Written by Scots-born Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle (1944) in 1971, this is one of the great anti-war songs in recorded history. In structure and sentiment, the song recalls the brutal imagery of human loss, wasted youth, and the obscenity of the so-called Great War of 1914- 18 – the mustard gas, barbed wire, muddy, rat-infested trenches, the deadly fire of a dogged enemy – and particularly the fateful landing of Australian troops at Gallipoli.
Bogle actually wrote the song as an oblique comment on the Vietnam War which was in full swing at the time, but while young men from Australia were dying there, the public had little idea where Vietnam was, and the reason for our troops actually being there. Gallipoli had already become enshrined as the cauldron in which our values of national pride, heroism, patriotism and mateship were irrevocably forged, and he further elevated the recognition factor by linking the song with Australia’s unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda.The original lyrics for Waltzing Matilda were written by the Australian poet Banjo Paterson (below) in 1895, to a tune played to him on a zither by Christina Macpherson, who in turn drew inspiration from a tune written by James Barr in 1818 to words by Robert Tannahill in 1806 for a ballad entitled Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea.
Bogle had captured similar graphic images and sentiments in several other anti-war songs, All Fine Young Men from 1986 jointly composed with John Munro, and The Green Fields of France (also known as No Man’s Land).
This was regarded as one of his most moving songs, definitively recorded by Davey Arthur and the Fureys, and a huge hit in Ireland in 1979, which depicted the carnage and destruction of World War 1 in a soliloquy at the graveside of one Private William McBride. Bogle had been inspired to write about a young Irishman who had given his life for Britain during WW1, to counter anti-Irish sentiment in Britain in the 1970’s, following IRA bombings in Birmingham and Guildford.
But And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda was uniquely Australian in its orientatiion and frame of reference, as it traced the rites-of-passage journey of a country boy, as he travelled across rural Australia to enlist in the army, to be shipped out to Gallipoli. The lyrics unflinchingly convey the hell that is war, the young man loses his legs and his comrades become a pile of corpses around him at Suvla Bay. The song does not romanticize war in any way, and unfortunately the RSL initially interpreted it as being anti-soldier rather than anti-war.
Originally eight verses in length but ultimately reduced to five, it nevertheless retains all the bleak drama, pathos, and tortured angst that the best anti-war songs convey. “So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed/And they shipped us back home to Australia/The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane/Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.”
Excerpts of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda are featured at the end of the song and despite several historical inaccuracies in Bogle’s lyrics – the line “they gave me a tin hat” is incorrect as steel helmets were not issued to our troops at the time, also the line – “of how in that hell they called Suvla Bay, we were butchered like lambs to the slaughter”– fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of the 16.000 Australian and New Zealand troops landed not at Suvla Bay but at Anzac Cove, 8 kilometres south, and some 15 weeks earlier. Bogle’s lyrics used simile (“butchered like lambs to the slaughter”) and metaphors (“the hell they call Suvla Bay”) and enallange or bent grammar (“me pack, me legs, me porch”) to personalize the message and imbue it with a powerful verisimilitude.
Given that the death toll for Australians during the 1914-18 was 62,000, when the total population was only 5 million, and more than in any other conflict in which Australians engaged, nitpicking about historical inaccuraciers in no way detracts from the power and sombreness of this song, which at its beating heart is an achingly sad indictment of the futility of war.
The Original Bushwackers and Bullockies Bush Band shortened their name to become The Bushwackers and were founded by Jan Wositsky(vocals/harmonica/banjo), Dave Isom acoustic and electric guitar/mandolin/banjo) and Bert Kahanhof (lagerphone) in 1972. They later recruited fiddlers Tony Hunt and Dave Kidd, button accordian player Mick Slocum, and by the time they recorded And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, Dobe Newton had replaced Kahanhof on lagerphone and became the lead singer. Below L-R – Unidentified concertina player,Mick Slocum, Bert Kahanof, Dave Isom, and Tony Hunt
The band had workshopped this great Eric Bogle song at the La Trobe University (Melb) folk music jam sessions in the 1970’s. They went into the AAV Studio in Melbourne in 1975 to record their second album which was named after this song, with producers Ian Mckenzie (Noiseworks, Pseudo Echo, Models) and Ern Rose (Mississippi, Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, Little River Band).
While other versions of this song would merge sweet violin counter-melodies, with plucked banjo, squeezebox, drums, and brass, the Bushwackers recording is a stark, unadorned, piano ballad, with Geoff Boyd on keyboards, there are no histrionics or overwrought pathos, the lyrics are however graphic, and Newton’s vocals are sincere, authoritative, and ringing with conviction. A still monochrome photograph of a bayonet charge accompanies the song, Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda is played as a coda to the song, and only then are additional instruments, trumpet and strings, added to the mix.
Bogle has released 17 albums thus far, his most recent being The Source of Light (2021), and he has continued to condemn warmongering in the title song, The Flag, and The Armageddon Waltz, and voice environmental concerns in The Last Tree Falls, several guest vocalists also helped to offset Bogle’s limitations as a singer, including Chris While on Catching the Wave, and Gina Jeffreys on The Girl In The Photo.
Although neither Bogle nor The Bushwackers versions charted, APRA accorded both versions of this song a ranking as one of the best thirty songs in the modern era from 1926-2001. It is a celebrated and much-covered song which includes versions by Joan Baez, Midnight Oil, The Dubliners, The Pogues, Redgum, John Williamson, Slim Dusty, June Tabor, and The Fureys.
Alec Campbell (below x3), the last known survivor of the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli (and the last known survivor of Gallipoli) died on Thursday, May 16, 2002 at the age of 103. Mr. Campbell enlisted at 16, and served at Gallipoli in 1915. He led Hobart’s ANZAC Day parade three weeks prior to his death.
Davey Arthur has such a great voice. Thank you for your informing and interesting posts,
I look forward to every one.
Hi Artveronica, I really appreciate your feedback and enjoy visiting your blogs, these two songs by Eric Bogle are terribly underrated and overdue for some exposure, Davey’s vocals are very moving, stay in touch, regards Graeme 4TR.
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