Young Digger
A true story of hope and renewal from the Western Front

 

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Young Digger, by Anthony Hill,  with photographs. New edition published by Penguin Books, Melbourne, 2016 284 pages. First edition 2012, short-listed NSW Premier's History Awards, Children's Book Council of Australia Notable Book.

Introduction to new edition

Young Digger short video (Fairfax Media)

'Young Digger' New photos discovered

Writing Young Digger  Chapter Notes  War Memorial  National Archives  References  Teachers' Notes  New Ending

A worthy companion to Soldier Boy Anne Briggs

 Young Digger was published in 2002, as a companion book to Soldier Boy. It's another true story of a boy caught up in the horrors of the First World War.

 This one was a little French war orphan called Honore or Henri, a mere child who was adopted as a mascot by some Australian airmen. They nicknamed him 'Young Digger', although his real identity remains unknown to this day. And when the airmen returned to Australia in 1919, they brought Young Digger with them – smuggling him aboard the troopship in an oat sack.

 

Young Digger new edition cover 2016

 

 And they got away with it! Digger grew up in Queensland with the family of his guardian, Air Mechanic Tim Tovell, until eventually he went to Melbourne and joined the fledgling Royal Australian Air Force as an apprentice mechanic himself.

In his novel Anthony Hill has focussed on the great adventure of bringing Young Digger home ... from the time the war waif came to the men of No. 4 Squadron in Germany on Christmas Day 1918 ... making him their mascot ... the journey  across war-ravaged Europe ... and smuggling him onto the ship.

 

Young Digger first edition cover 2002-15

 

In 2009 there was a wonderful new ending to the story of Young Digger. Read about it on this special page 

'But what do you think you're doing, man?' the Padre asked Tim.

  'I think I'm giving him a chance in life, sir. A better chance with my family than ever he'll have in an institution here ... one, as you say, among thousands.'

Anthony Hill says that as soon as heard Young Digger's tale he knew it was the obvious companion book to Soldier Boy.

"The two stories stand like bookends to the history of Australia's involvement in the Great War. Anzac and the Armistice. Gallipoli and the Western Front. Leaving home and coming back. One finding death. The other discovering hope, love and renewal even among the ashes of war.

"I found Young Digger's tale immensley moving. And the fact that even now we don't know who the boy really was allows him to stand as metaphor and symbol for every child visited by war."

For more information see the Background article by Anthony Hill Writing Young Digger, on the origins and ideas behind the novel. For more photos go the Australian War Memorial > Collections > First World War > Henri, Young Digger or Tovell. The National Archives of Australia > Record Search > Guest > Henri Tovell have the files on Tim's enlistment and Young Digger's Memorial, see the   References and Chapter Notes on this page.

Digger, Tim  and the oat sack

What the critics said

 

 When it comes to people smuggling there can have been few cases as extraordinary ... Tony Stephens, SMH

 Hill once again combines historical record with family reminscence to create a gripping narrative... Henri is a survivor, who experiences significant personal losses from the conflict, but has great determination to live by whatever means possible. He personifies the displacement caused by war, and exemplifies the refugee... Both Henry and Tim come alive for us, and Hill has been respectful of the accuracy needed... Margaret Robson Kett, Aust. Book review

 

Anthony Hill has meticulously researched the facts of Henri's story, indicating in endnotes where assumptions have been made or the most plausible version of events chosen. Two appendices, including Henri's application for naturalisation and an article in the Brisbane Daily Mail, are included with references and further reading suggestions. This is a worthy companion to Soldier Boy. Anne Briggs, Magpies magazine.

If you love reading biographies, you will not find a better biography around in the bookshelves today. The unique circumstances which led to Henri's adoption are quite intersting, and leads me to believe that there were many other orphans from the war who were not as fortunate as this young man. John Morrow

An amazing story which makes dry history alive and vibrant!

Digger in the sack, England 1919

YOUNG DIGGER Q & A

How did you find Young Digger's story?

I was having lunch with Ashley Ekins at the Australian War Memorial, to thank him for his help with the research for Soldier Boy. Ashley pushed an envelope across the table and said 'Here's your next book, Tony.' As soon as I read the newspaper clippings from the 1920s telling Digger's story, I knew it was not just my next book, but the perfect companion  to Soldier Boy.

Is Young Digger still alive?

Digger is no longer with us. But Tim's eldest daughter, Nancy, shared her many memories of Digger growing up, and his youngest daughter Edie, talked to me about the war waif she knew as her 'big brother'. The family has many photos, letters and diaries which they willingly allowed me to use. They were very generous and helpful.

Where did you research Young Digger?

As an author it's essential to get the authentic atmosphere for my stories. I went to Germany and followed the smuggling route from Cologne, through Belgium and  France to the port of Le Havre, and across the Channel to England. In Australia I visited Tim's family homes  at Jandowe, Cooroy and Brisbane. For more info see the Background Article Writing Young Digger.

Tim with Young Digger inside the smuggling sack