It’s impossible to talk about ANZAC Day and the landings that took place at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 without talking about the “Diggers”. While the term “Digger” had been used in both Australia and New Zealand since the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until the outbreak of World War I that it became widely used to refer to ANZAC soldiers.
Prior to World War I, the term “digger” was more commonly used in Australia to refer to a miner, with New Zealanders using it in reference to Kauri gum-diggers. It also had associations with the Victorian Eureka Stockade Rebellion of 1854 and those fighting for egalitarianism. During the Second Boer War (1899-1902), many of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers were former miners who established a reputation for rapidly constructing dugout defences at the Battle of Elands River, hence the nickname “Diggers”.
Its use during the Gallipoli campaign is generally believed to have originated in a message from General Sir Ian Hamilton to the commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), General William Birdwood, on the evening following the landing at Anzac Cove. Its postscript read:
“You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe.”
With both Australia and New Zealand relatively “young” nations who hadn’t had much exposure on the international stage, their involvement in World War I was seen as a chance to prove themselves. This responsibility rode on the shoulders of its young soldiers who were seen to be hardy, resourceful and embodied the ANZAC spirit of “mate ship”.
Despite the heavy casualties on both sides of the Gallipoli campaign and the eventual withdrawal of the Australian and New Zealand troops, the battles that took place on the Gallipoli Peninsula during World War I are strongly linked with the emergence of a national identity in both countries. The qualities of endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour and mate ship became synonymous with the word “Digger” and it is still used as an affectionate slang term for Australian and New Zealand soldiers to this day.