‘Pongo’ was a term used by Australian troops in World War I to refer to the common foot soldier of the infantry battalions. The songs, stories, art and verses of the pongos tells us much about the Australian soldiers who fought in the Great War; the conditions that they fought in, and the character of the men who died there.

anzac book2

The Anzac Book

The Anzac Book was the brainchild of official war historian Charles Bean. Designed as a salve to lift the diggers’ flagging spirits, Bean invited troops in Gallipoli to send in their verses, anecdotes, art and jokes, with prizes offered for the best contributions. The book was printed in London in 1916 and sold out rapidly in Australia, with over 100,000 copies being sold. Most of the content was created by Australians. Often, the soldiers wrote under pen names, or simply signed their initials, so their identities remain unknown.

Soldiers’ magazines The Rising Sun, Aussie and Kia Ora Coo-ee followed. They were written and published in the field. The magazines’ creators hoped ‘to bring the paper, if possible, within the reach …of every man in the front trenches’ [1]

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 Aussie. The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine

The papers contain many verses and anecdotes about the life of a soldier in the field: where they ‘dossed’ (ie slept):

‘We’ve dossed upon the railroads,
In the carriages de Luxe,
And done a trip through Egypt
In some open cattle trucks’ [2] ,

what they ate:

‘Queensland bully beef, An ‘biscuits árd as wood’ [3],

what they wore (or didn’t wear):

‘The éat ére an’ the vermin,
Ad drove us nearly barmy,
So we peeled off all our clobber,
And we’re called the ‘The Naked Army'[4]

and even their own colloquial versions of the English alphabet:

Anzac alphabet

 An Anzac Alphabet (p.115)

In keeping with their aim of giving Australian soldiers a good laugh, the tone of these magazines was deliberately upbeat. They brim with casual bravery and the dry, laconic sense of humour for which Australian soldiers were renowned:

 Why We Shall Win

‘…Not because our navy’s greater-
Or our store of shells is more.
Not because our guns are ‘later’,
Guns alone don’t win a war.
Not because our Empire’s peerless,
Not that we have got more ‘tin’.
But-when things look worse than cheerless,
We can set our teeth and grin'[5].

soldiers_photo

 Australian soldiers in EgyptH2011.37/209

Folklorist Graham Seal observes that one of the most notable features of magazines such as The Anzac Book is the fact that the authors were ‘overwhelmingly from the lower ranks’. They were ‘privates, lance corporals, troopers and signallers.’ Contributions from the ranks of sergeant, or above, were rare. [6]

The singular voice of the Australian pongo is alive in the pages of these soldiers’ magazines. They tell us stories we will never forget.

To the Pongo

‘… So, Sapper, Gunner, bearer (who don’t get too much ‘fat’),
Though you’ve kept your end up bravely since you
stepped upon the mat)
Just hear with me in patience while I lift me blooming
hat
To the Pongo-yes
The BLESSED PONGO’ [7]

 

Further Reading

Seal, G. (Ed.). Echoes of Anzac: the voice of Australians at war. Lothian, South Melbourne, 2005

References

[1] The Rising Sun, Issue No. 1, 25 December 1916, p. 4

[2] From the poem ‘Where We’ve Dossed, in Aussie. The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine. Veritas Publishing Co., Bullsbrook, WA, 1985. Originally printed in the field by the AIF Printing Section. This poem is from issue 1, 18 Jan, 1918, p. 5

[3] From the poem ‘Shrapnel’ by Tom Skeyhill, in Skeyhill, T. Soldier songs from Anzac: written in the firing line. G. Robertson, Melbourne, 1916

[4] From the poem  ‘The Naked Army’ by Tom Skeyhill, in Skeyhill, T. Soldier songs from Anzac: written in the firing line. G. Robertson, Melbourne, 1916

[5] Haynes, J. (Ed.) Cobbers. Stories of Gallipoli 1915. ABC, Sydney, 2005

[6] Seal, G. (Ed.). Echoes of Anzac: the voice of Australians at war. Lothian, South Melbourne, 2005, p. 61

[7] By Gunner Eltham, 9th Australian Field Artillery, in Seal, G. (Ed.). Echoes of Anzac: the voice of Australians at war. Lothian, South Melbourne, 2005, p. 52-52. First published in The Rising Sun

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