‘Same Old Dope, Dodging Work’: The Working Class in the Military 1914-1918

Nathan Wise

The everyday lives of the working class men who served with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) between 1914 to 1918 have largely been written out of the record. Labour historians, with their distaste for examining war in general, have been reluctant to examine this aspect of people’s lives.1 These people were workers before they enlisted, they had families, they had friends, and they had jobs. Yet nobody has sought to understand the transition of working class men – workers – from their civil employment into military employment. Rather, the military history tradition of writing of soldiers as those recruited to fight, to kill, to defend, has remained very strong.2 The Anzac legend presents the soldier as a hero, contently sacrificing his life in the duty demanded of him by his nation. It is an image designed to promote a sense of national pride and patriotism, but it is also an image largely based upon middle class sources, and middle class experiences in the military. 3 This paper addresses this gap in the labour historiography by examining of the diaries of three individuals who served with the AIF during World War One: Henry Ernest Wyatt, John Hartley Meads, and John Bruce.

These diaries and letters were written with a clear purpose. The individuals writing them wanted them to be read by others and to be kept as a permanent record of their time in the army. Both John Hartley Meads and John Bruce addressed their diaries to their mothers, with Meads writing: ‘This diary is to my mother from her son’;4 while John Bruce wrote: ‘To dear Mother, With love from Jack’.5 These men believed – and made clear from the start – that they were doing something big, something spectacular, something very significant in their greater lives, something historic, and something that years down the track they could tell people about. These men believed they were embarking on a great adventure; for them, enlistment and a trip around the world was meant an ideal break from the monotony of civilian work.6

When Henry Ernest Wyatt enlisted with the AIF in 1914, he gave his residential address as Surry Hills, and his occupation as ‘Boundary Rider’. Like a large portion of the Australian male workforce in the early twentieth century he was probably an itinerant worker.7 Throughout his service he kept a small diary of daily life. His entries were usually very brief, but from these we can glean an understanding of what Wyatt expected of his time in the military, and how he approached this.

Upon arriving on Gallipoli, Wyatt expected an adventure.8 He was in the middle of a war and in a completely different environment to that to which he was accustomed. Daily life was spent in trenches or dugouts, and yet after being on the Peninsula for only three weeks, he began to describe his days as being ‘Nothing unusual’.9 Daily life was already becoming relatively ‘usual’ in the military. The prospects for an adventure were disappearing, and the regularity of work was beginning to show itself.

Towards the end of May, Wyatt penned the following series of terse entries:

29/5/15 Nothing doing
30/5/15 Ditto
31/5/15 Ditto
1/6/15 Same
2/6/15 ——–
3/6/15 Nothing unusual10

In Henry Wyatt’s mind nothing exciting was happening; or, at least, nothing exciting enough to put into his diary. This was already no longer an adventure. Rather, after a number of weeks, he had quickly settled into the routine of life in the military. This involved heading down to the beach each day to collect water, carrying this water back up to the trenches, cleaning the rifles out, fixing up the trenches, cooking meals throughout the day, and performing tasks ordered of him by the higher ranks. Throughout his time on Gallipoli, his attitude towards his service changed, and this can be observed through the style of writing in his diary.

Henry Wyatt spent six months on the Peninsula, yet throughout this time he was only involved in one battle – one charge over the top.11 The remainder of this time was involved in working, performing regular, mundane duties – carrying, digging, and cleaning, all day, every day. His officers ordered him about, they told him what to do, and then they paid him. In spite of the environment, the trenches, and the occasional shellfire, this was still ‘work’.

Prior to enlisting, Henry Wyatt had been a wage worker, and this work formed a large part of his life, shaping the way he approached daily life, and the world he lived in. When employed, this work was regular, and it provided the means by which he supported himself. Upon enlisting, Henry Wyatt was so accustomed to working – to being a ‘worker’ – that with a daily pattern of regular work in the AIF he came to approach his service in the military as a job of work. The adventure disappeared, and the reality of a working life, for regular pay, began to set in.

This sense of routine increased as his service extended, and it and became even more evident in his diary. After travelling with his unit to the Western Front, his style of writing changes from talking about his adventures to talking about the work he does. In January 1917 there was an entry as follows: ‘I am Orderly Sgt’.12 This short entry filled the entire space for a day. It explained what he was doing quite succinctly – on 20 January, the day of the entry, his job was to organise the orders of his company, ensure that everybody knew what they were doing.

Another entire entry of 6 February 1917 noted: ‘We have been building stands for firing grenades’.13 Again, this was all that he recorded for the entire day. For months, there is little further mention of the war in his diary – certainly very little about combat. Rather, the focus is upon daily life, and the work that forms this life. His focus, his daily summary, his approach to service, is that as a job of work.

This same transition and approach is also reflected in the diaries of John Hartley Meads. Like Henry Wyatt, Meads enlisted in pursuit of adventure, and his diary was meant to be a record of that adventure to be read by others. His earlier entries read similarly to that of Wyatt, reporting on the adventures that he experienced. When military service did not meet these expectations, like Wyatt, his diary begins to follow a similar pattern of reporting the usual rigmarole.14

Upon arriving in France, the real work of soldiering came to the fore and Meads became irritated by the lack of adventure and the demands of military work at all hours of the day and night. On 13 June 1916, he reported:

Went out on 5am fatigue it was raining all the while had on big gum boots up to my hips but I had mud all over me from my hips up through working with pick and shovel in the support trenches.15

Similarly, on 16 June:

10.45 Our artillery started a duel with Fritz so we had to stand to till midnight. at [sic] 1.10am they started to go again, and up we had to get, and after we had been up about an hour the gas alarms went, and we had to don our gas helmets, and stand to for another 1 hours [sic], but got no gas.16

And another, on 17 June,

Lay down at 2am for 40 winks, had to turn out again a 5am and go out and dig trenches all day. Took some bread and jam for dinner came home at 5am. 17

These entries were all written within the space of one week. Meads wrote a regular diary of his service and it continued in a similar style for another three years. Work was a daily part of life; work was annoying, but work was also sometimes seen as necessary, and more importantly, work was one of the most common things that he reported in this diary. This was the same diary that was written for those at home to read and appreciate. It was also the same diary that began as a record of his adventures.

The diaries of these three men reveal complex patterns of writing over long periods and are best understood by looking at the diary as a complete text, where days and attitudes quite clearly follow on from each other in succession, rather than as a series of independent and random notes. Historian Joan Scott has argued that attempts to record experiences in these forms reveal ‘entire systems of meaning or knowledge – not only ideas people have about particular issues but their representations and organizations of life and the world’. 18

Within this bigger picture, patterns of regularity in approaches to service begin to appear. In early May 1917, Meads wrote, in a series of entries:

2nd Only work
3rd Same thing
4th Monotony cannot be broken19

Then, later in the same month:

25th Nothing exciting only work
28th In Camp nothing except work20

Meads writes of ‘work’ as being ‘normal’; as the regular thing that was done. There was nothing unusual to report, nothing exciting, and nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual work. Life in the military had somehow slipped into a regular, monotonous pattern. This is perhaps best illustrated by two simple entries during November 1917 where Meads wrote:

28th Usual routine of work. went [sic] to Theatre to see ‘By Pigeon Post ‘ It was not too bad.
29th Work again21

Yet, while being regular – in the sense that every day they had to work – this work was very irregular, in that the nature of the work changed considerably. This is best illustrated by an examination of John Bruce’s diaries.

Whereas Meads provides a broad insight into his approach to work over a period of time, John Bruce’s diaries make available further details on the nature of this work, and on the approach to the different types of work undertaken by men in the AIF. For example:

27/11/17 Was Pay Corps orderly for the day. The staff did not turn up till 9am, so I had nix to do till then. I swept up + tidied up + mothed off for a while.
28/11/17 Dodged work all the morning as there was nothing to do…Managed to get grabbed for the horses. Had to bring two up from the river fleet to the horse-line. Was supposed to groom + feed them but I ducked off.
30/11/17 Mess orderly for day. Church parade 9am in lecture hall. Went down to park + did a bit of drill. Were detailed for duties being quota on for day. Got Camp Police.22

Clearly, John Bruce did not enjoy the work. He looked forward to finishing the work he was ordered to do, and in particular, to finishing work early. Where possible, he would pass off work allocated to him to somebody else. His approach to service also diverges significantly from that commonly reported in the historical literature. As is evident from the above extracts, he liked avoiding work. One entry late in the war that emphasised the regularity in his approach noted: ‘Same old dope. Dodging work’.23

In his descriptions of his duties, Bruce also demonstrates how diverse the work of the AIF was. It was not all combat and fighting.24 Indeed, serving in the Australian Field Artillery, Bruce barely mentions the ‘trenches’ or the ‘front lines’ throughout his entire period of service. Examples of the work tasks mentioned in his diary include: feeding, cleaning, and exercising horses; digging shelter and dugouts for his battery; moving the artillery from place to place; cleaning and firing field guns, as well as carrying ammunition for them; peeling potatoes and onions; cleaning the mess hall and washing dishes; and acting as a guard. Bruce approaches these in a variety of ways. When allocated to grooming and feeding the horses, for example, he ‘ducks off’ and escapes the job,25 seeing this work as pointless and a waste of time.

Wyatt, Meads and Bruce were only three of the tens of thousands of men who served in the military during World War One. Yet from their diaries we can obtain important insights into how they approached their military service, how they felt about relations with their officers,26 and how they felt about the work that they were doing. Their recorded experiences differ markedly from that reported in the military histories. The focus of their writing is not upon combat, and they do not write about their willingness to sacrifice themselves for King and Country. By acknowledging that combat was only a very small part of military service – and that the bulk of military service comprised work behind the lines – historians can begin to see what these soldiers actually did with their time.

By looking beyond the myths and legends, we can see that these soldiers were workers; they were regular people – telephonists, jackeroos, boundary riders, and the like. These men may initially have seen themselves as paid adventurers, and written history to date may have focused on the great battles and heroism and tragedy in the trenches and in no-man’s-land. However, it is time that historians began acknowledging that most of the time spent in the military was actually spent out of the trenches and behind the front lines, where men like Wyatt, Meads and Bruce very quickly changed their outlook to identify themselves as workers, doing a job of work, in a working environment.


  1. Class and the Common Soldier in the Seven Years’ War
  2. Labor History, 44(4), 2003, p.457.
  3. Dale Blair has argued that one cause of this is the tendency for military history to focus on ‘uncovering reasons for victory or defeat’. See D. Blair, Dinkum Diggers: An Australian Battalion at War, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 2001, p.15.
  4. This under-representation of the working class is noted in J. McQuilton, ‘Enlistment for the First World War in Rural Australia: the Case of North-Eastern Victoria, 1914-1918, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, 33, 2000, paragraph [13]. Note also Gammage’s sources and representation: B. Gammage, The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1987, p.310, and Blair’s sources and representation: D. Blair, Dinkum Diggers, p.10.
  5. John Hartley Meads, No. 3985, Jackeroo, Wagga Wagga, AWM PR03005 Undated.
  6. John Bruce, No. 34710, Telephonist, Paddington, AWM PR87/115, 8 October 1917.
  7. One recruiting pamphlet advertised a ‘Free Tour to Great Britain and Europe – The Chance of a Lifetime’. The reverse of the pamphlet carried the rates of pay for ranks in the AIF. More than an adventure, it was a paid adventure. AWM RC02289.
  8. Henry Ernest Wyatt, No. 1445, Attestation Form, NAA: B2455, WYATT H E.
  9. Wyatt’s diary was primarily written to be a record of his exciting times. Initially he would only write about matters of significant interest: the day he embarked with the AIF from Sydney in February 1915; the day his troopship ran aground on the coral reef; and other small adventures he had along the way. See Henry Ernest Wyatt, No. 1445, Boundary Rider, Surry Hills, AWM 1DRL/0608, 11 & 18 February 1915.
  10. Ibid., 14 May 1915
  11. Ibid., 29 May 1915 to 3 June 1915.
  12. This was the August offensive at Lone Pine. Ibid., 7 August 1915.
  13. Ibid., 20 January 1917.
  14. Ibid., 6 February 1917.
  15. For example, a single entry covering the period 24-30 January 1916, while training onboard a troopship en route to France, stated: ‘O.K. nothing unusual’; and the following entry on the 1 February 1916 recorded: ‘Very calm nothing exciting to mention.’ Rather than write about life in the military and onboard the troopship, Meads, like Wyatt, decided instead simply to state that there was nothing to mention. At this early stage in his service he still expected something exciting to occur. He was writing a diary with the express purpose of recording his exciting adventures, but when these failed to materialise, and he ended up working every day, he felt there was really little to write about, much like Wyatt’s diary. See John Hartley Meads, No. 3985, Jackeroo, Wagga Wagga, AWM PR03005, 24-30 January 1916 and 1 February 1916.
  16. Ibid., 13 June 1916.
  17. Ibid., 16 June 1916.
  18. Ibid., 17 June 1916.
  19. J. W. Scott, ‘Language, Gender and Working-Class History ‘, in P. Joyce (ed), Class, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, p.158.
  20. John Hartley Meads, No. 3985, Jackeroo, Wagga Wagga, AWM PR03005, 2-4 May 1917.
  21. Ibid., 25-31 May 1917.
  22. Ibid., 28-29 November 1917.
  23. John Bruce, No. 34710, Telephonist, Paddington, AWM PR87/115, 27, 28 & 30 November 1917.
  24. Ibid., 3 August 1918.
  25. J. G. Fuller has broken down the service of the average British and Dominion infantryman into different areas of service, and estimates that only two-fifths of soldiers’ time was actually spent on the front lines – and most of that involved reserve or support activity. See J. G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990, p.58.
  26. Ibid., 26 November 1916.
  27. Blair provides a more detailed analysis of this in his chapter ‘“Class is Everything”: The Officer-Man Relationship’, in D. Blair, Dinkum Diggers, pp. 37-68.