Black Diggers

Table of Contents

  • Essay 1 : “That’s the thing, the bits left behind, they’ll come out, they must.” How does the text show that memory is inescapable?
  • Essay 2 : “For Indigenous Australians, the return home was more painful than their experiences on the battlefront.” Discuss.
  • Essay 3 : ‘Wright suggests that Indigenous Australians gained nothing through their military service in World War One.’ Discuss.
  • Essay 4 : Black Diggers demonstrates that the emotional wounds inflicted by the war were more damaging than the physical ones.
  • Essay 5 : None of the diggers received justice after the war. Discuss.
  • Essay 6 : Why does the play Black Diggers focus on the experience of Indigenous Australians, rather than the experiences of all Australian soldiers?
  • Essay 7 : The war is responsible for the trauma and disappointment experienced by the black diggers. Discuss.
  • Essay 8 : Discuss the portrayal of identity in Black Diggers.


Black Diggers, an Australian play written by Tom Wright, explores the experiences of the Australian Indigenous men who fought in World War 1. The play exposes the racism and exclusion that Indigenous men experienced both before and after the war, as well as the sense of equality and mateship experienced within the army and in the trenches.

In 1901, Australia officially became a new nation and the declaration of World War in 1914 inspired strong feelings of patriotism and nationalism in the young men who enlisted. Despite the repression, violence and racism that Indigenous Australians had experienced for generations at the hands of the British Commonwealth, young Indigenous men were quick to line up to be enlisted. Like their white counterparts, Indigenous men wanted to protect their country and be a part of the fight. For these men this was a chance to prove their worth and equality, and they found the army to be a willing environment within which to do this. The unit mentality of the army and the nature of armed combat meant that Indigenous men were, for the first time, valued not for the colour of their skin but for their merits as a soldier, and many were decorated for their heroism in combat.

Despite the hell of warfare, Indigenous soldiers were fortified by the close bonds that they shared with their fellow soldier, and the respect that they had won. Those who survived brought home with them a buoyant feeling of hope for a different, more equal Australia. Black Diggers examines how this hope was destroyed by the exclusion of Indigenous ex-servicemen from ANZAC Day celebrations, and the inequity of support given to returned soldiers. Farming land that had been granted to Indigenous families in the post-mission era was taken from them and given to white ex-servicemen, leaving them with feelings of betrayal, and no way to support themselves. The general racism and disregard for Indigenous culture prior to the war remained entrenched in post-war Australia, and for returned Indigenous soldiers it was as though their experiences of being valued within the army and by their fellow soldiers had never happened. The better Australia they had hoped to return to did not exist, and for many there was no support system to return to outside of family to shield them from the harsh reality of life after the war.

Black Diggers is a moving play, one that incorporates both natural and non-naturalistic theatre devices to depict with sensitivity the sacrifices made by Indigenous men for a country who did not truly value or understand their contribution.


Race and Racism

 Ideas of race, which lead directly on to the acts of racism carried out on Australia’s Indigenous people is a major theme of the play Black Diggers. The play specifically explores the experience of Indigenous Australian men both during and upon return from World War One. The structure of the play draws upon both natural and non-natural theatre devices to emphasise and highlight the various experiences of racial prejudice common to this era.

Historical Background

At the beginning of the 20th Century the indigenous people of Australia were not recognised as Australian citizens. They were instead considered wards of the Aboriginal Protection Board, an official body governed by the Commonwealth under British rule.

The Aboriginal Protection Board, which operated from 1883 to 1940, was set up to oversee the fair treatment of Indigenous people after British settlement. It was officially part of the police department and was chaired by the Commissioner of Police. While it handed out welfare to Indigenous Australian people, it also displaced them from their traditional lands, placing them in missions and reserves. The APB controlled the destiny of Indigenous Australians, and many of their actions were extremely injurious and disempowering, forcing them to live on the fringes of society, cut off from their traditional land and culture. Aside from the annihilation of the Indigenous Australian’s way of living prior to white settlement, the APB, and then later on the Aboriginal Welfare Board (1940-1969), also had the right to remove Aboriginal children from their families “if it believed this action to be in the moral or physical interest of the child, and to remove the child to such care and control as it thinks best.”[1] The Board employed ‘Home Finders’ who visited the missions, stations and reserves to encourage Indigenous Australian parents to apprentice their children out to be trained in domestic service. Children were removed or taken without the consent of parents, and families were split apart. Many children never saw their parents again, and the ones who did often experienced a complete severing of the prior relationship that they had once enjoyed with their family members. Extreme psychological and emotional trauma caused by these separations was common. The children involved became known as The Stolen Generations.

Ideas of Race

It can be difficult in modern times to understand why the Australian Government enforced such brutal policies upon Indigenous Australians. This is where attempting to understand the ideas of race, and consequently the concept of white supremacy which underpinned these ideas, is important. A belief in white supremacy was prevalent in the and 19th and early-to-mid 20th Centuries, but it also still exists today. Ideas of white supremacy stemmed from Social Darwinism, a theory put forward by Herbert Spencer that human groups and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin perceived in animals and plants[2]. Darwin’s theory of evolution hinged upon a concept of ‘survival of the fittest’. This concept became the convenient rationalisation for colonising nations such as the British in their endeavours to appropriate and colonise lands such as Australia. Seen through the lens of Social Darwinism, this act of taking land from Indigenous Australians in the 18th Century was merely an act of nature, of the strongest race overpowering the weakest. The idea that the Indigenous Australians who peopled the land before white settlement were weak was further supported by the Romantic movement’s concept of the Noble Savage. This concept was very condescending and idealized the indigenous person as “uncivilized…(someone) who symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization.”[3] British colonists believed the Indigenous person to be noble and good, but simple and therefore weaker in every way. They felt justified in laying their claim to Australia. The British were sure that Indigenous Australians would eventually die out, and some of their policies in relation to the full blooded Indigenous Australians went as far as to encourage this.

World War One

When World War One began in 1914, Indigenous Australians were not allowed to join-up to the armed forces. Stemming from the idea of white supremacy, The Defence Act of 1903 prevented those who were not of “substantially European descent” from being able to enlist, and this law was only somewhat relaxed after the 1917 defeat of the Conscription Referendum[4]. On the announcement of War between Britain and Germany in 1914 Australian men eagerly signed up to enlist. There was a strong feeling at the time that Australia must help the British Army in their fight against Germany. The Australian Imperial Force was, however, a completely volunteer army unlike its European counterparts, which had to rely on conscription to fill its troops. The Australian Government committed to providing 20,000 troops initially, and by the end of 1914, more than 50,000 men had enlisted at a rate of 10,000 men a month.[5] There were many reasons why Australian men were drawn to enlist in 1914, such as patriotism, a desire for adventure and the high pay on offer. World War One was a defining point in the history of the newly federated nation of Australia, which was driven by strong feelings of wanting to prove itself in the defense of its mother nation, Britain.

Despite the racist policy excluding Indigenous Australians from enlisting, an estimated 1000 Indigenous Australian men signed up to go to war and they received the same conditions and pay as non-indigenous men while in the AIF[6]. Many slipped through the system by travelling from one enlistment centre to another, and those with mixed parentage were often able to claim that they were from other countries. It wasn’t until enlistment numbers profoundly dropped away following two failed conscription referendums that a policy was specifically created to allow ‘half-castes’ to “…enlist in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.”[7]

Racism in the play

During the play Black Diggers many references are made to race and racism. Some of these references are overt, while others are subtler. In Act One Scene One, titled ‘1887. Bellenden Ker, Queensland’, the play begins with a violent stoush. A settler and his men have just chased away some people whom we presume are Indigenous. A child has been left behind, and the word ‘picaninny’ is used to describe him. The term ‘picaninny’ was predominantly used as a racial slur to describe a dark-skinned child of African descent and was commonly used in the United States of America during slavery. Another example of overt racism occurs not long after in the scene titled ‘1915. Petrie Terrace.’ In this scene Ern, Norm and Bob are trying to enlist, however all of them are unsuccessful due to their race.  Ern is told by a recruiting officer “Well, you’re…you’re not a citizen.” Further to this, the main reason why he has been rejected is clearly stated on his form. “‘Reason: Of strongly Aboriginal Appearance.’” Norm reads out “‘Flat Feet (Aboriginal).’” and Bob reads out “’No White Parentage.’” The absurdity of these reasons is made further obvious as one by one the officials unable to work out what ‘Substantially European’ actually means. When the Secretary states “We can’t have darkies in the same battalions as white chaps.”, it is clear that racists beliefs about Indigenous Australians are the real reasons behind the men’s rejection.

In Act One, in the scene titled ‘1895. Australian Museum, Sydney.’ a taxidermist who is the adoptive father of a full-blooded Indigenous Australian boy named Nigel, talks to his son about ancient man, and his evolution from the ape. The stage directions at the beginning of the scene state that ‘The actors play the stuffed exhibits’ which seems to make a subtle reference to the link between Indigenous Australians and ancient man as noble savage. Further reference is made to this idea later on in Act Two in the scene titled ‘1917. Zossen.’ In this scene, a German professor is talking to the same character, Nigel, who is now a grown man in the Australian Army and a prisoner of war. The Professor has come looking for anthropological samples, similar to the displays that Nigel had seen in the museum with his adoptive father. Further reference is made to the Professor’s desire to “…draw up a bigger picture of what is noble and what is …weak in the human races…”. This scene infers the commonly held belief in the inferiority of ancient, uncivilised man. References to “skull measurements” and “Prominent brow, to be expected.” highlight this, and subtly frames the more forms of overt racism that appear elsewhere in the text.

An example of overt racism can be found in Act One, in the scene titled ‘1916. Indian Ocean’. In this scene Harry is confronted by an Aggressive Private who takes offense to his presence at the table on the ship that they are traveling. He asks Harry what he is doing sitting at the same table as he is, agreeing with Harry that the world has turned upside down.   “Upside down when a coon thinks it’s all right to sit and look me in the eye and touch the same metal plate and finger the same spoon and drink the same bloody water as a white man.” This scene concludes with other white soldiers standing up for Harry but is one of the most overt examples of racism in the play, clearly demonstrating the extreme racial prejudice that existed at this time. Further examples lie in the treatment of Indigenous returned soldiers and the way in which they were rejected from ANZAC celebrations. In the scene titled ‘1932.’ Archie attempts to gain entry into a pub in a country town on ANZAC Day. His friend, First Digger, whom we presume to be white, is given automatic entrance. Archie is told by the Cellarman at the door “Not a chance. Don’t try it on, show some respect.” This is a blow for Archie as he has faced death and survived the war only to come home to this. Even his medals are ignored. When he appeals to the Cellarman by saying “We dragged blokes like you through the shit and the blood. We saw each other when we were like babies. Like animals.” he is met only with rejection. “I never saw any men like you over there.” This short exchange is exemplary of the attempt to exclude Indigenous soldiers from history, their rightful acknowledgement of heroism and brave service swept under a carpet of racist bigotry.


The experience of equality that Indigenous Australian soldiers had in the Australian Infantry Forces is another important theme in the play. While a desire for equality is shared among the characters prior to enlisting, they are not able to experience it until they are in the army. The army environment provided the men with a sense of belonging they had previously been excluded from before the war. As Indigenous Australians they were not afforded the status of citizenship and were looked down upon as less than the white settlers. Race was not something that Indigenous Australians could avoid, and the play demonstrates this in many ways. Because of their aboriginality, Indigenous Australian men were not considered to be equal to their white male counterparts outside of the army. Yet once in the army Indigenous Australians experienced their first encounter with equality. When Harry is confronted by the Aggressive Pte in Act One, he is supported by his fellow soldiers in a show of solidarity. The poem titled ‘The World’s Turned Upside Down’ expresses the joy and indignant righteousness felt at the new place they had found in the army.

“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/You see the world/s turned upside down.”

This poem makes clear the mixed feelings experienced by Indigenous soldiers regarding the inclusivity of the army. While obviously welcome, the new-found sense of equality was also something that Indigenous Australian’s had been waiting a long time for. Also, despite finding a sense of belonging in the army, Indigenous soldiers had to endure mis-understandings and passive racism. In the scene titled ‘1917. Passchendaele. No Man’s Land foxhole’ in Act One, Laurie is questioned by his fellow white soldiers about what he has seen during a brief flash of light brought on by enemy fire. When Laurie tells them that he hasn’t seen anything, First White Soldier asks him “What did you think you were here for? Why d’you reckon he picked you?” Second White Soldier follows with “I thought youse blokes could see in the dark?” Laurie replies (with humour) “Nah, that’s rabbits.” The scene continues with First and Second White Soldier telling Laurie that he has been chosen precisely for his aboriginality, and while this is not an act of overtly aggressive racism it demonstrates racial stereotyping at its most basic level.

First White Soldier: Seriously, they put you here ‘cause you have tracking skills, you know, you can look at a blade of grass and say how many have gone past and all that sort of malarkey.

Laurie: What? You’re not fair dinkum.

Second White Soldier: You know, ‘cause you fellers all have a fifth sense or something.

First White Soldier: Picked up special skills from your wise old blokes.

Laurie: I grew up in bloody Erskineville!

Humour is frequently used to diffuse awkward situations like this frequently throughout the play, something in itself that is considered to be a very Australian trait. In this conclusion of this scene, it is also used to emphasise that Laurie is not only an equal match for his white fellow soldiers, he is able to get the last laugh.

Second White Soldier: Why did you think the captain kept sending you out on recky, then?

Laurie: Maybe he thought I had better camouflage in the dark.

The inversion of passive racism using humour is one way in which the play highlights the equal standing that the Indigenous soldiers have with their white counterparts. Exchanges that refer to an Indigenous soldier’s skin colour with comic flair both highlights the acceptance of that soldier within the rank and file, while also acknowledging his difference. For example, Nigel is met with surprised silence when he crawls into a dugout during battle because he can’t find his battalion. The reactions of the soldiers in the dugout upon seeing Nigel’s colour summarise how Indigenous soldiers experienced acceptance.

Older Soldier: That’s ‘Bunny’, this here is Vic, that’s ‘Whacker’ and this is


Nigel: Darkey, eh?

Older Soldier: In light of recent reinforcements we may have to reconsider his name.

They laugh.

Equality in the trenches leads Indigenous Australian soldiers to dream about the possibility of equality at home. When Stan and Harry are talking to First White Soldier and Second White Soldier about what they will do when they get home, Harry’s reply reveals this.

Harry: I can’t even imagine what it will look like. All I hope is that it’s changed.

When First White Soldier asks Harry what he means by ‘changed’, Harry’s poignant reply is “If you blokes have a beer with me then that’s a start.” First White Soldier’s response of “You’re as good as a white man, Harry” solidifies their recognition of the Indigenous Australian soldier’s equality with them, which this exchange has been building up to. A further on in Act Two, titled ‘1932’ backs this up with a show of support coming from an RSL Secretary upon a refusal of entry for Archie Gallagher into a pub to celebrate ANZAC Day. The RSL Secretary steps-in on Archie’s behalf after the Cellarman describes him as an “Abo with a mouth on him,” explaining to him that “We don’t see the skin, we see the service.” The equality found within the ranks of the army is further affirmed in other scenes. As Nigel talks to an Indian soldier in Act One in the scene titled ‘1917. Zossen POW Camp’, he tells him “No-one mentioned the colour of my skin from the day I enlisted. I copped more for going to a private school.” Despite the hell of war Indigenous Australian men discovered a brotherhood in the Australian Infantry Forces that eclipsed the racism and prejudice previously experienced at home.

Hope for a New Australia

This new-found experience of equality gave Indigenous diggers hope that they would return to a changed Australia. The play demonstrates that this is one of their strongest hopes whilst fighting in the trenches. In a scene in Act One, titled ‘1918, Abbeville’, Bob, Ern and Norm are together in an army hospital. Norm has lost his hearing, Ern has a damaged arm and Bob has lost his vision. The war has maimed all three of them both physically and emotionally, yet their conversation is focused on the hope they have that their sacrifice will be worth it. Ern tells Norm that “You can walk down the main drag with your medals and all the fillies will gaze up at yer. Not that you’ll know mind, but you’ll feel it. You’ll be somebody.” When they argue about what Australia actually is, Ern tells them “Just where we’re all from, I suppose.” Bob replies “Not our word for it.” This reminds them all of how they are still different from the other Australian men they are fighting with. Ern’s response highlights the hopefulness with which each of them contemplate their future lives. “Well, it had better be more than just a word because I haven’t come to the other side of the world and had my balls frozen off for an idea.” This sentiment is echoed in scene in Act Two titled ‘1919.’ As Mick and Archie disembark from the ship that has brought them home from the trenches, Mick asks Archie to shake his hand “…before we step back on the land.” As they do this, Mick continues “And promise ourselves, this wasn’t for nothing…And now let’s make sure things don’t go back to the way they were eh?”

The Indigenous Australian men who fought in World War One and survived to come home did not return to a more equal world. Upon return home to Australia they were subjected once again to the discriminatory practices of the Australian Government, as well as the racial prejudice they had been enduring since British Invasion. The Australian Government went as far as to exclude them from receiving the plot of land that was given to returned soldiers. As well as this, some of the land that was granted to white soldiers was taken from Indigenous families, leaving them with nothing. This is shown in Black Diggers in Act Two in the scene titled ‘1922. Western District, Victoria.’ In this scene Mick, a returned Indigenous soldier, takes part in a meeting with a Public Servant from the Soldier Settlement Commission. The scene aptly depicts the bureaucratic run-around given by the Public Servant when Mick asks whether or not he can apply for land that his father has farmed, which was also the mission home to his grandfather and great grandfather. The Public Servant’s reply makes transparent the disadvantage experienced by Indigenous soldiers. “I understand you are entitled to apply but land is delegated at the discretion of the committee-…” Mick’s soliloquy not long after this exchange is a strong indictment on the Australian Government’s failure of the Indigenous soldier upon his return from war.

“Our grandparents were moved here because they were in the way, and probably their parents before them going back to the first cursed moment white men wandered into our lands. But I could put all that aside because I believed this would be different.” (pg.74)

Mick comes to realise by the end of his long speech that the hope that he has held that things would be different is broken. “For you the war’s over. What’s starting to dawn on me is that, for us, it’s never going to end.” (pg.75)

Memory and Remembrance

The importance of remembering is demonstrated in the play Black Diggers. In the play, memory and remembrance is expressed through the memorialising of the dead, and the remembering of stories, both from before and during the war. Remembrance and memory is also understood in terms of what is forgotten. The term ‘Lest we forget’ is one that is uttered every year on ANZAC Day to remember Australian soldiers who have fallen in battle. In Black Diggers, ‘Lest we forget’ becomes a term that denotes exactly who and who isn’t worthy of being remembered.  When Archie is trying to get into the pub to celebrate ANZAC Day, he asks the Cellarman “Lest We Forget is for all of us, eh?” (pg.71) Similarly, memory and remembrance are significant from the point of view of those who have lost their lives whose stories have never been told, whose lives are not remembered. This was the experience of the Indigenous Australian digger, something which is captured in the long speech given by A Ghost in Act One.

In the scene titled ‘A Ghost’, the ghost of a dead Aboriginal soldier looks back at his life and remembers the event of his death in a dream like fashion. The spirit of this departed soldier recalls how he was “… starting to lose it, up here.” The reference to losing his psychological and mental bearings is linked to his forgetfulness of where he is. He keeps “…forgetting I was in France and thinking I was back on the plains.” The surreal, dream-like qualities of memory is highlighted here. Tellingly, A Ghost’s narrative is interwoven with memories from home. This suggests the fluid nature of memory, and the fact that we bring things into being simply through the act of remembering. His recollections are brought to an abrupt conclusion with his own sudden death. This happens just as he is in the middle of a memory, “…thinking about running through the scrub when I was a tacker and I’m torn in two by a shell that chose to land in my lap.” As the narrative concludes, he contemplates the stark reality that his remains have been left behind by those who survive, and his fear that he will be forgotten. “And I’ll be here til everyone’s forgotten everything that happened and the dirt can go back to being just dirt.” (pg. 48) This fear is shown by the play to become a lived experience by Aboriginal soldiers, who were forgotten by their country and for whom “Lest We Forget” was not meant for them. Black Diggers uses memory and remembrance to highlight the impact of the act forgetting, as this was the most injurious wound inflicted upon Indigenous Australian soldiers who went to war for their country, but who were forgotten.



“And yet there seems to be a strange silence, a lack of curiosity…” Nigel, (88.) Wright is very deliberately expanding the scope of Black Diggers from World War One to the historical silence surrounding the oppression of Indigenous Australians generally. By linking the lack of acknowledgement of Indigenous service to silence regarding massacres of Aborigines, Tom Wright is arguing that our refusal to recognise Indigenous wartime service is not a historical phenomenon but part of the exact same process which has Australians turning a blind eye to mistreatment of Aborigines generally.


“They won’t forget you mate. You’ve fought for the King, for Country. For our country. For Australia.”  Ern, (58). Foreshadows the fact that so many Indigenous soldiers WERE forgotten, and that even though Ern claims Australia as “our country,” he and his people were not really regarded as owning their country.


“In his cigar box under the tank we found his service medals.” Minister (81). Tommy’s case is perhaps the saddest example of the ignominy suffered by so many veterans; a war hero who returned to a country which gave him nothing and left him to fester in alcoholism.


“Four years I spent in uniform, all of us ready to make the sacrifice. And now I get back and you say a stroke of the pen has just swept aboriginal land off the map?” (75). This quote occurs in the second act when Mick confronts a ‘Public Servant’ about the government plan to give aboriginal land to returned white soldiers to farm. After the war, white soldiers qualified for land grants, and some of it was from land that had been granted to Indigenous people post the 1800 missionaries which had originally been set up to house them under British Rule. Although this land was often not suitable for growing crops, the Indigenous people clung to it as a small victory of reinstatement. Mick’s words are incredulous. He can’t believe that even the small piece of land allowed to his people is going to be taken away, especially as Indigenous soldiers were not given the same.


“Maybe the folks will be different. But the land stays the same.” (59). This quote, spoken by Norm in the army hospital after his hearing has been blown out by a bomb, comes in a scene where he, Ern (who has lost his sight) and Bob discuss what home will be like when they return. In the scene they discuss a yearning for things to be different, but the same.


“Bertie, why aren’t you sayin’ nothing?” Mum (70). Bertie’s shell-shock induced silence reflects the historical silencing of Indigenous voices


“We’ve been to the memorial service, and we want to raise a glass to our mates who didn’t come back. Lest we forget is for all of us, eh?” (71). This quote comes from the scene where Archie tries to get into an RSL club after the ANZAC Day ceremony. He is being denied entry because of his skin colour. This quote demonstrates the racism with which Indigenous soldiers were treated once they arrived home after the war.


“Even the officers looked at me with new eyes, the half-caste was rising in estimation.” (47). This quote comes from the long speech given by the ‘Ghost’. The quote shows how Indigenous men proved themselves in war, and the impact that this had on their peers, gaining them the respect that they had never before experienced from white people.


“We’ve been fighting for country for a long time.” (38). Grandad demonstrates the wisdom and insight of an elder with this quote. The quote reminds the audience of the fundamental problem with the notion of patriotism for Indigenous Australians.


“That’s what the world’s like, son. You can go the Tower of London or the Pyramids or wherever, it’s still the world. And you won’t be allowed through the wire.” (40). Mum’s analogy of racism as a circus that Bertie and his sister could not get into when they were kids is a powerful way to communicate the experience of being kept out of society that Indigenous people suffered.



Race and Racism

  • “Full-blood, too. Unusual. Perfect specimen.” Taxidermist (14). Wright opens the play with the horror of a massacre and the ugly, scientific descriptions of the taxidermist. Although the Taxidermist is less murderous than the other characters in this scene, Wright still draws a direct link between his “scientific” racism and the violence of the frontier.
  • “Anyone have the slightest idea what ‘Substantially European’ means?” Recruiting Sergeant (23). The comic absurdity of the scene is Wright’s way of exploring the stupidity of racism. The attempts to block Ern and co from enlisting are completely arbitrary and the humour of the scene reveals how ridiculous racist attitudes actually are.
  • “We’ve been fighting for country for a long time.” Grandad (38). This quote reminds the audience of the fundamental problem with the notion of patriotism for Indigenous Australians. It is spoken with irony.
  • “If you can fire a gun and stand in the sun, they might pretend to forget you’re…” Ern (21). This is the first point in the play where a character articulates the urge to join the army in order to escape oppression at home. This quote also speaks to the theme of Remembrance and Memory. The language of remembrance is important – Remembrance Day, Lest We Forget, We Will Remember Them. The play is an exploration of those parts of history that we remember, and which we choose to forget.
  • “When they look at you, they cannot see the Australian. Just as when they look at us, they cannot see we are British.” Indian (56). This scene presents a variety of views from colonial subjects on the nature of living under the Empire. It shows how complex identity can be for those caught up in a colonial context.
  • ‘And yet there seems to be a strange silence, a lack of curiosity…’ Nigel (88). Wright is very deliberately expanding the scope of Black Diggers from World War One to the historical silence surrounding the oppression of Indigenous Australians generally. By linking the lack of acknowledgement of Indigenous service to silence regarding massacres of Aborigines, Tom Wright is arguing that our refusal to recognise Indigenous wartime service is not a ahistorical phenomenon but part of the exact same process which has Australians turning a blind eye to mistreatment of Aborigines generally.
  • “We are building records for Berlin, comprehensive records, of all the races of humanity, measuring the cranium and so on…Til now the Australian native was a gap in our knowledge, a few skulls, a few skins. You will help us understand racial difference.” Professor (60). When Nigel talks to the professor, he is exposing the racist attitudes of the time. Although the professor seems delighted and positive, the vitriol he is espousing taps in to popular ideas of the time. During the 19th Century, scientists, intellectuals and artists alike were fascinated with the idea of the Noble Savage, or, the indigenous people who lived at one with nature (read ‘uncivilised’), and they aimed to try and understand and ‘measure’ race and the differences between races using data such as skull measurements. Skull measurements were often taken to determine the intelligence of the specimen in question, which is problematic in itself. This was the theoretical background upon which Nazi Eugenics was formed. The Nazi’s identified real Germans as belonging to the Aryan race, and anyone else was considered not German. defines Eugenics as ‘the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits.’
  • “Damn good turn of phrase for a darkie. No-one’s going to believe it.” (88). These words are spoken by the ‘Editor’ towards the end of Act Two in regard to a letter written to the paper by Nigel. They demonstrate the racist attitudes still held by so many after the war.


  • “The world turned upside fucking down.” Harry (30). We see another perspective here in this scene where the white soldiers beat up the racist Aggressive Private in defence of Harry. Wright reminds us that the play is not just a tale of oppression, but also highlights moments of beauty as the young men work together and overcome difference. He presents us with some sort of hope.
  • “If we both get home, you’ll be walking into the front bar, mate. Don’t worry about that.” Voice in the Dark (35). The Black diggers experienced an equality within the army that did not exist outside of it. This quote therefore both demonstrates that sense of newfound equality as well as an ironic sense of foreshadowing. It represents both the high of being accepted with the disappointment awaiting most of the black diggers on arriving home – for many of them, nothing changes.
  • “Thank God for the uniform and the chance to serve…in the army, you earn your way…you are forged into something…you realise ‘I belong.’” Bloke With A Glass Of Wine (66). This long speech travels through various different ideas relating to the Black digger’s experience in the army. This quote highlights the sense of belonging that Indigenous soldiers gained in the army, despite the racism at home.
  • “And promise ourselves, this wasn’t for nothing.” Mick (69). In the earlier speech by the Bloke with the Glass, he talked about how the war made people, for better or for worse. Here Mick is filled with the same belief – he was made by the war, but the play raises questions about how much that means if no-one else will recognise it. Their arrival on an empty pier foreshadows ominously the reception they can expect. This also echoes the famous reactions to Vietnam Vets returning from service in the seventies. Wright is drawing a parallel between the two conflicts in order to suggest that what white servicemen in the seventies saw as a terrible affront has long been the case for Indigenous Australian.
  • ‘Therefore, why not offer to every faithful ex-service aborigine the hand of friendship and goodwill, and tender to him equal rights with the white community?’ Seventh Letter (84). Again, highlighting the new experience of knowing that they are equal, but at the same time, highlighting the fact that post-World-War-One Australia did not recognise that equality. From a stylistic point of view, the letters found in ‘Correspondents’ free us from the naturalism of most of the dialogue, and allow Wright to present forceful, articulate views and demands to the audience.
  • “We don’t see the skin, we see the service.” RSL Secretary (72). The Secretary demonstrates that some whites were able to “see the service.” Note, however, that he doesn’t make a more general anti-racist statement. We aren’t given enough information to make a fair assessment of his character, but it is possible that he still sees equality as something that Aborigines need to earn, not something which is automatically granted.


  • “And I’ll be here til everyone’s forgotten everything that happened, and the dirt can go back to being just dirt.” Ghost (48). The Ghost is stating that he will remain, haunting the battlefield and by extension history itself, long after he is “forgotten.” This links to the theme of memory.
  • “To those who have gone, and those we will always remember.” Bloke with a glass of wine (67). Another example of irony, connected to the theme of remembrance.
  • ‘Lest We Forget is for all of us eh?’ Archie (71). Aside from the writing of Aborigines out of Australia’s war story, this quote also reflects the broader historical hypocrisies evident in Australia’s attitudes towards remembrance. World War One gets special preference and cries to remember ‘lest we forget;’ by contrast, the Indigenous community is routinely told to “get over” the violence perpetrated against them.

Hope for a new Australia

  • “And I came back, and like you gentlemen I found myself identifying with Australia.” (67). This quote is taken from the start of Act Two, where the ‘Bloke With A Glass Of Wine’ delivers a speech in honour of a mate from the army. It reflects the sense of hopefulness that returned Indigenous soldiers felt for the new nation of Australia and the idea that they might now belong.
  • “For you the war’s over. What’s starting to dawn on me is that for us, it’s never going to end.” Mick (75). This scene echoes the historical dispossession of Indigenous Australians. Mick has returned from the war to see history repeat itself.
  • “They painted my colour back on the day I got off that boat.” Norm (79). This is one of the most direct quotes to address the hypocrisy at the heart of white Australian attitudes towards Indigenous Australians. When they could be used by Australian society they were used, and then immediately treated as second-class on returning. The image of skin colour as something which can be painted on and then stripped off reinforces the arbitrariness of racial prejudice.

Loss of Traditional Culture and Spirituality

  • “Like what? I don’t know any of that old people stuff.” Tommy (44) This quote demonstrates that the young Indigenous Australian men who have gone to war have lost much of the traditional ways of their ancestors. When Frank is killed, Bertie is suddenly concerned that he not be buried in Europe, and that they need to find a way for him to follow them home because the landscape and everything in it is foreign and different. Unfortunately for them, they do not know how to perform a traditional ceremony to help Frank’s spirit return to Australia. This shows a loss of traditional culture, something that has been eroded by the British since they made their claim on Australian.

Essay 1 : “That’s the thing, the bits left behind, they’ll come out, they must.” How does the text show that memory is inescapable?

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