Friday, April 24, 2015

I Wish I'd Written This

And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda
By Eric Bogle

When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover.
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in nineteen fifteen my country said, Son
It's time to stop rambling 'cause there's work to be done.
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they marched me away to the war.
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we sailed away from the quay
And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers
We sailed off to Gallipoli.

How well I remember that terrible day
How the blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He showered us with bullets, he rained us with shells
And in five minutes flat he'd blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain.
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again.

Now those that were left, well we tried to survive
In a mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
But around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I woke up in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead,
Never knew there were worse things than dying.
For I'll go no more waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and free
For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs two legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me.

So they collected the cripples, the wounded, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia.
The armless, the legless, the blind, the 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.
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared
Then turned all their faces away.

And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me,
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reviving old dreams of past glory.
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore;
They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war,
And the young people ask, "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question.
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But as year follows year more old men disappear
Some day no one will march there at all.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by that Billabong,
Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?

Note: Waltzing Matilda means carrying your pack.

Pardon me, friends, for being blatantly Australian this week. Tomorrow, April 25th, is Anzac Day. In fact it's the centenery, a very big deal here.

ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and Anzac Day celebrates one of our major defeats in war, the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I. I guess only Aussies and Kiwis would celebrate a defeat! It goes along with our Anzac Day slogan: Lest we Forget. The people of that time vowed never to forget our brave young men who were slaughtered. (I don't know how the Canadians got into this video, but never mind — the song is really about any and every war.)

By now Anzac Day honours all our servicemen and women who fought in various wars. Those who returned march if they can, in the big cities and also in small towns and tiny hamlets. Those who did not return are remembered. The descendants of those who have died, either in the wars or back home later, march in their place, wearing the medals of their fathers and grandfathers. 

We went through some decades of having very divided opinions about Anzac Day. As a young woman, I was one of many who saw it as a deplorable glorification of war. Since then we've all grown up a bit and have come to agree that, while war is indeed deplorable, those who serve and sacrifice deserve our respect.

Eric Bogle is always described as a Scottish folk singer,

famed for his iconic song 'The Band Played Waltzing Matilda', plus multiple other hits over fourteen albums. His songs have been recorded by Joan Baez, Mary Black, Donovan, Slim Dusty, John Williamson, Billy Bragg, the Pogues, and the Furies. He has toured extensively, appearing at every major folk-and-country music festival in the world. His awards include the Order of Australia medal, and a UN Peace medal for promoting peace and racial harmony.

You can find out more details about him at his website and at Wikipedia.

He migrated to Australia in 1969, and wrote this song in 1971. Ever since I first heard it, I wished I'd written it! I am not alone in admiring it. His Wikipedia entry tells us:

On 25 January 1987, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for his work as a singer-songwriter. In May 2001 the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), as part of its 75th Anniversary celebrations, named his song, "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda", as one of the Top 30 Australian songs of all time.

It contains some anachronisms, e.g. the Diggers (Anzacs) didn't wear tin hats but what Wikipedia describes, in its article about the song, as bush hats, which we call slouch hats. 

At the time it was written, we all understood the lines, 'But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared / Then turned all their faces away' as a pointed reference to the returning troops from the Vietnam War, and their treatment by the Australian public. There was huge opposition here to our involvement in that war. New Zealand was already forging its own separate identity and contributed as few troops as possible. Successive Australian Governments re-introduced conscription just before our involvement was announced, and then took us 'All the way with LBJ' despite the massive protests of the people. So we did not immediately celebrate the returning soldiers, which only exacerbated their psychological scars. Eventually they demanded the respect that was their due, and we finally matured enough to give it.

Here is a lovely, recent interview with Bogle, about his original inspiration for the song (yes, Vietnam) and the second thoughts he now has about it. But, for all the controversy, I and most Australians still think it's a great song and a moving one.

My favourite version is by singer John Williamson, with his broad Aussie accent. However, except for about half a bar on the mouth organ, he leaves out the final lines quoting from 'Waltzing Matilda' itself, the unofficial Australian national anthem. 

I was one of the many who thought it should have become the official anthem. If our greatest national celebration is for a military defeat, why can't we larrikins also have an anthem about a homeless sheep thief who committed suicide by drowning? 

Both reflect our anti-authoritarianism, based in our convict past. One pertinent feature of the Anzac story is that the inexperienced officers, both British and Australasian (but we like to blame the Brits) made many mistakes which resulted in the huge loss of life among ordinary soldiers — who, according to legend, could see the stupidity of the decisions but had to obey orders.

In any case the song, 'Waltzing Matilda', has a haunting ending to do with death, self-sacrifice, and the refusal to give in to tyranny, which (only slightly altered) makes a very fitting close to Bogle's song as well. 

One of the influences in our reconciliation with the Anzac story was the movie Gallipoli, made by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. It gave us perspective, I suppose — though it too, like Bogle's song, shows the pain and futility of war. I don't think anyone who saw it can ever forget the iconic closing image:

I won't be attending a dawn service tomorrow; I'll be home nursing the flu. But I'll probably turn on the telly to watch the Sydney march, and I'll probably shed some tears.

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. Rosemary, what a moving piece this is. I remember being astounded, watching Gallipoli, at the order given for the men to climb out of the trench into open machine gun fire, watching them all be blown away. The folly of war indeed. Thanks for the interesting life of this amazing poet and songwriter. He captures the futility of war to perfection. I was interested in the Australian take on Vietnam too. A wonderful read this Friday morning, my friend. Rest easy, now, and get better.

  2. All wars are worthy of our tears. Thank you Rosemary for this interesting, sad history lesson and presentation of this talented song and poetry writer. Hope you get better soon.

  3. This is an amazing post :D
    Thoroughly enjoyed reading it Rosemary.. thanks for sharing :D
    Lots of love,

  4. Excellent Journalism--this belongs in an Australian national newspaper, Ms. Rosemary! Thank you. I shared it again on facebook!

    1. Thank you, Susan, for the kind words and the sharing.

    2. Actually (minus Bogle and the song) this point of view has been put in much more depth and detail in a very recent TV documentary written and narrated by Sam Neill, called 'Why Anzac?' If it's at all possible to get hold of it where you are, I recommend it.

  5. Thank you for sharing this song and explanation. It is something we all need to hear right now. The song is beautiful. The explanation very moving.

  6. Touching, sad, wonderful interview.

    Thanks for visiting.

  7. Post Script: After listening to 'Advance Australia Fair' sung with verve and brilliance time after time at various Anzac Day celebrations I saw on TV, I have changed my mind. It's a good official anthem! I heard it sung, on one occasion, straight after The Marseillaise, which I consider the most stirring national anthem of them all — and ours bore the comparison very well indeed.

    And after all, perhaps it is fitting that Waltzing Matilda remains our outlaw anthem. (Smile.)

  8. Excellent article, Rosemary. I did always enjoy the song "Waltzing Mathilda." Smiles.

  9. A wonderful reminder Rosemary...I learned so much from you post. It could be any war....get well!

  10. great article, Rosemary. thoroughly enjoyed it. as Susan said, "this belongs in an Australian national newspaper." :)

    "And the young people ask, "What are they marching for?" : this puts a lump in my throat. returning veterans are given a raw deal. nobody can know how much they have given.


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