Like many war stories, Black Diggers confronts the acts of senseless and extreme violence that forever transform its subjects’ lives, leaving them traumatized and stuck in the past once they turn from soldiers into veterans. While World War I was infamous for introducing the world to shell shock—the condition of extreme, prolonged agony now officially known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—the Indigenous soldiers profiled in this play also had to deal with the Australian government’s utter indifference to their suffering and refusal to provide them with any significant opportunities after the war. The combination of the violence they witness in Europe and the lack of opportunities they face at home leaves nearly all of the play’s protagonists destitute and unacknowledged by the end of the story.
The play’s protagonists witness horrifying, unforgettable violence. In the trench warfare that defined World War I, soldiers often passed months scarcely moving a few feet, which created a deep sense of futility (as weeks of effort could be undone in a matter of minutes and human losses far exceeded territorial gains). During one scene narrated by a ghost, the specter insists that he was “starting to lose it” in fighting for inches of territory. During another scene, Mick, Archie, Ern, and Stan play “I spy” while complaining about how little progress they have made, because there is nothing else to do. In one of his letters to Auntie May, Archie writes about an event that haunts him: his fellow soldier attempts suicide (and fails) because of the war’s pointlessness. This suicide attempt leaves the man faceless, a detail that symbolizes the anonymity of the suffering during the war and which Archie repeats twice in his letter, as if he cannot stop reliving the experience. Similarly, the ghost recalls watching his bunkmate get shot and killed, then killing the German responsible. The implication is clear: the violence of the War turned this soldier into an emotional ghost, an empty shell of the man he used to be, in addition to literally killing him.
The war leaves the protagonists with horrible injuries, not only physically but also psychologically. These enduring wounds, in most cases, never heal. Norm, Ern, and Bob are all horribly wounded, respectively losing ears, an arm, and eyes. After they return to Australia, Norm and Ern chat about the lack of respect they received and then the cast sings a musical number, sporting various severe injuries. Bertie and Tommy suffer from perhaps the worst case of shell shock. They are both buried under the dirt for three days, then sent home after they are rescued. Bertie returns to his mother and grandad but is unable to speak or move—he just clutches Frank’s hair. And Tommy, the audience discovers in his eulogy, returned to Australia to become “Tank Stand Tommy,” a mentally ill, alcoholic homeless man living under a water tank, whose war medals were only discovered after his death. Bertie’s mother sees her son’s pain as representing the loss of his childhood: she says that he is never “coming back from the world of the grown-ups.” The text’s major symbols—the lock of Frank’s hair that Bertie clutches endlessly after he gets dug out of his hole, the circus that symbolizes the youth and inclusion in normal Australian life that Bertie remains unable to achieve, and the bullet casings that Ern finds in his side years after the war—all represent the enduring pain the “black diggers” live with after the war.
The end of the war exacerbates the soldiers’ pain rather than alleviating it: after fighting in order to build a space for themselves in the Australian nation, they end up in the same jobs where they started, facing the same discrimination, and now with their war injuries to boot. Of course, Tommy, Bertie, and Ern’s conditions are typical—they reflect not only the pain they all suffered, but also (just as saliently) the fact that they never received any psychological help or financial assistance from the government they risked their lives to defend. Archie ends up working on the same ranch as before the war, under the same horrible conditions. Laurie ends up working in a church, Harry homeless and begging, and Nigel spinning a sign on the street before landing in a psychiatric hospital (which, ironically, is the only help any of them ever receive). Ern gives up his war medals, which will “only get lost,” since not even his family cares about them or his service.
Although Black Diggers is unique in its focus on the experiences of Indigenous Australian soldiers, it is also a war story that, like so many others, seeks to represent the profound human cost of wars usually learned about in impersonal, statistical terms. And the black diggers’ fate is as much a product of the Australian government—its violence towards Indigenous people and refusal to take responsibility for them after sending them into war—as of the unprecedented conditions that made the First World War so deadly and traumatizing for so many.
War, Violence, and Shell Shock ThemeTracker
War, Violence, and Shell Shock Quotes in Black Diggers
Listen to us and you shall hear, news that’s been coming for a hundred years: Since Captain Cook, and many more, you’ve never seen the like before.
The white man needs us coloured boys now
Here in the shit every face is brown
You see the world’s turned upside down
See the world’s turned upside down.
Fellers — You see the world’s turned upside down
See the world’s turned upside down
Seriously, this has gone for years and it could go for years. We lose a few mates, they lose a few, the whistle blows, we gain another cricket pitch worth of Belgium, the horn blows, they chase us out. But most of the time we sit here and we sing our songs. And they sit over there and sing theirs. And everyone, everyone hates the whole bloody stunt.
And the worst of it is that Ollie is still alive, he’s in the hospital and he hasn’t got a face but he’s alive Aunty May. But he hasn’t got a face Aunty May, he hasn’t got a face.
It might have passed some of the less observant of you, but I happen to be aboriginal. My ancestors came up from Mackey river way. And I’m proud of it. But I have to say, thank God for the Army. Thank God for the uniform and the chance to serve. Because when I was a whippersnapper and first joined up I was just another woebegone failure. And in the army, you earn your way. You take on dignity. A dignity perhaps that no-one was going to let you have back home. But in the service, you are forged into something … not white, you’re not erased of your past, but it’s … it’s … incorporated into who you are, and you realize — maybe in those hideous moments in hell on earth, maybe on parade, maybe with mates, I don’t know — you realize, “I belong.” And I came back, and like you gentlemen I found myself identifying with Australia. It wasn’t for them or about them. It was for me too.
You know, even when the fires had been through, the little green shoots came up everywhere. Little tiny tender shoots, up from the bones. But that’s all lost now.
I reached round and felt just here under that scar and yep it was oozing that lovely rich black blood you know not the fairy light stuff close to the surface skin blood no this was that dark dark blood that comes from deep and has been there for ages, you know? […] You see, when there’s been a war there’s metal everywhere, just tons of it and it gets buried in the mud and the dirt and it gets forgotten.