Peter Williams: This song should be compulsory Anzac Day listening

There's a song that should be compulsory listening before ANZAC Day on Saturday.

Scottish born Adelaide singer-songwriter Eric Bogle wrote this song in 1971

"And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" was written by Scottish born Adelaide singer-songwriter Eric Bogle in 1971.

That was a time when attendances at ANZAC Day Dawn Parades were sparse.

A time when - because of the Vietnam conflict - young people especially didn't want to remember wars and those who fought in them.

A time when there was a real possibility that the annual remembrance of Gallipoli would fade away a long, long time before a centenary commemoration.

So in keeping with the times, Bogle wrote lyrics highlighting the horrors of Gallipoli and in the process emerged with some of the most damning and haunting words ever written about war and its after effects.

How well I remember that terrible day

When our blood stained the sand and the water

And how in that hell they called Suvla Bay

We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter

The song tells, in the first person, the experience of a young Australian who

lived the free life of a rover


In 1915, the country said son, it's time to stop rambling

there's work be to be done.

The narrator survives the first 10 weeks of his campaign until

A big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head.

Then the song's most heart stopping lines

And when I awoke in the hospital bed

I saw what it had done, and I wished I was dead

Then I knew there were worse things than dying.

At least 30 different singers and groups have recorded versions of the song in the last 44 years.

But by almost universal acclaim it's The Pogues, with the raw lead vocal of Shane McGowan, who've provided the quintessential version.

The Irishman has always been renowned for the emotion of his performances.

But he reached new standards with Bogle's song, almost pleading that there was little to celebrate from the botched Gallipoli campaign and those who took part would not want to remember it, or to be honoured when they returned home.

And the old men march slowly, old 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 myself the same question.

The fictional wounded soldier of the song, and his real life colleagues of 1915, would never have imagined what their descendants would be thinking and organising a hundred years hence.

Sometime, and it was probably about the mid 1990s, ANZAC Day became important to this country again.

Just why it's happened is either a triumph of marketing or bad teaching.

The reality is, the Gallipoli campaign or Winston Churchill's "forcing of the Dardanelles" was an unrealistic, ill conceived and badly executed plan which should have been abandoned before it started.

The history books tell you all that.

Sometimes you need a work of art to put the facts in perspective.

Listen to "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" and then see how you feel about this week's commemoration.