The lyrics interspersed throughout are from Eric Bogle's "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda."
The Pogues version: (YouTube) /watch?v=GPFjToKuZQM
Joan Baez version: (YouTube) /watch?v=_E9Nu8JinM0
Two very different versions of this great anti-war song.
The traditional Aussie folksong 'Waltzing Matilda': (You Tube) /watch?v=7_iwMnzpiww
Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance for Australia and New Zealand, the day we remember the first landings at Gallipoli in Turkey during World War One on April 25th, 1915. The day is often considered to mark the beginning of a national consciousness in both countries.
Now when I was a young man, I carried me pack, and I lived the free life of a 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 stopped rambling, 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.
April 25th, 1915
Australia leans on the deck of the ship and feels fiery excitement thrum through his veins. He breathes in the cold, clear air of dawn that gusts over him, carrying with it the clean and salty smell of the Aegean Sea. It is exhilarating to be this far from home. It feels like a lifetime ago that he left with his men, sent on their way to glory by cheers and applause and the strains of a familiar old folk song. Now, a million miles from home, the high, unfamiliar Turkish cliffs loom before him, but Australia just laughs defiantly at them. He knows his lads can give these Turks what for, and more besides. They will prove themselves capable just as Australia will. After all, he is a nation now, and war is where nations prove themselves.
Australia turns and smiles when his brother walks up beside him. New Zealand's blond hair is a tousled mess, his blue eyes tinged with red. He has obviously had very little sleep, and does not look nearly so eager as Australia feels. "G'day, N.Z."
"Morning," yawns New Zealand, pushing the hair from his eyes. "What are you doing out here so early? Have you slept?"
Australia shakes his head restlessly. "Can't sleep. Just lookin' at the ocean." How can he possibly sleep at a time like this, when he is about to make his destiny?
"Ah, the wine dark sea," says New Zealand softly, leaning on the railing and gazing out towards the horizon. The sky is still dark, but the softest hint of daybreak plays on the water.
"This place is very close to Troy, you know." New Zealand's voice is slow and somehow distant. Australia just stares at him in confusion. "Troy… the Iliad…" New Zealand explains slowly. "Which was written by Homer, who often used the phrase 'wine dark sea.'"
"Uh… huh." Australia finds his brother a little strange sometimes. He looks back at the ocean and scratches his head. "It doesn't look like wine to me."
"Oh, forget it." New Zealand smiles slightly before falling sombre again. He takes a shuddering breath before closing his eyes. When he opens them he stares blankly at his hands on the railing before him. Australia can't understand his little brother's strange mood, but he is concerned none the less.
"What's the matter, mate?"
New Zealand looks up at Australia, his expression unsure and a little worried. "Aren't you scared?"
Australia blinks incredulously. "Scared? Why would I be scared? You think we can't stand up to Johnny Turk?" Australia laughs loudly. "We're nations now, N.Z. You'll see. They'll all take us seriously after this one."
New Zealand shakes his head a little before clasping Australia by the shoulder. His grip is surprisingly strong. "Good luck today, big brother."
Australia winks at him. "Won't need it, cobber."
It takes no more than fifteen minutes. Australia watches in shock as the Turkish shells cut through his ranks like a shearer through wool. The Turkish cliffs are insurmountable, knocking back wave after wave of men as they charge. Some fall dead immediately, bullets tearing through their brains; others fall screaming as arms or legs are shredded by sudden, whistling steel. Australia tries to keep going, tries to yell at his troops to keep moving, but as his men fall around him he can barely breathe. Shock and disbelief tear through his head like the shells and bullets tear through his men. The noise, this heat, this overwhelming stench of sweat and blood smothers him, but he just tries frantically to push forward. This is their first battle. Australia's first real battle. This is supposed to be glorious. So why are they getting nowhere?
"Forward!" he cries, his voice coming from far away. "Push forward!" Australia feels his men's terror and confusion but he keeps yelling, keeps trying to keep his battalion together. He can barely hear his voice above the screeching of the shells and the punctuated barking of the rifles. He pushes down the panic and his confused jumble of thoughts turn suddenly to New Zealand. Is he fighting this same impossible, losing battle? Australia looks around desperately, but his brother's troops are nowhere in sight. All he can see is the brown dirt beneath him, the corpse-laden beach behind him, the bright, unforgiving sun blazing down on his exhausted and rapidly falling men. He can not even see the enemy beyond these blasted cliffs. But this is where they have been told to land… he is following his orders… so why are they unable to even make it up this bloody cliff? Australia realises it is hopeless with a gut wrenching, despairing sense of clarity.
Everything goes too slow, too fast. Australia is ordering these men to their deaths. Men who signed up for adventure, signed up to see the world, signed up for glory and duty. Men he's trained with in Egypt, laughed with over cigarettes and beer, cheered with over games of two-up, brawled and sweat and bled with. Men whose names he knows like his own. His men. His men falling around him, before him, beside him. Bleeding and screaming; silent and stunned; limp and lifeless. Australia can't believe it. He can't stand it. And he wonders if he has come this far just to watch his army slaughtered on their first day in battle.
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 called Suvla Bay, we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was waiting, he'd primed himself well.
He shower'd 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.
Australia pushes through the stinking, sweating mass of uniformed men who fill the British command tent. He does not know who they are; he does not care. He is only interested in one. Pressing through the crowd, his eyes fall on a large makeshift desk that occupies the far end of the tent. Several high-ranking English officials stand around it, examining the papers that cover its surface. Amongst them stands the very one he is after.
England looks up from where he leans over the desk, sighs in frustration, runs a hand through his hair in a weary gesture. He looks exhausted. "Hello, Australia."
Australia does not stop. He walks right up to England, grasps his collar, and pulls him onto his toes. "Whose bloody brilliant idea was it to send us up those cliffs?"
The men around them shoot to attention and jostle closer, but England simply raises a hand for them to back off. "Australia, I know. The landing place was incorrect. It seems our intelligence was faulty."
"Faulty?" cries Australia. He doesn't know whether to laugh or scream. "Faulty! I'll bloody say it was faulty! My men fell like stones in a river out there! They were cut down like…" At the very small, almost imperceptible raise of England's eyebrow, Australia sets him back on his feet. But he tightens his grip on the nation's collar. He grits his teeth and tries to focus, tries to calm down, tries not to act like the petulant child that England thinks he is. "What do we do now?" he growls.
"You keep going."
Australia reels as though he's been struck. He waits for England to explain himself, but no explanation is forthcoming. Instead England just looks like he is waiting for Australia to leave. The men around them murmur amongst themselves. Australia stammers before he can form a response. "You're insane! Did you see them cut down out there? What the… how… this isn't a fair fight, it's a bloody slaughterhouse!"
"Nevertheless, we have no choice. Those are your orders."
Australia will not accept it. "No! Have you seen the terrain out there? I don't know much about battle tactics but I know you can't drive a herd over a cliff. The Turks advantage is too great. I can't send my men against that."
"Your men are soldiers. They are here to obey orders. And they will."
Australia tries to respond, but he is struck speechless. There are no words. He pushes England away and takes a stunned step backwards. His eyes fall to the floor. They will keep going. The failed battle on the cliff will repeat itself. More of his men will die pointlessly, before even meeting the enemy. The room spins dangerously around him.
England's eyes soften and he places his hand to his forehead wearily. "Australia, your nose is bleeding."
Australia wipes the blood on his face edgily. "I know. Think it's broken."
"Here." England pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and takes a step towards Australia. Australia takes another step backwards, his body thrumming with anger and irritation.
"Stop. Don't act like you bloody well give a damn now." His breathing comes hard, fast, rapid. A futile grief immobilises him. He closes his eyes and clenches his fists. "They died before they even reached the bloody Turks - they never had a chance." Australia feels lost, overwhelmed, surrounded by this lonely cold and indifference. He wonders where New Zealand is. New Zealand will care. New Zealand will understand. "So many of them died, England."
"Welcome to war, young one." England sounds cold, distant, weary. Old. "Your men died. Mine died. More and more and more will die."
Australia's blood thunders in his ears. "But that... that was for nothing!"
England's eyes harden again. Hardened by centuries of war, of battles lost and won - of watching his men die. "It's always for nothing."
Australia's vision turns red. He has to leave. He has to leave before he snaps. "It might be easy for you to send your men to the slaughter. But forgive me if I find it slightly bloody difficult, you arrogant bastard!"
Australia turns and storms from the tent. Behind him England sighs and whispers. "He will learn."
The days and weeks and eventually months wear on. The battles continue day after day, going nowhere, producing nothing. A type of town develops on the hills of Gallipoli, a town of trenches and dug-out roads and makeshift tents. The Australians settle in, settle in to continue the battles, continue the hopeless push forward, continue to obey the futile and suicidal orders that keep issuing forth. Australia is eternally grateful for the comforting presence of New Zealand. But there are others also.
England is an unseen presence, hidden in his tent with his troops stationed far from Australia's, only appearing occasionally to hand Australia another desperate, pointless order. The beautiful and distant India, who is also bound by England's orders, and quickly befriends New Zealand. France, a strange and flashy sort of bloke who spends a lot of his time arguing loudly with England, but fights hard and bravely when the time comes. And even occasionally a young, soft spoken blond fellow in glasses whose name Australia can never quite remember, but who seems fiercely devoted to the few men who serve in this hell-hole in his name.
And yet, none of it ever stops. The sound of rifle fire that splits his head in half. The smell of blood and death. None of this is what he imagined. These trenches aren't the adventure he was promised. And Australia would do anything to trade this cramped hell and this bleeding dust for the green bush and the orange sky and the sweeping, wide brown plains. But he stays with his men - he stays and bleeds and dies with them. Here by the threatening, overbearing cliffs he had once laughed at so easily; here on the harsh, unfamiliar earth constantly dug for trenches and graves. Here with the view of the ocean, that wine dark sea, and Australia wonders if Homer got it wrong, because the sea looks more like blood than wine. On certain nights, lying under a comforting black star-studded curtain, he can almost imagine he is back under the outback sky. But then that rifle fire splits the silence apart and that death scent of blood overwhelms him and he realises that these stars look different from the ones back home.
But in those brief moments when the fighting stops and the cannons fall silent, Australia's heart is a million miles away. It is in the outback, with the wide, open sky that stretches on forever. In the dry and living bush, with its trees and river beds and teeming undergrowth. In the evergreen rainforest, with its waterfalls and rock pools and hidden caves. In the sprawling towns and young cities his people have made; in the vast red plains where his people have hunted and danced for thousands of years. Back where the stars shine the right way and birdcalls fill the morning air. Back where the gleaming white sand meets the sparkling sea, which is blue as the sweeping sky and not dark as wine and blood.
But the band played Waltzing Matilda, when we stopped to bury our slain.
We buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs, then we started all over again.
The graves stand in lines, mounds of dirt piled like tiny mountains, small makeshift crosses standing crookedly adorned with carved bronze tags. Australia grits his teeth, clenches his fists, feels blood on his tongue and on his hands. This is not what he had been promised. This is not glorious. The wind gusts past, making the dirt scatter across the dusty ground and the bronze tags swing in the breeze. He stares across the waste, across the battlefield, where a huge masked Turk stands defiantly on the lip of the trench. Australia has seen him before. Seen him often. He hated him at first. Now, as he watches Turkey and knows that he is waiting to bury his own dead, it isn't hatred Australia feels, but a begrudging respect. Whatever difference lies between them, this they have in common. Neither likes to see their men die.
Finally bowing his head with the devastating fatigue that hits him on these days, Australia barely notices as New Zealand walks up slowly beside him. His eyes remain on the lines of crosses until New Zealand speaks.
"It's his country, you know."
Australia looks up to New Zealand's face as his little brother nods across at Turkey, standing on the other side of the battlefield. "He is only fighting to defend what is his." New Zealand always understands. Australia stares, angry and uneasy and confused. He tries to understand, too. Tries to accept. But he can only wonder just what the hell he is doing here in the first place.
Because everything is impossible to understand; impossible to accept. The mornings he sends his men to the slaughter, the afternoons he buries his dead in the unforgiving ground, the nights he lies with his hand in New Zealand's and dreams of the stars in a southern sky. The days march on and it does not make sense anymore. Australia watches as his men throw cigarettes and canned meat to the Turks. He watches as the Turks throw chocolate and sweets back. He watches in disbelief as a Turkish soldier emerges unarmed from his trench to lift a wounded Australian soldier and carry him to the allies side. It simply makes no sense: men on both sides, dying for nothing, and going nowhere.
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.
"Come in Spinner!" Australia calls, the soldiers around him cheering as a young corporal takes a hold of the kip and tosses two pennies into the air. The loud calls and cheers break into evenly split groans and whoops as the two coins land, tails up. Australia laughs merrily when he sees the result and holds his hand out to the referee, demanding payment. "Fair go, mate. Tails up, spinner loses. Pay up."
The corporal groans and Australia claps him on the shoulder. "No worries, better luck next time, eh?" Australia passes the man a cigarette then lights it for him before lighting his own. He pushes the handful of coins into his pocket and calls out for a new Spinner.
The circle of men laugh raucously as they trade winnings amongst themselves. The scorching sun beats down on the group of gambling soldiers standing in the narrow dusty trench. It is moments like these when Australia can almost forget that half of these men will be lying dead in No Man's Land before the month is out.
Another Spinner loses his first round and Australia grins, reaching out a hand for his winnings, nodding to the applause around him. He is about to call out for a new Spinner when he is interrupted by a familiar and unwanted voice.
"Australia, what do you think you and your men are doing?"
"Ah, bloody hell," Australia mutters. He gestures for his men to hide the kip and coins, wipes his hands on his trousers, plasters a grin on his face, replaces his cigarette between his lips. "Hello, hello, what's this then?" he says, turning to meet England walking up behind him. "Come to visit the cannon fodder?"
Always the same. This little exchange. England trying to radiate authority; Australia trying to strip him of it. "Australia. Gambling is forbidden in the trenches." England stands a few feet away from the men.
Snickers and murmurs behind him. Australia raises an eyebrow. "Who said we were gambling?"
England raises his chin, glares back; delivers his blow. "We have another mission for your men."
Australia grins, even as his gut wrenches a little. He grins because it is easier. "What's bloody new, eh?"
England looks around, takes in the dirty quarters, the empty bottles, the men staring at him defiantly. He wrinkles his nose. "Don't your men ever wash? And don't you teach them to salute their superiors?"
His men laugh heartily around him. Australia laughs with them. They always find the stuck-up English pretty bloody hilarious. "We'd be happy to have a wash if we had any bloody water. Why don't you send us some of yours? As long as you have enough left to make your tea, of course. And none of us like to salute those who send us to our deaths day after day."
England shifts uncomfortably at that. Australia takes the opportunity to dig the knife in a little deeper. "Talk of death too vulgar for you? Come out of your bloody tent once in a while and you'll see that it's a regular occurrence for us on the front line." England just shakes his head, laughs humourlessly, almost turns on his heel. Australia hopes it hurts. He knows it doesn't. "Come on then, give us our orders and back to safety of the tent for you."
"You've no idea, Australia," England spits irritably.
Australia takes a few steps towards him, lowers his voice so the murmuring men behind him can not hear. He removes his cigarette and blows a mouthful of smoke before he responds. "No idea? Don't I? I have an idea of pain. I have an idea of death. I have an idea of bloody suffering. And I have an idea that you don't give a bloody damn about any of it. I wonder if you'd have a better bloody idea if it was America and his men out here." England winces at that, just as Australia hoped he would. "But no, it's much easier to tread all over the colonials. So hand us your order, then kindly bugger off."
But even through his angry words, Australia knows it is not that easy. He knows that England is not a coward sitting all day in a tent. Over the weeks, Australia has watched England struggle under the weight of a desperately failing campaign. He has seen the nation weary and dirty and dead-eyed as his own troops are cut down. And he has wondered how England has lived with this pain for centuries. Australia has even screamed at him, demanded to know how he could stand this; screamed for understanding, screamed of his own pain, screamed, "My men are dying!"
England had responded, "So are mine! I've lost more men in war than you can possibly imagine, so don't speak to me like I have no idea of your sacrifice!" But Australia could see him thinking 'Stupid child', he could just see it. Just as he can see it now. Because this is what it means to be a nation. But Australia does not want this.
England does not relay the order like he normally does. He just thrusts the envelope containing the orders into Australia's hand before silently taking his leave. Australia holds the death warrant, glares at it, and shoves it into his pocket next to the coins. It will wait. He replaces his cigarette and his grin. "Come in, Spinner!" he calls, turning back to the circle of Australian soldiers.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head, and when I woke up in my hospital bed,
And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead. Never knew there was worse things than dyin'.
The dying screams shoot through him, destroy him. Australia is helpless to stop them. They are dying for England. They are dying for Australia. They are dying for nothing. They had come for glory, they had come for empire, they had come to heed duties call. But after so much blood and pain and death, it isn't for glory anymore. Now there is nothing to prove, and they no longer want to be heroes; they just want to survive. They don't want to be heroes, but Australia is still proud of them. Of their defiance, of their courage, of their ferocity in battle and their endurance in the face of despair. Australia watches as his people fight and struggle and die and he does it all with them.
As the wounded are taken to the ships and the dead to the earth, always the old folk song comes to mind. Those strains the band played when they sailed away from home take on new meaning in this harsh, foreign place. "And their ghosts may be heard, as you pass by that billabong… you'll come a waltzing Matilda with me."
When Australia was young, he wanted nothing but the outback under the red sky, the stars, the dry bush, the wet forests, the pale blue glow of the mountains, the far horizons, the sparkling blue sea. The beautiful land where he could go waltzing Matilda. But he had become a federation. He was expected to stand alone as a nation. This war was supposed to be the perfect opportunity to rise to the task, to prove himself, to earn glory and a name and form a legend. Instead it has shown him what is expected of him to stand as a nation in this world of blood and sacrifice and futility.
So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia.
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane, those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And the band played Waltzing Matilda, as they carried us down the gangway.
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they all turned their faces away.
January 9th, 1916.
When it is over Australia sits on the shore, staring out at the blood red sunset over the wine dark sea. On the shores of Gallipoli, Australia has won nothing. His men have lost their lives for a foreign king while invading a foreign country. He has become a nation and all that it means. And now he is tired, worn out… sad. The ideal is lost. The reason never existed. And the war has only just begun.
Eight months, and nothing has changed. They are finally leaving, and Gallipoli is still held by its Turkish defenders. Eight months of fighting and killing and dying, eight months of blood and fear and madness and exhaustion and hell on earth. Eight months, tens of thousands of lives. Was this what is meant to be a nation? To throw your men's lives away for nothing?
Australia looks up when he hears his name called. New Zealand pushes through the mass of soldiers waiting to board the boats. Australia is too tired to stand and greet him. He is too tired to do anything but sit and watch New Zealand approach. His brother looks dirty, dishevelled, exhausted; he looks the way Australia feels. He kneels slowly before Australia and gently takes his hand, his face a map of concern. "Australia? Australia, say something."
Australia swallows and forces himself to speak. "N.Z. Why are you crying?"
"Australia, are you… are you all ri..." New Zealand breaks off as though realising what a pointless question that is.
Australia tries to smile. "Don't cry, mate. We're nations now. Nations don't cry."
Australia's words have the opposite effect. New Zealand shakes his head, the tears falling down his cheeks. "Australia." But there isn't anything else to say. New Zealand leans forward and puts his arms around his brother, rests his head in his shoulder, lets the tears fall. Australia does not move.
"We're nations now, N.Z. You'll see. They'll all take us seriously now."
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda, who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by that billabong
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
To go 'Waltzing Matilda' is to travel by foot, usually in the bush, carrying one's goods in a bag called a 'Matilda.'
I hope no one takes Australia's attitude towards England in this story personally. Australian soldiers were well known for being pretty anti-authority (Australians still are) and a lot of the decisions during the Gallipoli campaign that led to losses for the Aussies were (and are) blamed on Britain. But the United Kingdom lost far more men in this war than Australia, and I have never been one of those to blame them for the Australian losses. War is war, and people are people, and thus always want someone to blame.
The Gallipoli campaign was a major offensive of World War One, and the first major battle Australia was involved in as a nation (i.e. after the Federation of 1st January, 1901). The objective was to capture the Dardanelle straits in order to secure a sea route to Russia and facilitate a march on Constantinople, knocking the Turks out of the war. It was fought by the Commonwealth forces of England, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Newfoundland, Canada, as well as France and French Africa, against the Ottoman Empire. It lasted eight months, cost 130,000 lives, and ended in failure for the British and French forces.
Two-up is a traditional Australian gambling game. It was often played illegally by Australian soldiers in the trenches, and is still illegal in Australia every day of the year except Anzac Day. Playing two-up at an RSL on Anzac Day is definitely an experience every Aussie should have! To play, someone is selected as the Spinner (greeted to loud calls of "Come in Spinner!" by the rest of the players). The Spinner tosses two coins in the air using the kip (a small piece of board). Two heads means the Spinner wins. Two tails means the Spinner loses. Odds "One Them" means the Spinner throws again. If the Spinner loses, another Spinner is chosen. Other members of the group place side bets against each other on whether the Spinner will win or lose. It is all quite mad and chaotic and very hard to regulate!