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Songs of war and peace: patriotic and popular

Songs in wartime document Australia's participation in conflict and war from the Australian colonies' first representation in the Sudan War in 1885, to the First Gulf War (1990–91).

Pte. L. FLETCHER gives a serenade from the balcony

Pte. L. Fletcher gives a serenade from the balcony. Darwin, c. 1943. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: H99.201/3118.

From early days in the colonies through Australia's engagement in the First (1914–18) and Second (1939–45) World Wars, songs have served as patriotic anthems to call men to arms as well as bawdy ditties to mock the enemy. Songs were also an important part of troops entertaining themselves.

As the wars progressed and at their outcome, other wartime songs were written: laments for the fallen as well as cries against the futility of war. All of these songs show how Australia has emerged as a nation and help capture the development of our unique culture and identity.

Patriotism and the call to arms

Patriotic music written in wartime has been used to express national pride, spread propaganda, encourage enlistment and motivate troops serving in Australia and on overseas duty. Until the First World War, patriotic music written for wars tended to dwell on our devotion to the mother country', Britain, and our status as a colony. Yet even while proclaiming our allegiance to Britain, our songs were quietly asserting a national identity: The bold, the wild, the free' (Hail Fair Australia).

From the First World War, Australia began to identify itself as an independent nation among Pacific and Asian countries and the patriotic music of this time reflected the emerging identity of a young nation: So beware, Mister Kaiser, there are more lions in the den, and the cubs will fight like tigers to the bitter end.' (lyrics to Boys of Australia).

'A chip come from the ancient block'

In 1885, a small contingent of soldiers was sent by New South Wales to the Sudan War. The hastily assembled force of 734 men generated such excitement in the then-British colony, that the Sudan campaign was called the great adventure'. Although the troops didn't arrive until the war was almost over and were only in the Sudan for seven weeks, this was the first time that the young colony was able to prove itself capable of providing assistance to the home country in their time of need.

Goergs, Karl Wilhelm. The Harp of the Southern Cross [music] : Australia's message - Cover

Front cover of The Harp of the Southern Cross: Australia's message, by Karl Wilhelm Goergs, 1885. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia. 9305748.

A number of songs celebrating the regiment were written to raise funds for the contingent, including The Harp of the Southern Cross (1885). Many of these songs sing of Australia's readiness to fight for the motherland and Queen, highlighting strong links to Britain, yet they also sow the first seeds of an evolving national identity:

And when the doubting denizen
The depth of Southern faith will gauge
Historic muse will cite the page
Which names our Seven Hundred men
A glorious old records the worth
Of heroes in the parent stock,
Australia proves to-day her birth;
'A chip come from the ancient block.'
Verse 6, The Harp of the Southern Cross (1885)

In 1899, Australia again sent troops to fight for Britain in the South African (Boer) War. Over the four years of the conflict (1899–1902) many songs were written to mark the success of the Australian bushmen and their stockhorses on the veldt. These songs were not only sung by people back home, but by the soldiers themselves. Songs such as The Kangaroo and the British Lion (1900–1910), Tommy Fern the Bushman Bold (1914–1918), Sons of the Southern Sea (1900) and The Bushmen's Corps (1900) showed an emerging Australian identity outside of the British imperial tradition and celebrated our ruggedness and fighting spirit:

For I can thrive on a damper crust,
With a blanket for my swag.
And I can stick like glue, my lads,
To the back of a bucking nag.
And there's no task in a rover's life
That comes amiss to me.
I'm one of the Bushmen's Corps, my lads,
And a match for the Boer I'll be!
Refrain of The Bushmen's Corps

Three australian soldiers in a room with a pedal organ

Three Australian soldiers in a room with a pedal organ which does not seem to be in good condition. South Africa, c. 1900. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. P00175.246.

'We're there to take our part'

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 saw, for the first time, the newly federated country of Australia enter a major conflict. Popular patriotic songs acting as a call to arms written at this time include To Arms, Australia (191–?), Whenever Britain Calls (19––) and Britannia Needs You Like a Mother (1914–18). But perhaps the most well-known song of the time was Australia Will Be There. Written in 1915 by popular songwriter Walter Skipper Francis, the song celebrates Australia's freedom, announces our intent to fight for 'those who have Their backs against the wall' and praises the courage of Australian soldiers. It became the march song of the Australian Expeditionary Forces and was used to rally the troops as they marched away from home:

We soldiers of Australia
Rejoice in being free,
And not to fetter others
Do we go o'er the sea.
Old England gave us freedom,
And when she makes a start
To see that others get it,
We're there to take our part.
Verse 2, Australia Will Be There (1915)

A sing-song in the YMCA, parliament square kiosk.

A sing-song in the YMCA, parliament square kiosk. A female pianist plays for Australian soldiers. On the piano is sheet music for Australia will be there. London, England. 1918. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. H01221.

By the time the Second World War broke out, in 1939, the musical landscape had again changed and fewer songs were published during this time. Paper was scarce, songwriters were less prevalent than during the previous war and the popularity of the radio and overseas sound recordings resulted in less sheet music being published. However, some popular patriotic songs of the time included Awake! Awake! Australia, Freedom's Cause (c. 1941) and Australia Marches On (1939–45):

March on! March on!
For we're all together again.
March on! March on!
We're ready to weather the strain,
For there's a Call come through the Ages
And it echoes We'll be there!
Take up the call. Come one and all
It's Advance Australia Fair!
Chorus, Australia Marches On

Australian participation in later conflicts, such as the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars, did not prompt the patriotism of previous wars. Yet the themes emerging in the patriotic songs of previous conflicts, our individual and unique identity as a nation, our unwillingness to stand by when an injustice is being done, our commitment to helping our allies and the courage of our soldierscarried on through the music of the time and the emergence of a new, less fervent, patriotism emerged. Songs such as Waltzing Matilda (c. 1895), Downunder (1981) and I Still Call Australia Home (1980) are modern interpretations of the patriotic song.

Popular songs of wartime

The emerging gramophone and radio industry saw many songs of the First World War and the Second World War take on a more popular note. In place of solemn and nationalistic lyrics and music, there was a brighter feel, with catchy melodies and simple lyrics. These were songs designed to be sung in concerts and around the piano at home. They were also sung by the soldiers themselves, so the simple tunes were ideal for accompaniment by smaller, portable instruments, such as the harmonica and tin whistle.

An unidentified Australian soldier, on sentry duty with bayonet attached to his rifle, listening to music playing a gramophone

An unidentified Australian soldier, probably of the 10th Light Horse, on sentry duty with bayonet attached to his rifle, listening to music playing on the highly prized possession of a gramophone. Turkey, Chanak, Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: A05402 .

Popular songs

It wasn't until the First World War that popular music appeared. The emerging gramophone and radio industry meant that every Australian could listen to this music in their homes. It also meant that soldiers were able to hear the new music from home wherever they were stationed in the world.

Many popular songs written and recorded during the two World Wars sang of the courage and honour of the Australian soldier. Songs such as Keep an Eye on Tommy (1915), The Kaiser's Boast (c. 1916), and The Digger (1919) were popular among the frontline troops, as well as at home.

The Digger's a fellow that's fond of fun,
But likes a game that's fair;
If he back's a horse he wants a run,
And a jock that's riding square;
He isn't out looking for trouble or strife,
But he'll go for all he's worth
In defence of his cobber, his girl, or his wife,
And the land that gave him birth.
Verse, The Digger .

In the Second World War, the influence of American music, and American soldiers, became apparent in the popular songs of the time. Songs such as We've Got A Big Brother In America (192– ) celebrated our ties to new allies (and showed our independence from Britain) with lyrics such as ‘We've got a big brother in America…The same old blood, the same old speech, the same old songs are good enough for each…’.

Member of the United States Navy and a returned Australian digger singing a duet during the victory pacific celebrations

United States Sailor and a returned Australian digger singing a duet during the victory pacific celebrations in Sydney,1945. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. 113047.

A sense of humour also appeared in songs such as Curl The Mo, Uncle Joe, (1944) a song about Stalin's march through Europe. While history may not look kindly on the feelings expressed for Stalin, this is one of the first songs that celebrates Australia's independent role in the Pacific:

Aussies and Yanks know that you're a great chap,
While you're thrashing the Hun, they're busy thrashing the Jap.

Soldiers' songs

For many soldiers in the frontline, the beauty of the popular wartime songs was that the simple words and melodies were open to parody. These parodies used humour as a means of commenting on the soldiers' experience, mocking the enemy, ridiculing the military establishment, comparing the singers' troop with other units or dwelling on the (sadly lacking) delights of women and beer.

An unidentified serviceman relaxes as he sits in a jeep and plays his harmonica.

An unidentified serviceman from the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, relaxes as he sits in a jeep and plays his harmonica. South Korea, 1950. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: HOBJ1410.

One of the first, and most popular, parodies from the early days of the First World War used Waltzing Matilda to great effect:

Fighting the Kaiser, fighting the Kaiser,
Who'll come a-fighting the Kaiser with me?
And we'll drink all his beer,
And eat up all his sausages,
Who'll come a fighting the Kaiser with me!

After the evacuation of Gallipoli in December 1915 and January 1916, a parody of the Victorian-era parlour song, Come Into The Garden, Maude became popular with Australian troops. It was inspired by the actions of General Sir Stanley Maude, who refused to leave the beach until he had been reunited with his servant and baggage:

Come into the lighter Maude,
And never mind your kit.
The waves grow high,
But what care I,
I'd rather be seasick,
Than blown sky-high.
So, come into the lighter Maude,
Or I'm off in the launch alone!

Trooper Norman John

Trooper Norman John 'Normie' Rowe, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, Royal Australian Armoured Corps (RAAC) relaxes with his guitar in a tent at Fire Support Base Kerry, Vietnam. 1969. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. EKT/69/0009/VN.

Often, the soldiers' parody became as well known as the original song. Songs such as It's a Long Way to Tipperary (1912) and The Road to Gundagai (1922) were ripe for parody (it's a long way to the Riverina/Sydney/Western Australia, etc) and these helped soldiers raise morale and banish the terrors or boredom of war. The often humorous and bawdy interpretations of popular songs also helped establish the image of the Aussie larrikin soldier. An excellent example of this is the parody of a popular march tune, Colonel Bogey (c. 1916), with the words:

Hitler, has only got one ball,
Goering, has two but very small,
Himmler, has something similar,
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.

Australian soldiers' tradition of parodies extended beyond the First and Second World Wars. During the struggles over Taiwan, the Andrew's Sisters hit Rum and Coca Cola (1945) became Holding Quemoy and Formosa (key islands in the conflict). In the Vietnam War Click Go The Shears (1952) reappeared as Slash Go The Bayonets and two of the most widespread parodies from the Gulf War were the Phil Collins song Something In The Air Tonight, which took on new meaning, and John Schuman's I was Only Nineteen (1983), which became I Was Only Ground Crew.

Whether patriotic or parody, a call to arms or comment on events, the songs of war and wartime serve as a memory of where Australia as a nation has come from and how our unique culture and sense of self has developed.

Useful links

Listen, look and play

Patriotic songs and songs of wartime

Soldiers' songs

Australians at war

Last updated: 19 January 2016
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd

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