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Songs of war and peace: from heroes to loss and protest

Songs in wartime reflect attitudes about Australia's participation in conflict and warfrom the Sudan War in 1885 to the First Gulf War (1990–1991).

deborah conway

Deborah Conway, 2009 (formerly of Do-Re-Mi, who penned Warnings moving clockwise, 1985). Photo by Ross Swanborough. Image courtesy of Queensland Music Festival.

In addition to rousing patriotic anthems calling men to arms and bawdy ditties mocking the enemy, songs of war also include laments for the fallen and cries against the futility of war. Some of the most well-known and colourful examples of wartime songs lauding heroes come from the Boer War (1899–1902) and the First World War (1914–1918).

Songs of loss emerged in the First World War, reflecting the massive losses of Australian soldiers at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. From the end of the Second World War (1939–1945), They Shall Not Grow Old, a moving piece written for piano, bugle call and chorus has endured as a remembrance song for all those who lost their lives in war.

By the time of the Korean (1950–1953) and Vietnam (1962–1973) wars, Australians' songs of loss had moved into the public arena as protest songs as songwriters poignantly reflected on the gruesome reality of war, their sense of loss and protested at war's futility.

Battle glory and Australian heroes

Troops of the 1st St African contingent

Troops of the 1st St African contingent parading through Launceston on their return from the Boer War. Image courtesy of Museum Victoria: MM 001793.

From ancient times, music and song have been used to celebrate glory on the battlefield.

Shortly after the end of the South African (Boer) War (1899–1902) songs began to emerge celebrating the 'splendid courage of the noble and loyal spirit that has been evoked by recent events in South Africa.' (Dedication from the song Australian Sons of Empire Marching to the Front.)

One of the most popular songs of the time celebrated our participation, and victory, in the war with a rousing chorus that welcomed home the returning heroes:

But Australia's boys have fought,
Australia's boys have won,
Beside their British brothers
They have fought from the dawn to set of sun;
And now the danger's past,
Our boys are home at last!
God bless them one, God bless them all,
Australia's sons, Australia's sons.
Chorus, Our Boys , 1899
Colour illustration of an Australian soldier fighting at Gallipoli, 1915

Colour illustration of an Australian soldier fighting at Gallipoli, 1915. This illustration portrays an Australian soldier who is fighting for the British Empire, even though he is wounded. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: 196470.

Songs written after the Boer War rejoiced in the fighting spirit of the Australian soldier responding to the call of the motherland. But it was not until the First World War that the mythology of the Australian soldier, the Digger, was truly celebrated and cemented, both in song and in the national psyche. No longer were our soldiers part of the Empire's army. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) had become the Anzacs.

The making of a legend

By the outbreak of war in 1914, communication between Australia and the battlefront no longer took months. As a result, news of battles won and lost reached Australia relatively soon after the event. With thousands of Australian men and women serving, it is not surprising that this is one of the most prolific periods in our history for songs celebrating heroes and commemorating battles. The events at Gallipoli where the 'Sons of Australia fought and died like Heroes, in that Charge at the Dardanelles' (from Heroes of the Dardanelles) seemed to capture the imagination more than any other.

Many songs celebrated the bravery of the diggers when facing the enemy and certain death:

They spoiled for the fight and the battle red,
Scoff'd death in the face and bled,
Rush'd on amidst the shot and shell
Into a living hell.
From Our Boys at the Dardanelles, 1915
Studio portrait of Captain (Capt) Albert Jacka VC MC and Bar, 14th Battalion. c. 1917

Studio portrait of Captain (Capt) Albert Jacka VC MC and Bar, 14th Battalion. c. 1917. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P02939.001.

One of the most celebrated examples of this bravery was the actions of Private Albert Jacka, who was awarded Australia’s first Victoria Cross of the war. Jacka leapt into a Turkish occupied trench and killed most of the occupants single-handed, an act that saw him described in one newspaper as 'the symbol of the spirit of the Anzacs'. The song, He was only a Private that's all, celebrates his heroism and bravery:

His comrades brave were falling as he rushed into the fray
Thro' hail of fire and shrapnel and his daring saved the day
with many acts of courage Our boys have made their name
But one brave deed outshines them all up on the scroll of fame.

As well as celebrating the heroism of Australian soldiers at Gallipoli, songwriters also recognised that the events of Gallipoli would be a defining point for Australia as a whole, giving rise to the legend of the Anzac and heralding Australia as a nation in its own right in the eyes of the world:

At the Dardanelles, 'mid shot and shell,
Australia won her place among the nations;
And by her might, in the cause of right,
She drew from all the world congratulations.
From Fighting at the Dardanelles , 1915

Widow's tears and orphan's cries

Not all songs celebrated the battle, however. Songwriters also wrote of the loss war brings to those left behind and the loneliness of dying on a battlefield in a foreign land, far from those you love.

Mrs. Brook, a grieving war widow kneeling at the grave of her husband, Lieutenant Frank Brook, in France

Grieving war widow, 1922. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

The Dying Soldier's Legacy; A Song of the War was written after the Boer War and details the thoughts of home and death of a soldier in victorious battle (and the battle is won, and the battle is lost), urging the people from his homeland to care for his family:

Ye fair who dwell in Tasman's Isle.
Think, think of the fallen brave;
Of Widows' tears and Orphans' cries,
Outstretch the hand to save.
Chorus, The Dying Soldier's Legacy; A Song of the War

Many female songwriters of the time wrote of the loss of loved ones on the battlefield, although not many of these songs were published or popularised. Those that were published are both powerful and emotional:

They told me, dear young Anzac;
They told me you were dead.
They brought me bitter news to hear
And bitter tears I shed.
From Dear Anzac pal (a song of remembrance) , Annie L. Studdert

In the mist of the battlefield, just at the close of day,
Wounded and bleeding upon the field two dying soldiers lay.
One thought of mother at home alone, feeble and old and grey.
One of his sweetheart he'd left in town, happy and young and gay.
One held a ringlet of thin, grey hair, one kissed a lock of brown.
Bidding each other their last farewell, just as the sun went down.
From Just as the Sun Went Down, Lyn Udall (b. 1898).
Gallipoli Day service at Ebisu Camp, Tokyo

Trumpeter playing the Last Post at the Gallipoli Day service at Ebisu Camp, Tokyo, c. 1951. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

But perhaps the most memorable and enduring example of the role music and song play in the commemoration of the fallen is the image of a lone bugler sounding the Last Post on Anzac Day, often accompanied by a recitation of the Ode, the fourth stanza of the poem For the fallen by Laurence Binyon.

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Australian composer E L Summers wrote They Shall Grow Not Old, a rousing and moving piece for piano, bugle call and four-part chorus using words from St. John 15:13, and Laurence Binyon:

They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

Why can't each nation be at peace?

Until the outbreak of the Second World War, peace was mostly celebrated in song after the hostilities had ended and still very much focused on victory in battle 'When the vict'rys won, when the fighting's done' (When the Peace Bells Ring) and the returning soldier heroes' God bless the Boys who brought the joys, of Freedom, Peace, and Glory' (Peace and Glory).

Port Augusta peace demonstration.

Peace demonstration at Port Augusta, November 12th 1918. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia: B 55174.

There were, however, a few exceptions; songs that regarded peace as not the outcome of war, but a means of preventing war:

Why can't each nation be at peace,
Instead of trying to shed each others blood?
Why can't we happy and contented be,
Love one another, live in Unity?
Chorus, Why can't each nation be at peace 1915

The Country Women's Association even printed a card, to be left on a seat, that not only called for peace but also recognised the common humanity of the 'enemy':

But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine

O hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.
A song of peace , South Australian CWA, Dowlingville Branch

But it was not until the mid twentieth century that music written during, or about, war time turned away from the glory of the battle and looked instead to peace, reflecting on the futility of war and expressing anger at our involvement in battles not our own.

Anti-war protest songs: The First World War, Korea and Vietnam

The First World War (1914–18) saw some of the first Australian anti-war songs emerge, mostly within the union movement, as the conscription debate raged.

Australian Labor Party, Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee.Vote No poster for the 1916 conscription referendum.

Australian Labor Party, Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee.Vote No poster for the 1916 conscription referendum. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn3697266.

At the time, these songs were very contentious, and in some instances even illegal, so they often appeared in union publications or were sung at union gatherings, rather than being performed in public. Many parodies were written to some of the most popular and well-known tunes of the day decrying conscription and the conscription referenda of Billy Hughes' government:

That dirty little traitor Billy Hughes
Is trying to introduce
That damned conscription for boys and for men
And, of course, for him we have no use.
Extract from No use for Billy, to be sung to the tune of The Little Grey Home in the West. Held in the Broken Hill library.

By the time of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, anti-war sentiment was no longer expressed behind closed doors and moved into the public domain. Ordinary Australians protested our involvement in these wars and popular music of the day reflected these sentiments. Perhaps Australia's first anti-Vietnam song appeared in 1969. Written by Johnny Young, Smiley was a coded anti-war protest inspired by the conscription of teen star, Normie Rowe:

Smiley...You're off to the Asian war...Smiley...And we won't see you smile no more...No more laughter in the air...

Vietnam and I was only 19

In the decades after these conflicts, songwriters continued to reflect on and write about the futility and impact of the wars.

john schumann

John Schumann performing 'I was only 19', 2003. Image courtesy of the ABC.

One of the best-known (which has become an anthem of sorts for Vietnam veterans) is John Schumann's I was only Nineteen (A walk in the light green), which tells the story of Frank Hunt, maimed by a landmine and now a wheelchair-bound veteran of the war:

And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can't get to sleep?
And night time's just a jungle dark and a barking M16?
And what's this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen.

Other well-known songs which explore the experience of soldiers in the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict include James Blundell's Postcards from Saigon and Cold Chisel's Khe Sanh.

By the late twentieth century, many of the most popular bands and songs played on Australian radio had strong anti-war themes, such as Do-Re-Mi's Warnings Moving Clockwise, Midnight Oil's US Forces and the John Butler Trio's Fire in the Sky.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda

But perhaps the best-known and most poignant of all anti-war songs written in Australia is Eric Bogle's And the band played Waltzing Matilda.

Good on ya . . . Pat Lee , a 94-year-old veteran, is congratulated by the crowds lining the street.

Pat Lee, a 94-year-old veteran, is congratulated by the crowds lining the street at the 2009 Anzac Day march in Sydney. Photo: Tamara Dean. Image courtesy of Fairfax images: 9375712.

Written in 1971 and nominally about Gallipoli, although many regard it as a comment on the Vietnam war, the strong anti-war message resonates across all conflicts as it describes the futility, gruesome reality and the destruction of war, while criticising those who seek to glorify it.

Today it is played at memorial and commemoration services across the country, reflecting the nation's shift in attitudes when it comes to war and conflict. No longer does Australia see itself as the colony ready to jump into the fray for the glory of the motherland (England) and victory in battle we now remember the fallen, mourn their loss and hope for an end to conflict.

They collected the wounded, the crippled and maimed
And shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind and insane
The proud, wounded heroes of Souvla

So now every April I sit on my porch
And watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving their days of past glory
I see the old men all twisted and torn
The tired old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask me '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
Year after year, their numbers get fewer
Some day no one will march there at all

Useful links

Listen, look and play

Patriotic songs and songs of wartime

Anzac songs

Commemoration and loss

Last updated: 13th November 2015
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al

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