YOUNG DIGGER, By Anthony Hill

Notes By

Christopher Bantick

Anthony Hill’s new novel, Young Digger, could be seen as a companion volume to his award winning Soldier Boy. Apart from both being set in World War One, there are other similarities.

The central character in Soldier Boy, Jim Martin, was a boy caught up in war. Where Jim was an Australian sent to Gallipoli, in Young Digger, the story revolves around Henri Hemene, a young orphaned French boy. Both Soldier Boy and Young Digger are biographical novels. They also form something of bookends to the war. Where Jim Martin is at the beginning of Australia’s involvement in 1915, Henri Hemene is at war’s conclusion and the signing of the Armistice in 1918.

The following notes, questions and activities are designed for teachers and students to explore some of the issues of Young Digger as a story and also the time it was set in. The book should be read first before the questions are attempted as some of the answers may refer to several chapters from the book.

The book’s eighteen chapters – excluding the appendixes and end notes – have been clustered into groups of three. To gain maximum benefit from the story, some background reading on World War one and the Western Front in particular would be advantageous.

Story Outline:

Henri Hemene was a French orphan boy whose parents had been killed in the First World War. His father, a French soldier, had been killed in the retreat from Mons in 1914. His mother died when the when the family home was shelled near Lille soon after.

Henri, aged no more than five, wandered homeless and hungry, before he attached himself to several British units. He was eventually adopted by a squadron of the Australian Flying Corps in occupied Germany.

Two brothers, Tim and Ted Tovell, AFC members took Henri under their brotherly wings and, prompted by pity and love, vowed to smuggle Henri back to Australia to be a member of the Tovell family in Queensland. Henri was brought out of France in an oat sack. This was achieved not without taking risks plus some luck along the way. Tim Tovell with his wife Gerti, treated Henri as his own son. Digger was tragically killed in Melbourne in a motor cycle accident in May, 1928. He was about eighteen years old

Questions and activities:

Chapters 1-3: The Discovery and Welcome.

  1. The book starts with Henri returning to Australia. Do you find this an effective way to start a story with part of the conclusion first? (Chpt. 1)
  2. Why was Christmas Day in 1918 such a special event? (Chpt. 2)
  3. Which squadrons had Henri been in before he came to the Australians and what was the Australian squadron number? (Chpt. 2)
  4. Why did Henri come to the Australians? (Chpt. 2)
  5. How did Henri get the name, Young Digger? (Chpt. 2)
  6. Locate Bickendorf on the map in the front of the book. What did Henri have with him? (Chpt.3)
  7. How did Henri react to the German children he saw? Do you think you would have done the same thing? (Chpt. 3)
  8. What job is he given by the Australians? What did this involve? (Chpt. 3)

Chapters 4-6: Becoming a Mascot and part of a squadron family

  1. How did the Tovell brothers realise that they may be able to help Henri? (Chpt.4)
  2. How did Digger become a mascot to the Australian squadron? How was he treated? (Chpt. 4)
  3. In Chapter 5, ‘Home Thoughts’ we are told a lot about Tim and Ted growing up in Jandowae in Queensland. How does this affect Henri?

Chapters 7-9: The France Henri leaves.

  1. Why does the squadron have to pack up? (Chpt. 7)
  2. When the airmen go off to celebrate, Henri is left alone. Why? (Chpt. 7)
  3. As they prepare to leave France, Henri and Tim travel through Germany and France. Memories return to Henri. What are they and how does Tim react? (Chpt 8)
  4. "Henri has blanked so much from his mind," Tim says, on page 101. What do you think Henri has tried to forget. (Chpt 9)
  5. What decision is taken in the chapter which is unofficial and yet is the best for Henri? (Chpt. 9)

Chapters: 10-12: The escape from France in an oat sack

  1. Henri shows deep affection for Tim in Chapter 10. What brings this on? (see page 118)
  2. Who is Padre Gault? Is he an understanding man? (see pages 116-119) (Chpt. 10)
  3. If Tim is caught smuggling a child out of France, what are the consequences? (Chpt. 10)
  4. Why isn’t Tim’s kit bag a suitable way of smuggling Henri? What do they decide on and why? (Chpt 11)
  5. Find on a map, the port of Le Havre, describe the scene as Tim and Henri wait to board the troop ship, Lorina. (Chpt 11)
  6. When Henri appears from the oat sack, what is the reaction from the Australians? Why? (Chpt.11)
  7. What is significant about the 31 January for Tim and ultimately, Henri? (Chpt 12)
  8. Read the verse on page 145. What do you think it means? (Chpt. 12)
  9. Why was Henri promoted to acting corporal? (Chpt. 12)

Chapters 13-15: To Australia.

  1. What changes in Henri’s behaviour are referred to in Chapter 13? How do you explain the changes?
  2. What is the threat Major Ellis gives Henri? What is Henri’s reaction? (Chpt. 13)
  3. What is ‘The Dinkum Oil’? (Chpt.13)
  4. How is Henri brought on board ship at Southampton? What is the significance of the Sporting Goods label? (Chpt. 14)
  5. What event occurs in Chapter 15 which causes some sense of fear in Tim? How does Tim explain this to Captain Palmer? (page 188, Chpt. 15)

Chapters 16-18: Coming Home

  1. Tim wondered how he would get Digger to land in Australia. What plan does he discard? Why? (Chpt. 16)
  2. What bit of good luck arrives to solve his problem? (Chpt. 16)
  3. Before Digger gets to Queensland with Tim, he is anxious. Why? (Chpt 16)
  4. After some years, Digger leaves his home in Queensland and travels to Victoria. Why? (Chpt. 17)
  5. Who does he stay with and how does he respond? (Chpt. 17)
  6. With Digger now a teenager his behaviour changes. How can you explain this? (Chpt 17)
  7. Describe the circumstances of Digger’s death? (Chpt 17)
  8. What was the reaction in Melbourne? (Chpt. 17)
  9. Do you think Tim was treated fairly by the military officials after Digger’s death? (Chpt 17)
  10. What could they have done? (Chpt. 17)
  11. Why do you think Anthony Hill says that the verse on page 235, if put on Digger’s grave’s headstone, would make the story "really complete"? (Chpt. 18)

Further Activities

Young Digger offers many possibilities for further research and activities. The following are a suggested list.

  1. Research the history of the units of the Australian Flying Corps in France and make a chart showing their distinguishing colour patches and insignia.
  2. Research the types of aeroplanes the Australians and Germans flew during World War One? Who were the air aces on both sides?
  3. There is a great volume of war poetry written about the experiences of soldiers on the Western Front. Select some poems you like and try writing some yourself in a similar style.
  4. Research the historical significance of red poppies and why it is that we celebrate Remembrance Day by wearing them.
  5. Compare how we commemorate Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. What are the differences?
  6. Make a three dimensional map tracing the overland journey Tim and Henri made through France and Germany.
  7. Make a board game where Tim has to smuggle Henri from Germany. Use questions from the book for the game.
  8. Research war posters of the period and make your own asking for more volunteers.
  9. Write a newspaper report on Henri’s death. See the article on page 241 from ‘The Brisbane Daily Mail’ to get you started.
  10. Redesign the book cover and write a blurb you think might appeal to young children.
  11. Not much is known about Henri’s French family tree. Create one using fictional characters.
  12. Imagine you come across a collection of five letters that Henri had written privately after he had met Tim. Write the letters giving Henri’s thoughts at different stages of their relationship. You might like to age them by soaking the paper in cold black tea and even write them in pen and ink.
  13. On the news of Henri’s death, write a diary entry from Gerti’s point of view.
  14. Look at the photographs in the book of Tim and Henri, write new captions as if you were sending them to a friend. Which photograph appeals to you and why?
  15. Create a picture story book of Young Digger aimed at six year olds. What do you think the would need to know and illustrate it yourself.
  16. Dress a doll as Young Digger wearing his replica uniform.
  17. Research the battle of Mons where Digger’s father was killed and present it on a chart showing the troop movements.
  18. Imagine you have visited Henri’s grave in Fawkner cemetery in Melbourne. What are your thoughts.
  19. Research the medals Australians won during World War One. Make a chart showing what the medals are and research any particular soldier who was highly decorated form bravery.
  20. Write a song or a scene from the book and act it out.

Copyright Christopher Bantick 2002