Australian War Songs

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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.

Wilfred Owen

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?


Light Horse veterans taking part in a 51st anniversary march through the streets of Melbourne.
Light Horse veterans taking part in a 51st anniversary march through the streets of Melbourne. | Source
Monument to the legendary Dog on the Tuckerbox
Monument to the legendary Dog on the Tuckerbox

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.


Dancing on the streets of Australia at end of WW2
Dancing on the streets of Australia at end of WW2

Vietnam

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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Comments 18 comments

mikeq107 5 years ago

great hub..great songs Wa....we used to sing "The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda" in the pubs of Ireland growing up..loved it....first time I heard was sung by the Clancy brothers...brings back many memories...recently watched a doucumentry on the turkish australian battle...those Guys were just a tennis court away..so sad..such a waste....Thanks for the memories!!!!

Mike :0)


LewSethics profile image

LewSethics 5 years ago

Beautiful.


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

Fascinating topic, Jane, with much history that was new to me. I do remember that song, "Waltzing Matilda" though. Very appropriate videos, too.

I was acquainted with the battle at Gallipoli because that was the first time I saw a very young Mel Gibson on the silver screen as he starred in the British film of that name - "Gallipoli."


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

I'll vote up. Checked out the video display of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. Not sure where the Canadians come into the picture. Our men did not, as far as I know, fight alongside them at Gallipoli but certainly on the Western Front and in later wars. I think reference to our New Zealand comrades who made up the ANZACs with us would have been better but I know you did your best there.

The song The Band Played Waltzing Matilda isn't anywhere near as old as Englishman Wilfred Owen's poem but the proper research was done on it and it is a great Australian song.

Some Australians do still talk with the same accent you hear in the song The Road to Gundagai. The way Australians talk varies from city to city and place to place. It did in the 1930s. It may be less so today because of television.

You will find the dancing man on one of our dollar coins.

Cold Chisel and Red Gum, though very different, are two of my all time favorite Australian bands. I was only 19 is a very good and moving song. When it comes to the Vietnam War the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for. I don't know if it was just the language or more the content they didn't care for in the Cold Chisel song.

Lest we forget...most definitely.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi mike..that's interesting, about singing the song in the pubs of Ireland...I guess there's a strong Irish/Australian connection. Bogle of course is Irish. I think he came here in the late 60s and for me, that sweet Irish lilt in the vocals really adds to the emotion. I haven't heard the Clancy Bros version...I'll have to check that out. Thanks very much for the comment.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Tnanks Lew


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi drbj....thanks for dropping in.

Oh yes, Mel was super young and handsome in that film. I think after Road Warrior/Mad Max, Gallipoli was a huge breakthrough film for him. It was actually an Australian film but I can understand why you thought it was British, since so many of the characters were English.

Cheers


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi Rod,

Yes, Owen's poem was contemporary while Bogle's was nearly 50 years after the event. You're dead right about New Zealand. I did search around on You Tube and this was the best one I could find. But y'know, in spite of the Gallipoli-specific lyrics, I do think in it's emotion, the song is universal really...like Owen's poem, it evokes the spectre of all young men who are wounded in war, whatever the nation. So I don't object to the Canadian hijacking...;)

I love "The Road to Gundagai" but those accents..lol, do you really think that way of talking is still around? Maybe you're right, the accent remains in parts, though perhaps not the terminology so much. Thanks very much for commenting...

'Ooray


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Ooroo as they say in the outback. You are absolutely right about Gallipoli being an Australian film.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

The lottery seems like a dumb way to draft soldiers.I don't know a lot about Australia but always liked their folkmusic ever since I got an album recorded by burl Ives of austrailan folk songs.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

dahoglund, the lottery was considered to be a fair and democratic way of doing things at the time. It was better than what was done in the USA during the American Civil War. In the North if you were wealthy and were conscripted you could pay someone to take your place. In the South if you owned a certain number of slaves you were exempt from being conscripted. in the South there was the howl of "Rich man's war, poor man's fight". Not sure how conscription worked in the USA during the Vietnam years. I thought it was also the lottery system.

In any event, the idea of conscription of what Americans call the draft was never popular in Australia.

During WW1 there were two referendums on the issue and both times it was knocked back. It was introduced in WW2 because we had the Japanese at our doorstep and the country seemed to be in real danger of invasion. The government in the Vietnam period thought this meant the door was open to simply make it so without the consent of the people. Boy were they wrong!

Glad you like our folk songs. Try Red Gum for an authentic flavor.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

When I was draft age we had a system called universal Military Service. All men were subject to some sort of service unless disabled or exempt. I don't know when this was abandoned but it seems far more fair than the lottery adopted for the VietNam war.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi dahoglund. Thanks for your comments. I agree, the lottery system was a bad way to go about things.

One example...At the time we had a very popular singer who got called up. Remember Normie Rowe Rod...? Anyway, he claimed for years afterward that the lottery was rigged and he'd been chosen for Army PR purposes just because he was well-known. Whether or not it was true, it shows the kind of resentments and bitterness such a sytem could cause.

Cheers


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

An older cousin of mine was called up. They allowed him to defer for six months to finish his apprenticeship. Later on he was wounded in Vietnam.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Rod, that's very bad luck. Hope he recovered ok.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

He recovered ok from the wound but because it was a land mine he has issues with how he was wounded that continue to this day.


Billy 2 years ago

Eric Bogle was actually Scottish but it doesn't matter. Folk songs (which these songs qualify as) are international. See Le Deseurteur by Vivian - French


Paul Ward profile image

Paul Ward 2 years ago from Liverpool, England

As someone says, Bogle was born in Scotland but he's spent two thirds of his life in Australia and an Antipodean friend who knows him says that he's fully assimilated :)

I actually prefer the Pogues' version of Waltzing Matilda to the author's own but it's a fine song regardless.

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