Sunday, December 5, 2010

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

This past week I have been listening to a BBC audio book about the decade from 1910-20. The book is primarily recordings of eyewitnesses to the history that was being made at that time. For example, first person accounts from people who were on the Titanic and the responses of political and social observers of that tragedy. The same for the Lusitania, the sinking of another "immortal" ship, which served as a real catalyst to bring Britain into the war while simultaneously stirring anti-German sentiment on the Isles. The Suffragettes and the Labor movement have their stories told by people who were there.

But the First World War takes largest chunk of this period with eyewitness accounts from men who fought in every battle field, from Verdun, Marne, Ypres, Somme and more. The world had never witnessed slaughter and horror on such as scale. Britain buried a million of her young men and left millions scarred. Germany, France and Russia lost millions more.

The experiences of those who fought in the trenches have been repeatedly captured in films so that we get a sense of how bad it was. The stories on this BBC audiobook really amp up the impact. The lice that lived in the seams of their clothes, the foot deep muck that soaked their boots, the first encounters with toxic gases used as a weapon and the terrors it inflicted... The stories told by men who were there are harrowing.

Several share their first reactions to the announcement that Britain was at war. "I was fourteen and a half and we were worried the war would not last very long and we wouldn't be able to get into it because you had to be fifteen to go serve." Yes, war fever was a thrill and it was the young whose eyes glistened as their hearts sprang up.

Against this backdrop comes tale after tale of the nightmare hell of the real war, one of the most terrible battles being Gallipoli and Suvla Bay which was the first major offensive involving the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The green flies covered everything and when you were wounded your wounds were immediately swarmed over. The lice were even worse, but worst of all was the chaos and seeming pointlessness of it all. According to one of the survivors, his division was in total confusion as clumps of soldiers marched about aimlessly not sure what they were to do, their officers dead.

Joan Baez performed and recorded a song about this fragment of history. Based on how often I've played it, it must be a favorite of mine, written by Eric Bogle (ericbogle.net)...

AND THE BAND PLAYED
WALTZING MATILDA


When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murrays green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in nineteen fifteen my country said Son
It's time to stop rambling 'cause there's work to be done
So 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 we sailed away from the quay
And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers
We sailed off to Gallipoli.

How well I remember that terrible day
How the blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shells
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
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again.

Now those that were left, well we tried to survive
In a mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
But around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over tit
And when I woke up in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
Never knew there were worse things than dying.
For no more I'll go waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and near
For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs two legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me.

So they collected the cripples, 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 into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where my legs used to be
And thank Christ there was nobody 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 and stared
Then turned all their faces away.

And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving old dreams of past glory
And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question.
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men answer to the call
But year after year their numbers get fewer
Some day 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 you pass the Billabong
Who'll come-a-waltzing Matilda with me?
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copyright © Eric Bogle

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