”—shows both the government’s inability to fully control Aboriginal life (despite its attempts) and Indigenous people’s power to use this fact for their own freedom and benefit.
Bertie’s Grandad enters, and Bertie’s mom explains the situation. Grandad notes that they’ve “been fighting for country for a long time.” Bertie worries about the Germans invading Australia and Grandad explains that the British have fenced in their land. Bertie claims that the war is about “a bigger world” but Grandad wonders why Bertie cares so much about a “bigger world” that never cared about him. Bertie insists that Indigenous people used to be fighters and “all that palarver”—his mother objects to the word “palarver,” asking him to “speak the King’s English.” Bertie wants to fight “for Australia,” but his mother and Grandad jokingly wonder what “Australia” is.
Bertie’s Grandad, who has spent his whole life watching the Australian government dispossess native Australian people, sees joining the military as a form of treason against Bertie’s true “nation.” And yet Bertie’s family clearly has an ambivalent relationship to Australia and Australianness—while they insist it is not their country, Bertie’s mom chastises him for not speaking the colonizer’s grammatically correct English.
Bertie’s mother agrees to forge Bertie’s birthdate, but warns her son that—just like when, as a child, he and his sister would go to the circus show and never get in, the world will never accept him. Bertie is excited at the thought the that Indigenous people are being included for the first time, but Grandad thinks that he is going to be used and his mother promises that “there’ no fancy land at the end” of the war. She claims she has “already lost [Bertie],” but has no choice but to write the letter. She hopes “someone decent [will] look out for [him],” but Grandad laughs that Bertie will end up “lick[ing … the] same boots that have kicked us for years.” Bertie apologizes but promises to “stay standing.”
Unlike the other diggers, Bertie enters the war with an explicit warning about the true likelihood of his achieving the inclusion he seeks; his circus show represents not the war itself (in which he will be included), but the possible equal world that lies beyond it. Agreeing to sign the letter is as much an act of desperation for Bertie’s mother as joining the military is an act of desperation for him. In despairing that she has “lost” him, she points forward to the next section of the play, which begins to confront the impacts of the war’s violence on the diggers.
At the 1917 battle of Polygon Wood, three white soldiers, one of whom is named Stan, ask Harry what he will do after the war, and he says he “can’t even imagine what it will look like” and simply “hope[s] that it’s changed.” They ask what he means, and he explains that them getting a drink together would be “a start.” Stan says they would “always have a beer with you,” and another tells Harry he is “as good as a white man.”
Harry, like Bertie, hopes that fighting the war might do something to meaningfully change Australia as a whole, perhaps by providing positive examples of Indigenous people and paving the way for civil rights struggles. While Stan’s optimism suggests that he might become an ally in the fight for racial equality, the other soldier’s suggestion that Harry is “as good as a white man” suggests that they have not banished their racism, but merely made an exception for Harry, whom they consider better than the rest of his race.
In a trench on the outskirts of a battlefield in 1917, Mick, Archie, Ern, and Stan play “I spy” to pass the time. Ern notes that they have “moved seven feet since April,” and they all contemplate the war’s pointlessness and seeming lack of progress. Archie declares it a stalemate and marvels that “the world’s gonna have to organize itself around us.”
One of World War One’s most grueling aspects was its reliance on trench warfare, which made gaining territory immensely difficult (as soldiers hiding in trenches were much better shielded than soldiers exposed on the battlefield) and slowed down the pace of war (as sides would be stuck in the same trenches for weeks at a time). This added to the sense of futility that the diggers are experiencing here; it leads them to begin questioning their motivations for fighting in the first place, although Archie recognizes here that their efforts have consequential impacts for the rest of the world.
At the battle of Pozieres in 1916, Bertie and Tommy fail to understand the last words of another soldier, Frank. They wonder how to properly honor him, as the only other Indigenous soldiers, and how to make sure his soul does not get “stuck” on the battlefield. Bertie is confused and worries that, if they used nearby European plants in a funeral ceremony, they would make the wrong kind of smoke and “lead him a different way.” When the man holding the stretcher asks, “what’s this aborigine mumbo-jumbo,” Bertie notes that Frank is the first of the hundreds of dead people he has seen “who looks like me.” Knowing that Frank “can’t get buried in this dirt” but unsure what to do, Bertie and Tommy cut a lock of Frank’s hair for later, and then say the Lord’s prayer.
When dealing with Frank’s death, Bertie and Tommy grapple with the implications of leaving their native territory, but also of being treated more equitably in foreign territory than they are by Australians at home. Despite their youth and interest in the broader world, Bertie and Tommy are still intimately connected to Indigenous religion. In saving the lock of Frank’s hair, they open the possibility for properly honoring him later while also pointing out the sense in which their traditions are forcibly “on hold” for the future, as much because of Australian colonialism as because of the war.
In an undated scene, a ghost gives a monologue, explaining that he and his brothers, like his father, spent their lives moving around following work, until “the big event sort of fell on top of us.” In France, he felt like he was “starting to lose it” from pointlessly fighting for scraps of land that did not seem to matter to anyone, while constantly dodging bullets.
This ghost has little definite explanation for his decision to join the military—it simply became the best option in a horrible situation, and then proved itself just as futile and repetitive as work at home.
Once, a bullet hit the ghost-narrator’s bunkmate in the face, killing the man. The narrator ran over and grabbed the German who took the shot, grabbed him around the throat, then “just squeezed his eyes out of his skull” before moving on, as everyone had to. Back in his trench, he remembered being home in Australia and his father saying that sometimes “you just find yourself in the slot.” He got a war medal for that assault, maybe “only aborigine to get one,” and his fellow soldiers immediately admired him. But then, the next day, he got blown up and killed, suddenly and randomly. His fellow black soldiers will carry his story home, but he is “moving in my own way […] here til everyone’s forgotten everything that happened and the dirt can go back to being just dirt.”
The narrator is proud to win his fellow soldiers’ respect because it signifies that they might look past his skin color; and yet he recognizes that his act was both an act of horrific violence and precisely a response to such an act. The soldier’s sudden change in fortunes—from watching his bunkmate’s murder to winning his compatriots’ acclaim to abruptly dying—mirrors the unpredictability and futility of fighting the war, the sense of nihilism that overcomes people who lose the capacity to emotionally respond to life and death. His faith that other Aboriginal soldiers will transmit his story demonstrates the importance of archives and the use of them made by stories like Black Diggers.
Back at the battle of Pozieres, Mick approaches five surrendering Germans but kills them all when one “ducks to pick something up.” He proudly counts that he has killed ten people, “ten little sauerkrauts all in a row.” He attributes this to his Indigenous “warrior blood” but another soldier asks what his ancestors’ fighting ability won them.
Compared to the ghost’s reaction in the previous scene, Mick takes an even more extreme and unsettling pride in killing during the war, which further shows how combat erodes the soldiers’ normal capacities for empathy. He eagerly claims the racial trope of “warrior blood” but then is forced to confront the contradiction between such narratives about Indigenous people and the actual facts of Australian history.
The same scene cuts to Bertie and Tommy “in a hole somewhere.” Bertie announces that he is only 15 and “shouldn’t be here.” Tommy tells him to calm down, Bertie insists they are getting caught and repeats his age, and Tommy reveals that he is “not much older” himself. After another explosion, both Tommy and Bertie are trapped under the soil. They cry out for one another, or anyone at all, but are both stuck and believe the other has been killed.
On the other side of the violence, Bertie and Tommy teeter on the edge between life and death, and only now recognize the profound loss that Bertie’s mother long feared—that they might never even reach adulthood.
During a burial in the battlefield, Archie shuts his eyes as other soldiers sing “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” a song about “the flood” carrying forth “the busy tribes,” meaning people and their history. The song proclaims that people forget their history and ends with a prayer to God for protection and eternal life.
This song clearly serves as a metaphor for the flow of Indigenous history, which has left Aboriginal people disconnected from their past and also left contemporary Australians without an understanding of Indigenous history.
In another letter to Aunty May sometime in 1917, Archie writes that a friend of their family, Ollie Thomas, “shot himself in the face” in a suicide attempt. He fell, not screaming but “making these sounds like a kitten.” And he survived, which is “the worst of it.” “He hasn’t got a face,” Archie repeats at the end of the letter.
Archie’s message, in both form and content, demonstrates the beginnings of shell shock: not only does Ollie Thomas’s suicide attempt reflect his sense of absolute despair in the war (and presumable sense that he could not escape it), but Archie’s repetition at the end of the letter also suggests that he is becoming stuck in his memories of violence.
On the war’s eastern front, “the day before the attack of Beersheba” in Palestine, Laurie and a British Captain take turns quoting the Bible verses in which the prophet Elijah flees to Beersheba, then asks God for death. They wonder whether Jesus might have been in the same place where they are. The captain mistakes Laurie for Indian and apologizes. They hope they will “see each other in Jerusalem” and take turns quoting verses about the end times.
Although they share Bible verses that literally cite Beersheba, their desire to meet in Jerusalem suggests that Laurie and the Captain have no interest in dying like Elijah. Jerusalem also stands metaphorically for both the promised land and a return home, suggesting that they hope they can make it out of the war (or perhaps into heaven) and pointing to the quest to fulfill the promise of an equal Australia.
In Germany’s Zössen POW Camp in 1917, Nigel is imprisoned alongside three Indians and forced to listen to a German prison guard explain how they “are victims of [their] oppressive masters,” who colonized their land then made them fight in the war. The guard encourages them to fight colonialism and sees the War as a means to free British colonies.
The Zössen Camp is unique because it was specifically designed for nonwhite soldiers, i.e. colonial subjects. As such, the German guard has a legitimate point about these soldiers’ exploitation by their countries—although, of course, the Central Powers’ own imperialism in Europe makes his argument hypocritical.
One of the Indians explains to Nigel that they have to sit there all day and listen to these discourses, which are aimed at encouraging them to take up arms against their fellow Allied soldiers. The Indian finds this ridiculous, because “we are all British, are we not?” Their camp is the one “for all non-white prisoners,” but everyone thinks Nigel is African, and he says he has not “seen an Aussie since I was captured.” The same Indian compares Nigel’s invisible Australianness to their own invisible Britishness. Another Indian suggests that, while the Indians eventually will overcome their Britishness, Nigel “will always be Australian.” The other Indians accuse this Indian of adopting the German guard’s ideas, and they begin arguing about how their cultural traditions are disrespected when they are given pork. Nigel says he “should be with my mates,” and the Indians explain that they “are [his] comrades now.”
The Indian soldiers manage to see themselves as both British and Indian, whereas Nigel feels excluded from both dimensions of Australianness—he cannot fit into white Australian society, and his traditional Aboriginal culture is being systematically destroyed at the same time. Whereas the Indians outnumber the British and can see their independence on the horizon, Indigenous Australians have little chance to do this and will be forced to assimilate. Indeed, his invisibility in the prison camp parallels his invisibility in Australia itself.
In a field hospital in 1917, a “strangely stiff and unemotional” Bertie dictates a letter to his mother, telling her to reveal his true age and get him sent home. But the Medical Orderly taking dictation does not write this down and instead insists Bertie “cover” the real meaning he wants to express by dressing it up in seemingly positive language. Instead, Bertie writes that he is “in the Show” that they had discussed before he left, that he now sees “what the grown-up world is like.”
Bertie, apparently having recovered from being buried alive, has clearly changed and begun showing the classic signs of shell shock. The need to “cover” his intentions in the letter shows how the military’s censorship might have impacted families’ real access to their sons’ experiences in the war. It also comments on the unknowability of the truth behind the letters that the play’s author, director, and researchers used to develop it. Whereas his mother promised that he would never get into the “show,” Bertie says that he has entered the “show” in order to signify that he has been shocked into the adult world where the rest of the soldiers (and his family) live.
A year later in the same hospital, which turns out to be the famous one in Abbeville, Norm has bandages on his ears and Bob on his eyes, while Ern is wearing a sling for his arm. Ern says the others’ injuries are their “ticket home.” The deafened Norm hears a “poem” and starts reciting it. Bob cries, but Ern says he will be seen as a hero back home. Bob replies that he is destined to labor, blind, for “the rest of [his] life.” Ern insists that they have fought for Australia, but Norm and Bob do not believe in “Australia.” Ern hopes Australia is “more than just a word” because of their sacrifices for it, and Bob wonders how much it will have changed. Norm says that, while “maybe the folks will be different […] the land stays the same.” He knows from seeing “lots of change,” but misses Bob’s response: “for those who are there to see it.”
Norm, Bob, and Ern, who joined the military together as buddies in Queensland, now leave it together with life-changing injuries and newfound tensions among them. As they lose faith in not only their personal goals (improving their lot in life) but also the war’s goals more broadly (defending “Australia”), they recognize the deep tragedy of their own situation: they, like their ancestors, have been injured by the Australian state without sympathy or recompense.
Back at the Zössen POW Camp in 1917, a German Professor approaches Nigel and explains he is collecting “anthropological specimens” for his records in order to “draw an enormous map of the human species.” Nigel is happy to help the Professor improve his data on Australians, and the Professor is happy that the war “led you to me.” Nigel asks, on behalf of the Muslim prisoners, “if we could find a way to exclude pork” from their diet. The Professor agrees to “see what can be done” before marveling at Nigel’s seemingly unique appearance.
The professor’s hope for “specimens” turns this scene into a sinister recreation of the play’s opening scene, in which the Taxidermist saved Nigel only because of his exotic appearance. Again, Nigel is reduced to scientific data and, although treated better than his fellow Aboriginal people, still completely defined by his race. It becomes clear that the Germans and the Australians, while at war, share a basic outlook on the value of different human lives.
It is 1916 and Tommy finally gets pulled out of “his living grave,” then begins to cry. The other men say he “should be thankful” and compare him to Lazarus, for he has survived underground for a long time and “the bombardment stopped” three days before. When they cannot scrape any more mud off him, they laugh and offer him a cigarette that he can neither hold nor light.
After days trapped alone underground, Tommy’s tangible emotional transformation vividly portrays the life-eroding impact of the War’s violence; in shock, he is unable to celebrate his freedom.
Somewhere near Amiens in 1918, Archie writes to Aunty May, asking about the meaning of a specific quote from the Biblical gospel of John: “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
No longer expressing his own views in his letters, Archie seems only to be seeking a sense of good and evil in the world, which no longer seems to make space for the former.
Sometime in 1917, an officer tells Bertie that his “true date of birth has been ascertained” and he is set to be discharged back to Australia. He says Bertie seems unhappy but should see that he has “been snatched from the jaws of death.” He asks if Bertie has anything to say, but Bertie is “unable to speak.”
Although Bertie’s plea for a discharge was successful, like Tommy, he loses all emotional responsiveness and seems to have grown cut off from the world. This again reveals the war’s lasting traumatic effects on soldiers.
Soldiers sing a song, calling Lazarus to “come forth” because “the Lord is calling [him]” to “Rise Up,” and declaring he should not “be ashamed […] when Jesus calls [his] name.” The song repeats.
The allusion to Lazarus rising from the dead refers as much to Bertie and Tommy rising from being buried alive as to the possibility of salvation more generally, in terms of religion as much as postwar politics.
In Messines in 1917, Archie fights a German soldier with bayonets. Archie gets stabbed, but then manages to get his opponent on the ground and stab him instead. As he slowly dies, the German soldier says, “Schwarzer teufel. Schwarzer teufuel mit weiße Augen. Schwarzer teufel. Schwarzer … letzte, was ich sehe.”
The soldier’s last words translate to, “Black devil. Black devil with white eyes. Black devil … last thing that I see.” Even in death, he remains fixated on Archie’s race above all else, and this foreshadows the second half of the play—no matter what, even in the most extreme circumstances, nothing seems to get people to look past Indigenous veterans’ race.