“The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” by the great Scottish/Australian songwriter Eric Bogle is the most powerful anti-war song I’ve come across. It’s well enough known that it needs little introduction, but to get a fuller appreciation of the story, and to offer Bogle more complete windups for the succession of blows the song offers, I’d like to give just a bit of background.
First, the song inside the song is of course the Australian classic, “Waltzing Matilda.” That gem was written by poet Banjo Paterson in 1895, and first put to music a handful of years later. Here are the original lyrics (they’ve evolved over the years), with explanations for the Aussie slang, here and here. And here’s Slim Dusty with a real nice version of the song:
In 1972 Bogle took that simple and joyful piece of Australia's character and wove it with one of it’s most tragic, the story of the slaughter of Australian forces at Gallipoli, Turkey, during World War One, into a haunting and gutwrenching masterpiece. From the liner notes from the 1977 album, “Eric Bogle – LIVE”:
50.000 soldiers of Australia died at Gallipoli in a stupid and pointless campaign, which was a lot for a small country like Australia. About the only thing the achieved was a belated recognition that Australia was "growing up", she was becoming a nation in her own right....
Every April, a march is held on ANZAC DAY to commemorate the Gallipoli landings during the first World War, and the dead of the other wars. Australia takes it so seriously that the pubs are closed, the only day in the year this happens. Like all memorial parades it is both moving and yet somewhat pointless and pathetic. This song was written after observing one such parade.
Eric Bogle singing “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” with a montage of images from 1915, and later, and later, and later:
Now when I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover.
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said, Son
It's time you stop ramblin', 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 the ship pulled away from the quay,
And amidst all the cheers, the flag waving, and tears,
We sailed off for Gallipoli.
And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water;
And of how in that hell that they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk, he was waitin', he primed himself well;
He showered us with bullets, and he rained us with shell --
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,"
When we stopped to bury our slain,
Well, we buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
Then we started all over again.
And those that were left, well, we tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire.
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
Though around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head,
And when I woke up in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, well, I wished I was dead --
Never knew there was worse things than dying.
For I'll go no more "Waltzing Matilda,"
All around the green bush far and free --
To hump tents and pegs, a man needs both legs,
No more "Waltzing Matilda" for me.
So they gathered the crippled, 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 sailed 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 so 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, all 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 meself the same question.
But the band plays "Waltzing Matilda,"
And the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday, 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 the billabong,
Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard...