Labour History

An Intimate History of Digging in the Australian Army during the Kokoda Campaign of 1942

Labour History (2014), 107, (1), 21–34.


The military conduct of the Kokoda Campaign of 1942, a campaign that saved Australia from isolation, has been well documented by historians. Less-well documented, however, is the history of the labour undertaken by Australian soldiers during the campaign. Building upon recent historical analyses of labour in the environment of the military, this paper will utilise the written records and oral testimony of Australian soldiers to explore the nature of the work of digging during the Kokoda Campaign of 1942. It will consider themes such as the role of digging and of manual labour in general within the daily life of service personnel, and the impact of local environmental factors on that daily work. By focusing on the specific features of digging in a single military campaign, this paper will highlight the historical value of exploring work within the military as a way to provide greater insight into the experiences of Australians at war.

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*The authors would like to thank the two anonymous referees ofLabour Historyand acknowledge the assistance of the Australians at War Film Archive, the Australian War Memorial, the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, and the State Library of Tasmania. The author would also like to thank the University of New England for providing a University of New England Research Seed Grant, and the Australian Army for providing an Australian Army History Unit Research Grant; both of these provided valuable funding assistance for the research undertaken for this paper. Google Scholar

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4.P. Williams, The Kokoda Campaign 1942: Myth and Reality(:Cambridge University Press, 2012), 113. Google Scholar

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9.For a list of the units involved, seeThe Corps of Royal Australian Engineers in the Second World War 1939–45(:The Specialty Press, 1946), 27. Google Scholar

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18.An exception to this is the experience of Prisoners of War, whose labour, often forced, has been well documented by historians. See for exampleP. H. Kratoska, ed., The Thailand-Burma Railway, 1942–1946: Documents and Selected Writings(:Routledge, 2006);G. McCormack andH. Nelson, The Burma-Thailand Railway(:Allen & Unwin, 2006);H. Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon(:ABC, 1985). Google Scholar

19.See for exampleG. H. Johnston, New Guinea Diary(:Angus and Robertson, 1943);O. White, Green Armour(:Angus and Robertson, 1945). Google Scholar

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23.While the Kokoda Campaign is generally considered to have been fought between July and November 1942, for context, this paper also briefly considers experiences in the lead-up to the campaign from January-July 1942, in addition to the Battle of Buna-Gona, which immediately followed the Kokoda Campaign, from November 1942 to January 1943. In addition, references to other campaigns, theatres and experiences in these are referenced when relevant for analysis and contrast. See for exampleJames, The Track, 3. Google Scholar

24.Albert Edward Arthur Long, diary entry, 27 November 1940, VX17841, PR00233, AWM. Google Scholar

25.John Milton Butler, diary entry, 17 April 1941, VX40829, 3DRK/3825, AWM. Google Scholar

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27.Peter Hayman, diary entry 6 February 1942, N281927, PR00354, AWM. Google Scholar

28.Ham, Kokoda, 29. Google Scholar

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30.FitzSimons, Kokoda, 94. Google Scholar

31.Irvine Francis Lloyd, letter, 31 October 1983, V45916, PR00322, AWM. The 39thBattalion was a militia battalion re-raised in 1941. Up to the point of arriving in Port Moresby in January 1942, they had only received minimal training in Australia and they were expected to continue their military training in New Guinea. Google Scholar

32.Reginald Cromwell Markham, diary entry, 8 January 1942, V66783, PR89/87, AWM. Google Scholar

33.Alexander “Jock” Reid, diary entry, 12 January 1942, V5581, cited inV. Austin, To Kokoda and Beyond: The Story of the 39thBattalion, 1941–1943(:Australian Military History Publications, 2007), 29. “Coy” was a common abbreviation of company. Google Scholar

34.See for exampleFitz Simmons, Kokoda, 278–79;Johnston, At the Front Line, 36–40. Google Scholar

35.Harold Percival Spindler, diary entry, 23 October 1942, N268168, PR83/171, AWM. Google Scholar

36.Robert Gartshore Robertson, letter to Bill, 15 December 1942, VX13244, 2DRL/1315, AWM. Google Scholar

37.William Frank Cousens, The Battle of Gona, unpublished memoir, 18–19, WX8340, MSS0659 and MSS0721, AWM. Google Scholar

38.This has also been noted elsewhere of the nature of labour during World War I; seeN. Wise, “A Working Man’s Hell: Working Class Men’s Experiences with Work in the Australian Imperial Force during the Great War”(PhD diss.,University of New South Wales, 2007), 116–18. Google Scholar

39.Most notably by members of the 1stAustralian Corps Ski School, based in Lebanon/Syria. Google Scholar

40.Johnston, At the Front Line, 9. Google Scholar

41.Ernest Charles Ruckley, unpublished memoir, 2, NX163865, PR85/231, AWM. Peter Hayman similarly recalled “digging trenches in solid rock” while based near Port Moresby in early 1942; seePeter Hayman, undated addendum to re-written diary, N281927, PR00354, AWM. Google Scholar

42.Cousens, The Battle of Gona, 14. Google Scholar

43.Ralph Honner, “The 39that Isurava,” Stand-To 5, no. 4(July–August1956):9. Google Scholar

44.Milton, Lloyd’s Story, 99. Google Scholar

45.Spindler, diary entry, 19 September 1942. See also the extracts from Colin Kennedy, World War 2: Campaigning in Papua, unpublished memoir, 26, 34, NX190472, PR85/305, AWM. Google Scholar

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47.Transcript of interview with Donald Daniels, 10 June 2003, time: 02:12:30:18, VX142391, AWFA, accessed September 2014, Google Scholar

48.Spindler, diary entry, 13 September1942. Google Scholar

49.Johnston notes that batmen would often dig the dugouts for their officers;Johnston, At the Front Line, 140. Google Scholar

50.William Drayton Jamieson, unpublished memoirs, 1, PR85/234, AWM. Google Scholar

51.Johnston, At the Front Line, 9. Google Scholar

52.See for exampleIbid., 11–13. Google Scholar

53.McNicoll, The Royal Australian Engineers, 155. Google Scholar

54.See in particularA. D. Robertson, “Problems of Supply Encountered by the Australian and Japanese Forces on the Kokoda Trail and the Question of Morale,”(Hons diss.,Melbourne University, 1973), 16–29, MSS0701, AWM. The lack of shovels was by no means unique to the Kokoda Campaign; soldiers noted the lack of shovels during campaigns in the Middle East also. See for example Transcript of interview with James Mackenzie, 5 December 2003, time: 05:15:30:00 and 05:21:30:00, WX5791, AWFA, accessed September 2014, Google Scholar

55.McNicoll, The Royal Australian Engineers, 155. Google Scholar

56.Johnston, At the Front Line, 111–12. Google Scholar

57.On this occasion, the digging of graves took place as Australian units crossed back over the range during their advance. Paul Ham interview with Merv Roberts, 24 July 2002, cited inHam, Kokoda, 330. Google Scholar

58.Ham, Kokoda, 61. For other instances seeIbid., 327, 330, 363. Google Scholar

59.R. Kienzle, The Architect of Kokoda: Bert Kienzle: The Man Who Made the Kokoda Trail(:Hachette, 2011), 128. Google Scholar

60.Johnston, At the Front Line, 8. Google Scholar

61.Ibid. Google Scholar

62.Kennedy, World War 2: Campaigning in Papua, 10. Google Scholar

63.For other examples seeBrune, Those Ragged Bloody Heroes, 274, 339. Google Scholar

64.Spindler, diary entry, 18 September1942. Google Scholar

65.Kennedy, World War 2: Campaigning in Papua, 18. Google Scholar

66.Ibid., 26. Google Scholar

67.Ibid., 34. Google Scholar

68.Colin Kennedy, personal note made withinR. Paull, Retreat from Kokoda: The Australian Campaign in New Guinea 1942(:William Heinemann, 1983), 98, held in NX190472, PR85/305, AWM. Google Scholar

69.McAuley, Blood and Iron, 256. Google Scholar

70.See, for example, Transcript of interview with Bede Tongs, 23 April 2002, time: 05:26:30:15, NX126952, AWFA, accessed September 2014, Google Scholar

71.See, for example,K. J. Baker, Paul Cullen, Citizen and Soldier: The Life And Times of Major-General Paul Cullen(:Rosenberg Publishing, 2005), 141. Google Scholar

72.Spindler, diary entry, 23 October1942. Google Scholar

73.Cousens, The Battle of Gona, 18–19. Google Scholar

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Author details

Wise, Nathan