Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Special Collections Fossickings 39: Born on the battlefield: Aussie magazine 1

Haidi Beard with the first issue of "Aussie"
It was Special Collections Officer, Haidi Beard, who urged us to take a closer look at this particular treasure in the Rare Book collection. Indeed the cover illustration alone held our attention. Bearing the French price of 10 centimes, issue no.1 of “Aussie: the Australian Soldiers’ Magazine” proudly declares itself to be “printed in the field.” And there on the cover stands the unmistakable figure of an AIF soldier, with fixed bayonet and slouch hat shading a face whose craggy features look strangely familiar. Turn it to the right and... yes, it’s a map of Australia!
The grim conditions and bitter cold of the French battlefields in mid-winter provided an unlikely birthplace for such a chirpy individual and yet this was exactly where it raised its cheeky, irrepressible head. Its resourceful creator and editor, Lt Philip Harris, may not have moved mountains but he managed to move a printing-press from Sydney to Europe, aboard the troopship SS Ceramic, and worked miracles acquiring additional machinery from ruined buildings and abandoned villages in war-torn France. The first issue ran to 10,000 copies but when demand leapt to 60,000 existing paper stocks were exhausted. No matter - ten tons of paper was found in a cellar in the shell-shocked town of Armentieres. By the end of the war circulation had reached 100,000. Between them the Rare Book and Shaw collections contain all 13 issues published during the war and immediate post-war period.
Although “Aussie” first appeared on the scene when the war had only 10 months to run one cannot imagine that this was the reason for the magazine’s characteristic cheerfulness. The previous year had been gruelling, with the Australians suffering heavy losses in France and Belgium, and there was yet more fighting to come. Moreover, many of the troops must have been war-weary in the extreme and longing for home. Even when the Armistice came, large numbers of troops remained through the long winter months to help rebuild the shattered communities.

The final wartime issue appeared in April 1919 as the last Australian troops left for home. In the colloquial language of its editor, the magazine was “demobbed” but, like other “dinkum Aussies”, looked forward to having a role in civilian life.  In 1920 a flyer announced that “Aussie is now in civvies” and the magazine lived on until 1931. By then the world was changing, the Depression was biting deep into Australian life and perhaps the magazine’s larrikin optimism would not have survived a second global war. But its role in boosting morale, building community and cementing links between diggers and those at home was a proud one.

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