I learned the Australian folk ballad “Waltzing Matilda” so early in my elementary school years that I don’t remember very much of the life I led before it became one of those anthemic tunes that courses through my blood with ease and gladness whenever I find myself suddenly singing it in the shower or out on a bike ride in the sun-splotched innocence of a spring day.
So the genius of Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is that it uses the freewheeling joy of the original as the backdrop for a deep lamentation on the devastating losses of war. Bogle frames those losses not in the realm of great battles and territory surrendered or annexed, but in the individual persons (young men in this case) with families, friends and romances waiting for them at home, and a future that will never be realized.
The setting is World War I, perhaps the most nonsensical war of the all the nonsense that lies deep in the heart of all war, given its reliance on human sacrifice to achieve its dark aims.
It also reminds us here on the home front that we, too, play merrily on in other forms of near nonsense, blind and deaf to the carnage that takes place in our name.
Furthering “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’s” mournful and beautifully rendered quality is its focus on a particularly savage instance of such sacrifice: The 1915 Battle of Gallipoli on the Dardanelles Strait in Turkey, where some 8,700 Australian troops lost their lives and another 18,000 were wounded in a chaotic gambit that failed to advance the Allied Powers’s aims.
The battle has served as fodder for military historians, in a far too familiar ritual, to pick through its tragic assumptions and missteps.
And in film, music and poetry, to illustrate the futility of war and the willingness of politicians and military leaders to serve up young human lives in unconscionable numbers.
Eric Bogle’s treatment is a significant contribution to the latter.
Bogle, now 78, was born and raised in Scotland, emigrating to Australia at age 25. He’d been captivated in his youth by tales of World War I and had been familiar with the broad outlines of the Battle of Gallipoli. He wrote “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” in 1971 after attending a Remembrance Day parade, which followed the familiar hallmarks of all such events featuring aging, limping, often wheelchair-bound veterans gamely moving along the parade route as onlookers juggle feelings of admiration and awkwardness, guilt and pity.
In a 2009 interview with his homeland newspaper, “The Scotsman,” he discussed the context:
“I wrote it as an oblique comment on the Vietnam War which was in full swing…but while boys from Australia were dying there, people had hardly any idea where Vietnam was. Gallipoli was a lot closer to the Australian ethos—every schoolkid knew the story, so I set the song there…At first the Returned Service League and all these people didn’t accept it at all; they thought it was anti-soldier, but they’ve come full circle now, and they see it’s certainly anti-war but not anti-soldier.”
Ironically, he also discovered that the song often came to be referred to over the years, inaccurately, as “traditional,” meaning author unknown but the song widely known in any given culture—like “Hush, Little Baby,” “London Bridge Is Falling Down” or “Oh Shenandoah.” That stands as a backdoor compliment to how thoroughly it has imbued itself into the musical pantheon, standing right alongside its more or less mirror image song featuring the “jolly swagman” of “Waltzing Matilda,” both of them now timeless, highly revered treasures.
Let’s give it a listen now in its original version, of which there are many lovely covers. (Check Bogle’s fellow Scotsman John McDermott’s cover if you have a few extra minutes.) Then we’ll return for a concluding appreciation of just how acutely Bogle’s song fits into this and every Memorial Day weekend.
Now when I was a young man and I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of the rover
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty out back
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in 1915 my country said “Son
It’s time to stop rambling, there’s work to be done”
And they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As the ships pulled away from the quay
And amid all the tears, flag waving and cheers
We sailed off to Galipolli
And how I remember that terrible day
How our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs to the slaughter
Johnnie Turk was ready, oh he primed himself well
He rained us with bullets and he showered us with shell
And in five minutes flat we were all blown to hell
Nearly blew us all back home to Australia
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stuck to bury our slain
We burned ours and the Turks buried theirs
And we started all over again
Those who were living just tried to survive
In a mad world of blood death and fire
And for ten weary weeks, I kept myself alive
While around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I awoke in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done and I wished I was dead
Never knew there were worse things than dying
For no more I’ll go Waltzing Matilda
All round the green bush far and near
For to hump tent and pegs a man needs both legs
No more Waltzing Matilda for me
They collected 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 pulled in to Circular Key
And I looked at the place where my legs used to be
I thanked Christ there was no one there 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 there and stared
And turned all their faces away
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
Renewing their dreams of past glory
I see the old men all tired, stiff and sore
The weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But year after year, the numbers get fewer
Some day none 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
So much brilliance and heartbreak in that tale. There is a deadpan quality to the line, “And the band played Waltzing Matilda.” It brings us to a full stop, forcing us to hold and grapple with these two radically disparate realities of a band playing on merrily, spewing near nonsense lyrics of a nevertheless beloved national song to accompany the butchering of its soldiers
It also reminds us here on the home front that we, too, play merrily on in other forms of near nonsense, blind and deaf to the carnage that takes place in our name. Our distance makes “ghosts” from both sides of every conflict, all of them denied forever the earthly waltzes and loves that represent our most enduring human longings.
And then the fifth stanza’s killer last line: “We burned ours and the Turks buried theirs/And we started all over again.”
The essential absurdity of such endless violence—and our penchant for looking away from it while the soldiers are compelled to “start all over again”—has been noted in every time and place. It is well illustrated in the basically meaningless, performative “age restriction” notations on some of the song’s You Tube iterations as one scrolls along.
Apparently, You Tube censors consider war imagery that depicts actual human suffering too delicate for young ears and eyes, no matter the work’s serious historical and thematic context. You may be excused for wondering how that squares with the plethora of restriction-free, often misogynistic and violent sexual content available with a click all over You Tube and the greater Internet.
I will let the bewildering nature of such distinctions rest now as we close with one of the more unusual cover renderings of this and probably any song I have come across in quite some time.
Bob Kerrey won the Congressional Medal of Honor as a Navy SEAL in 1969, one year after continuing to direct his squad to an intense firefight’s conclusion despite having been blown backwards onto a jagged rock outcropping by a hand grenade that had left part of his right leg back at the explosion site.
He went on to return to his native Nebraska, serving as governor from 1983-1987. On his election night victory to the United States Senate in 1989, the totality of his victory speech was an a cappella version of “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” Though it never won him a place on a talent show or late night TV, I like to think that the “ghosts” of Eric Bogle’s song glide easily through the night, deeply lodged as they are in the memory of heroes like Kerry and all the other beloveds they left behind.
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