Remembering the war in New Guinea - The real Bluey and Curley

Remembering the war in New Guinea
The real Bluey and Curley: Australian images and idioms in the island campaigns (Symposium paper)
Panel name: Fighting to the end
This page was contributed by Dr Peter Stanley (Australian War Memorial, Canberra)

The cultural history of the Australian Military Forces in the Second World War has been largely neglected. Several major sources could be explored. They include popular songs and doggerel, non-official art, soldiers’ writings in the Christmas books or Salt magazine, and ephemera such as unit or camp newspapers. In this brief paper I’ll be discussing two cultural expressions. After starting with the official war art of Ivor Hele, I’ll go on to look at a glossary of slang compiled around 1946 and at the ‘Bluey and Curley’ cartoons of Alex Gurney.

I’ll be arguing that Australian soldiers in 1945 shared a distinctive culture, albeit one hard to define. How can we capture the attributes of a culture? How do we understand men with whom we may have little in common? This paper is a step on a journey toward understanding, rather than a definitive statement of it. I’ll use a robust working definition of ‘culture’ as a constellation of expressions of values and behaviour which collectively represents the distinctive nature of a human group. This culture distinguished Australian forces in 1945 from other national forces in the war and from the Australian army at other times in its history. As much as its weapons and equipment, its doctrine and tactics, its commanders’ intentions and orders, this culture determined how this army served and how it performed in this war, in this place, against this enemy. This soldierly culture was expressed by many elements, but today I want to look at how these men looked and how they sounded as a way of understanding how they thought and felt.

The culture of Australian soldiers wasn’t simply a military one. As Garth Pratten reminded us yesterday, there was not one Australian army, but two variants, the AIF and the Militia. Their culture – or cultures – were of course informed by wartime experience, but also by the society from which they came. The army, whether AIF or Militia, was virtually young male Australia in uniform, with all that that entailed: its devotion to sport, its capacity for work, its toleration of excess, its celebration of male friendship, its ambiguous regard for women. Among its members could be found the range of human attributes and tastes, from men who they called “good horses” to others they derided as “mongrels”, from men with little in their minds beyond a beer, a smoke, and a woman to men of spiritual and artistic sensibility. But the nature of their task and the circumstances of its life inevitably conspired to encourage a robust male society. This idea is developed in Peter Stanley, Tarakan: an Australian Tragedy, Sydney, 1997, and in my “Anzac and Army: Reflections on Army and Society in Australia, 1895-1995”, in David Horner, (ed.), Armies and Nation-Building: Past Experience – Future Prospects, Canberra, 1995, pp. 41-56.

The men who walked into the recruiting depots in 1939 probably imagined that they were to join an army like the ones their fathers and uncles had created in the Great War. Twenty Anzac days had enshrined as the “digger” look, of steel helmets, loose, khaki serge tunics, breeches and puttees – the long bandage-like wrappings worn around the calves. Except for the replacement of puttees by canvas anklets, then, the digger of 1939 looked much like the digger of 1918.

There was substance to this coincidence. Knowing the power of the Anzac legend in Australian society between the wars, we can’t underrate the burden of reputation that these men felt as they entered battle for the first time. Likewise, we mustn’t diminish their growing self-confidence when they realised that they were equal to the responsibility, and their pride in their achievements in North Africa, in Greece, Crete, Syria and Lebanon. In 1941 the Australian soldier of the Second World War begin to display a distinctive character, and, in hot Mediterranean climates, his appearance altered accordingly. He wore light-coloured shirts and short shorts, and gradually acquired new weapons and equipment. From 1942, though, Asia became the main focus of Australia’s war. In New Guinea, jungle green replaced sand-coloured khaki, the slouch hat replaced the steel helmet, and weapons and equipment developed for tropical service were introduced.

The art of the official war artist Ivor Hele provides a convenient starting point for our exploration of the members of this army. Here is one of his pencil sketches, of Signaller Allan Oehlman of the 2/3rd Independent Company after a patrol near Salamaua in mid-1943. Ivor Hele, In from patrol, Signaller Allan Oehlman 1943, 38382, pencil, 53 x 31.5 cm, Australian War Memorial.

Look at his face. War is always unpleasant, uncomfortable and dangerous, with boredom, fear and exhaustion always present in varying amounts. In New Guinea the oppressive climate, impossible terrain, and endemic disease combined to burden the body and break the spirit. If we are to appreciate who the Australian soldier was and what he overcame – including, we should recall, a brave, tenacious, and unforgiving enemy – we can begin to do so by looking into works like this. We have to ask: what did this experience do to him? How did alter him, his self confidence, his identity, his being? What culture does this figure represent?

Notice Signaller Oehlman’s uniform, and especially his gaiters. The baggy jungle green pants and long canvas gaiters (adopted from the Americans) are again characteristic of this phase of the war. This look expresses so much about these men at that time in those places. It’s a look that evokes a world and a culture, one that has almost vanished.

The task of penetrating the mentality of men like this is not an easy one. There are questions of evidence and of its interpretation. Fortunately, I’m not the first person to attempt to do so. There are works which bring us closer to understanding who these men were, such as John Barrett’s We Were There and Mark Johnston’s At the Front Line. John Barrett, We Were There: Australian Soldiers of World War II Tell Their Stories, Melbourne, 1987; Mark Johnston, At the Front Line: Experiences of Australian Soldiers in World War II, Melbourne, 1996. My task today is to suggest fresh approaches to familiar evidence.
* * *
Let me turn to the culture of Australian soldiers in the islands as expressed in slang. It’s important to grasp the language and tone of the force’s interior dialogue: it provides the aural counterpart of the art of Ivor Hele. It was a compound patois, mixing the slang of city, racetrack, and bush with phrases picked up from allies and people overseas, terms inherited from the Great War, and neologisms coined in the south-west Pacific. It has been preserved in a unique form in a list of AIF slang terms compiled by Major Alec Hill and donated to the official historian, now a part of the Gavin Long papers at the Memorial. AWM 67, 11/14, ‘Slang’. I’m delighted to acknowledge that Alec has attended this conference.

This glossary allows us to eavesdrop on the sorts of words used by many Australian soldiers in the island campaigns. Everyone didn’t use them all, of course. Some many have flourished only in some units at some times, and there’s a risk in us generalising or even romanticising. For example, I wonder how pervasive were rhyming slang terms, of which Gavin Long recorded dozens.

A page taken more or less at random suggests both the value of the glossary and the values of the men who used these words:

Go off, to to be stolen
Go through, to to go absent without leave (AWOL, also known as “ack-willy”)
Goldfish tinned herrings (also pilchards)
Give it away, to to abandon a task
Give someone an ear-bashing, toto be loquacious
Galah a stupid person
Go for, to to be eager
Gigglesuit fatigue uniform
Good horseoriginally a “reliable informant”, by 1943—1945, a man of outstanding fortitude and strength
Griff or good griff reliable news: known as the “good oil”
Good guts the same
Gen likewise, this a term taken up from the air force

Even this sample suggests aspects of the troops’ culture. Stealing occurred, though it was countenanced or condemned depending on the proximity of the victim. Men shot through or went absent, though the duration of the absence determined whether a man had committed a social as well as a military offence. Armies are starved for news – hence the existence of four terms for reliable information. The inevitable variety in the composition of a citizen force, and in its members’ responses to each other, are suggested by several terms. The army included men who were “galahs”, but also “good horses”, men who could “go for it” or “give it away”.

Much of what seems to be army slang in fact originated in civil life. For example, the Long-Hill glossary includes the expressions “flat out like a lizard drinking”, signifying an arduous effort, and “horse’s hoof”, rhyming slang for “poof” or homosexual. These civilian terms were probably disseminated more widely by their military use. Soldiers often imparted an inflection on even familiar terms. For example, a man might be said to “shoot through”, a civilian term. But a common usage was to “shoot through on the padre’s bike”, a distinctively military form. Likewise, a close friend was, of course, a “mate”, but a casual acquaintance – in which army life abounded – became “sport”. Again, we need to be wary of cliché and romanticism: soldiers’ slang was not only colourful, it was crude. As the Long-Hill glossary records flatly, “Fuck is used frequently”. But at least it was often used inventively. For example, men “buggered about” by the army described their misuse as a “NAMFU”, a parody of military abbreviation, “Non-Adjusting Military Fuck-up” (itself a variant of the more familiar “SNAFU”). Men expressed their frustration with the expletive bowdlerised in print as “Wouldn’t it?”, short for “Wouldn’t it root you”, a phrase coined by a sergeant major in the 16th Brigade in 1939. Some soldiers – perhaps many – resisted the crude vernacular of the tent lines, and were respected for it, but the force’s recorded language evokes the relentlessly masculine.

This was not, however, an army without stress. The abbreviation of “AIF” became (in a term deriving from Great War signalese) “Ack-I-Foof”. But AIF men referred to the Militia as “Foof-I-Ackas” – “forced into action”. This army celebrated and relied upon mateship, but it recognised that some men operated on “the Jack system” – that is, “Fuck you, Jack, I’m all right”. An infantry section might include a “good horse”, but also a “two-bob lair”, a cheap show-off. It might include a “no-hoper”, a seemingly abusive term, but one also applied to a likeable but lazy man.

It was also an army conscious of national and racial distinctions. “Kanaka” was used of the indigenous people of New Guinea, but mostly “by old New Guinea hands”. “Boong”, not used in the territory before 1942, apparently arrived with the troops, who applied the Australian term for Aborigines to the people of New Guinea. Despite their unconscious and endemic racism, soldiers also adopted a friendlier attitude to the carriers who served them. Their enemy were of course “Japs”, “Nips”, or, at least in Alec Hill’s 20th Brigade, the gentlemanly “the angry man”. Mark Johnston’s Fighting the Enemy records more than a dozen other epithets. Mark Johnston, Fighting the Enemy: Australian Soldiers and their Adversaries in World War II, Melbourne, 2000, p. 73.

Understanding this force, and how it expresses the culture of that vanished Australia, obliges us to enter, if briefly, into the mental world of its members, to trouble to understand what they valued. Though many of them are still with us, though their world may appear to be deceptively close, it is in many ways elusive, calling for an effort to penetrate the veil of the succeeding sixty years.
* * *
This is possible, I suggest, through the unlikely medium of two cartoon characters. Alex Gurney’s strip “Bluey and Curley” was first published in the Melbourne Sun in February 1941. Bluey and Curley immediately became soldiers and “served” in North Africa and the islands. The strip became immensely popular, especially among soldiers, who relished Bluey and Curley’s relentless chiacking of army cooks, officers, sergeants and boastful or condescending allies. Alex Gurney received fan letters from soldiers and travelled in New Guinea in 1944 to meet his readers and gather inspiration. Gurney’s work has never been the subject of serious scholarship. His son, John (in association with Keith Dunstan) published Gurney & Bluey & Curley: Alex Gurney and His Greatest Cartoons, Melbourne, 1986.

Bluey and Curley were cartoon characters, and we must be mindful of that. Bluey, for example, was conceived of as a Great War veteran, and virtually no men that old were fit enough to serve in the islands, at least in the infantry. Gurney was part of a propaganda machine, and his work was subject to censorship. So how much do these characters reflect or express the reality of the culture of the men they depict? Bluey and Curley are classic Australian male stereotypes. They emerge from the bush humour tradition in which the cardinal virtues are mateship and mistrust of authority. Jack is able to hold his own against toffy Poms and smart-alec Yanks; he is as good as his master, and better than “boongs”, “Abos”, and “Japs”. These characters like a beer and a bet, are laconic in the face of danger, and stand up to authority with a range of wise-cracking come-backs. Bluey and Curley are a product of their time, combining unsophisticated and gentle humour while at the same time being sexist, racist and anti-Semitic.

Gurney’s strips use many of the more socially innocuous terms which appear in the Long-Hill glossary. The first frame of the strip “Enough is Enough” has Curley being escorted by a provost (a military policeman) to front up to the new major on a charge for going absent without leave. He asks Bluey (who is coming out of the company orderly room) “How much is the new galah slugging the blokes for going ack-willy, Blue?”

Enough is Enough

Understanding these cartoons today often requires a knowledge of the slang of this vanished Australia. Indeed, it is arguably Gurney’s words rather than his drawings that convey much of the meaning and humour of his strips, and which retain much of their value as historical evidence. On his death, the Bulletin’s obituary claimed that “his tens of thousands of admirers … weren’t really interested in his drawings”. The writer – who had presumably seen readers’ reactions to the strip – claimed that “they would read the wording underneath, then take a quick look at the pictures, and laugh”. Bulletin, 21 December 1955. But his observation gives the lie to the criticism: Bluey and Curley are combinations of words and images, and the point of the words is conveyed by the drawings. They are the popular counterpart of Hele’s paintings and sketches, and the popular expression of Alec Hill’s lexicon of digger slang.

Gurney published over 1,500 Bluey and Curley strips during the war, many preserved in published annuals, each of which sold tens of thousands of copies. Confusingly, all of Gurney’s wartime annuals were entitled Bluey and Curley. The cartoons in this paper have all been taken from the 1945 annual. It is clearly impossible to survey more than a fraction of them here, but I’ll discuss a few from the last wartime annual. Because they express an old Australian idiom, Gurney’s strips are now often unintelligible, especially to younger and non-Australian readers. Still, a few examples suggest the richness of his work as evidence of the attitudes of his subjects and his readers.

Bluey and Curley remained privates through the entire war. In “Health Talk” Gurney explicitly portrays men who accept promotion as “on the nose”.

Health Talk

Service in the islands weighed increasingly on troops who spent many months in the tropics. Their term for it – “troppo” – appeared in Gurney’s strips, as in “Late Fee”.

Late Fee

The impositions of tropical service became a theme of the late war cartoons, as in “Hurry Me Not”:

Hurry Me Not

Bluey and Curley expressed the ambivalence many men felt towards their army service, a feeling reflected in “Never Satisfied”:

Never Satisfied

How reliably do Bluey and Curley express the culture of the men they depict? Alex Gurney’s own scrapbooks include a clipping from an article in the Sun News-Pictorial from 1942. A journalist had met a man, one of the many who claimed to be “the one and only Curley”. The man let the cat out of the bag by observing that Curley led “a sort of life I would like to lead”. Sun News-Pictorial, 15 July 1942, clipping in the possession of Ms Margaret Gurney, Black Rock, Vic., to whom I am grateful for her assistance in consulting Alex Gurney’s papers. The answer may be that they express not how these men actually were, but how they wanted to be seen. For all their authentic sound, Bluey and Curley represent not so much the Australian soldier of the Second World War as the popular ideal of him. The challenge, then, is to try to see beyond the stereotype to also discern soldiers as they were.

Printed on 01/31/2023 05:59:12 PM