Australian War Songs
World War One
I clearly remember the first time I heard The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda - Eric Bogle's poignant ode to the men who were maimed and killed in the Great War and in particular Gallipoli. It was a few days before Anzac day and I was alone in the kitchen listening to the radio, mired in mundanity...washing dishes. The song was just so moving, as it conjured a vivid picture of young men's lives wrecked by the horrors of war.
In an instant I was transported to an unfamiliar but emotionally wrenching realm and if the lyrics were designed to stir a consciousness of the enormous sacrifice and personal pain suffered of those young men, it worked in spades. The sadness was overwhelming.
At the onset of WWI, Australians, with little experience of war, were full of gung-ho adventure and patriotism and eager to sign up and head overseas to fight the enemy. Some were as young as fifteen - they lied about their age and few questions were asked. That war left a devastating hole in the nation, as it did in other countries and I have often heard the old folks say the "cream of the crop" was lost in that conflict. Our population at the time was five million and from that, 416,809 men had enlisted. Over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
I still think it is a fantastic song...and applicable to all wars and countries, not just Australia and WWI, as we can see in the following video which was put together by a Canadian.
Bogle's theme is reminiscent of the poetry of English WWI poet, Wilfred Owen. Both works - the poem and the song, have an immediacy and clarity that would be difficult to achieve through prose, though for me Bogle's song has the double emotional whammy of music along with the lyrics.
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda
So they collected the cripples, the wounded, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia.
The armless, the legless, the blind and insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where my legs used to be,
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve and to mourn and to pity.
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway
But nobody cheered they just stood and stared
And they turned all their faces away
Disabled (Wilfred Owen, 1917)
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is!
Why don't they come
And put him into bed?
Why don't they come?
World War Two
Unlike The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda, Along the Road to Gundagai is upbeat and elevating - in fact, it makes me fell like dancing. Here the message is all about home and hearth and the people left waiting for their soldiers to return. Australia introduced conscription in 1943, the Labour Prime Minister John Curtin having declared that it was essential to the war effort to extend government powers to compel service in the South-West Pacific Area, which included Australia, New Guinea, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies.
There was a different mood second time around, many having already witnessed the devastation of the Great War, though there was very little public opposition to conscription.
Although not strictly a war song, Road to Gundagai was so popular during WW2 that it retains a powerful association with that period. The song, by Jack O'Hagan, was first published in 1922 and it became the theme song for a popular radio show of the period about a pair of bush local yokels, Dad and Dave.
Gundagai, a small country town in NSW, features significantly in Australian folklore, not just for the song but also because it is home to the legendary story of the Dog on the Tuckerbox, told in a poem by an unknown poet in 1857. According to the story, the dog belonged to a drover who got bogged in a river crossing 'nine miles from Gundagai' . When he went to get help he left his loyal dog guarding his tuckerbox (food box).
Alas, the drover never returned and the devoted dog, conscious of his responsibility, refused to budge from his post at the tuckerbox , eventually perishing on the spot. A permanent monument was erected in 1932 at Snake Gully, five miles from Gundagai, into honour the dogs extraordinary faithfulness. Why 'five' and not 'nine' as the poem stated is either the result of a sloppy attention to detail or very bad maths...or perhaps there wasn't a convenient spot nine miles away. In any case, its not hard to see how a song about Gundagii would have stirred the national heartstrings at a time when so many of its sons were absent. Oh and for those who make it to the talking part of the video...I'm pretty sure we don't talk like that anymore! Gawd.
There were no brass bands and streamers to welcome back the soldiers from Vietnam. Most had been called up via a birthday ballot system and many had gone with little knowledge of the place they going, some without even a clear understanding of exactly what it was all about, apart from a vague idea of 'fighting communism'. There had been considerable opposition to the war in Australia and when it was all over, few people wanted to know about it. As the song says, "there were no V-day heroes in 1973".
At the height of the Vietnam protests, over 200,000 people had taken to the streets in our major cities - a huge public demonstration considering our small population. Rightly or wrongly, many felt Australia had been dragged into the war in order to ingratiate ourselves with the US and as the war progressed and we seemed to be losing, it became clear large numbers of those deployed and killed or wounded were conscripts whose unlucky number had come up in the ballot.There was thus a growing sense of unjust sacrifice on behalf of those young men.
Even for those who weren't injured physically, for many the psychological impact was enormous. Both Cold Chisel's Khe Sanh (1978) and folk band Redgum's I was Only 19 (1983) were written post-war, about the struggles and problems that confronted Vietnam vets after they returned home and tried to adjust to normal life.
The former was named after the Battle of Khe Sahn in Vietnam in 1968, although the only Australians to be directly involved there were the Canberra Bombers crew, who flew a support mission. That song in particular, became a kind of unofficial anthem for the Vietnam vets, despite the fact that it was banned by all but one radio station in Adelaide shortly after it's release. The censorship had occurred under pressure from the Catholic Church, due to the songs explicit lyrics. However one radio station was enough, as it created a ripple of popularity that spread to a sweeping wave of recognition.
Lest we Forget...
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them...
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