And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda: Gallipoli 100 Years On

It is almost a century since the commencement of the Gallipoli Campaign during World War One when troops of the British Empire and France attempted to secure a foothold on Ottoman soil with the ultimate intention of marching upon Istanbul. A bloody eight-month battle ended in Allied defeat, with thousands of deaths on both sides. In particular, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) was decimated and the campaign has retained a prominent place in the national consciousness of those two countries.

ANZAC soldiers rest at Gallipoli
ANZAC soldiers rest at Gallipoli

Hundreds of books and articles have been written about Gallipoli but perhaps the most poignant contribution is Eric Bogle’s composition, ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. In it, Bogle addresses the futility of the Gallipoli Campaign whilst implying that the experience of the narrator could apply to almost any combatant of the Great War.

The song is sung by a rambling Australian who is plucked from the outback in 1915 to go and fight in Gallipoli. Many of the song’s verses begin with the refrain, ‘And the band played Waltzing Matilda’, the famous bush ballad synonymous with Australia. Our narrator’s initial feelings of going to war is, like many others, a positive one:

And the band played Waltzing Matilda, as we sailed away from the cay

And amidst all the tears, the shouts and the cheers, we sailed off for Gallipoli.

Bogle quickly counters this uplifting beginning in the following verse:

How well I remember that terrible day, when 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.

Very few soldiers’ introduction to war conformed with their expectations and, for most, the initial impression was one of harrowing realisation. Within days of battle, combatants became weary and numbed. Bogle expresses this when addressing the disposal of the corpses of the dead.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda as we stopped to bury our slain,

and we buried ours and the Turks buried theirs and it started all over again.

Survivors retrieve the dead at Gallipoli
Survivors retrieve the dead at Gallipoli

This image could easily be applied to the trench warfare on the Western Front where daily attacks were only interrupted by the retrieval of the dead. Such a pattern became an accepted part of the war as the generals and political leaders on both sides failed to find, or neglected to look for, an alternative strategy.

Inevitably, our narrator doesn’t come through the conflict unscathed:

Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over tit

And when I awoke in my hospital bed 

And saw what it had done, Christ I wished I was dead

Never knew there were worse things than dying.

It was not only the dead, those countless millions commemorated on memorials, that lost their lives during WWI. Almost every soldier suffered irreparable physical or psychological damage that changed the paths of their existence. Nor did the people back home necessarily want to know these ‘new’ heroes:

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.

Those that walked off the ship were welcomed by silence
Those that walked off the ship were welcomed by silence

Bogle calls the survivors the ‘forgotten heroes of a forgotten war’. Perhaps he is right in a sense; how could people comprehend the sacrifices made by the soldiers of the Great War? Why would they want to remember?

But the war will never be forgotten and battlefield lessons were undoubtedly learned. Thanks to the brilliance of Bogle, the Gallipoli Campaign and the plight of the individual soldier will live long in our memories.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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