top of page

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda - Eric Bogle

It may be a surprise to the young people of today, but back in the 1980's the reputation of Australians in London was that of a bunch of loudmouthed, lager-swigging, sports-obsessed, swarthy but good-looking males amongst whom sensitivity was not a strong point. And there is no doubt that in those days this reputation was not entirely undeserved. In 1980, I and a friend were having a drink in a pub in Earl's Court. The place was packed with noisy Antipodeans, playing pool and darts, smoking and indulging in loud and lively banter while listening to rock on the juke box and generally having a good time. We were involved in a detailed conversation when I received a tap on the shoulder and turned around to face a moustachioed Aussie who said quietly, but threateningly: "hey mate, I'd ****ing shut up if I were you". I duly obliged, too late realising that the whole room, unnoticed by me, had suddenly gone completely silent and everyone was, astonishingly, standing to attention. The rock music on the juke box had ceased and this track was playing. Not wishing to be spoilsports (and fearing for our wellbeing), my friend and I rose to our feet respectfully and listened.

Most people know this track from the 1985 cover version by the Pogues, but the original as performed by singer/songwriter Eric Bogle, has the merit of being sung by a man who could, at a push, be Australian. Bogle was in fact a Scotsman who had been living in Australia for two years by the time he wrote this in 1971. And make no mistake, not only was not a word spoken by the assembled throng throughout this vinyl rendition of this song in my pub in Earl's Court nine years later, there was also much surreptitious wiping of eyes in the final bars of the song. And it wasn't even Anzac Day!

For an immigrant Scot to have written and recorded a song that garnered almost universal respect amongst Aussie's especially speaks volumes for the nerves it touched, and looking back, these may not be the most obvious nerves. In 1971 the notion of Anzac Day, April 26th, the anniversary of the day that Australian and New Zealand forces landed in Gallipoli in 1915, precipitating an 11 month campaign and around 500,000 casualties from both sides, had become tarnished in the eyes of many in Australia. This was due to the ongoing involvement of Australian troops in support of the US in the Vietnam War. Many Australians saw their involvement as allies to America in the far east as analogous to earlier wars where their troops travelled to the other side of the world to get involved in someone else's mess such as occurred during the Boer War and World War I.

This chimed with increasing concerns that Anzac Day (and indeed Remembrance Day) was becoming more a celebration of militarism than a commemoration of those who were injured or died in action in defence of their country.

Bogle's description of the catastrophic landing of the allied troops at Suvla in Gallipoli deftly sums up these themes, concentrating on the horror of war rather than the heroism of the soldiers, and in doing so helped redefine the emphasis of Anzac Day:

"....and of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter...."

With its ironic but sincere look at the celebration of nationalism through the "unofficial" Australian national anthem, and by stating the harsh realities of the battle, Bogle has produced perhaps the finest musical inditement of war that has ever been written. The vocal is full of sadness and is most brilliant in the moving final two verses as the narrator arrives home ingloriously, having lost both legs:

" 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 and as our ship pulled into Circular Quay, I looked at the place where me legs used to be and thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me, to grieve, 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, then they turned all their faces away...."

and then years later watches the Anzac Day memorial parade from his front porch:

"and so now every April, I sit on me porch, and I watch the parade pass before me and I see my old comrades, how proudly they march, reviving old dreams of past glories...."

and now come the words that are the heart of the song:

"...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 there is the crux of the matter. While we must genuinely remember and pay tribute to those that have died in defence of our country, we must also continue to question those who use nationalism and our sense of honour as a cloak to hide the real reasons why we continue to send these brave people overseas to fight on our behalf.

bottom of page