Friday, 24 April 2015

...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

One of the endearing things about Australia is that we are just as bad at national days as we are at national songs.

Our supposed official national holiday, Australia Day, marks the day when the First Fleet landed in Sydney Cove in 1788.  It provides a telling contrast with its US equivalent. Thanksgiving Day celebrates the anniversary of the pilgrim fathers' first harvest in New England, their heartfelt thanks at the progress of their new community of religious freedom far from the tyranny of their English oppressors.

By contrast, very few of those who landed in Sydney Cove in 1788 were inclined to celebration.  Most of them were in chains, with their oppressors on hand and well armed to keep them down.  Nor were the soldiers who guarded them much more enthusiastic, sent on this posting to the ends of the earth to guard dangerous prisoners.  The original inhabitants were none too pleased either at having their best lands taken by these strangers. Our celebrations occasionally rise to an acceptable level of jingoism, but honestly our hearts are not in it.

Sadly we seem to be able to work up a bit more nationalistic excitement on Anzac day and this has increased in volume this year with tomorrow being the 100th anniversary of the original landing at Gallipoli.  Perhaps after this year it will become more acceptable again to be apathetic about the occasion.

Still, it's kind of jarring that a nationalistic celebration of all things Australian and military should be on the anniversary of a huge, multi-faceted military balls-up on the other side of the world.  We were helping with an invasion of Turkey because our British colonial masters demanded it of us, not because there was any particular Australian interest involved.

Nor were the Ottoman Turks particularly enthusiastic about the war themselves.  When hostilities broke out in Europe in 1914 they vacillated for a long time.  Most of the Ottoman cabinet preferred neutrality, and a bit of skillful diplomacy by the British could have kept them out of the war.  Instead, the British government commandeered two warships they had been making for the Turks.  The Germans immediately offered to replace them.  The Turks were worried about the threat from Russia to their east.  Even so, it was some pre-emptive military action by their German-trained military commander that finally pulled them reluctantly into the war.

As for the Gallipoli campaign itself, it was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time.  Hatched by Lord Kitchener at the urging of Winston Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty, roughly equivalent to being Minister for the Navy), the idea was that the British and their allies (the French, Australians and New Zealanders) would gain control of the Dardanelles.  This strait runs from the Aegean into the Marmara Sea that divides the Asian from the European parts of Turkey.  Control of this narrow seaway would provide easy access to the Ottoman capital in Constantinople and allow the British to link up with the Russians approaching from the East.

There was just one slight problem - the Turks did not agree.  The British commanders underestimated their numbers, their level of organisation and their courage.  Their preparations were too slow, and by the time they landed in late April the Turks were waiting for them in great numbers, holding the hills and ridges as the invaders tried to force their way up the beaches.  Far from being cowards, they fought fiercely.  On the morning of 25 April 2015 the 57th Infantry Regiment ran out of ammunition and fought on with their bayonets until reinforcements arrived.  Every single member of the regiment was either killed or injured, but the line held.

The ANZAC commander, General Birdwood, considered withdrawing his troops within a couple of weeks, but he was encouraged by some illusory naval successes.  In the end, the troops laboured fruitlessly for eight months before the chill of winter forced their withdrawal.  By that time over 112,000 young men had died on that tiny peninsula.  56,000 Turks and 56,000 Allies.  Of the allied dead, almost three quarters were British, while 8,700 Australians and 2,700 New Zealanders lost their lives.  More than twice that number were wounded.  Most of the commanders were demoted and Churchill was banished to the backbench.

The Turks are just as enthusiastic about celebrating this event (which they call the Battle of Cannakale) as the Australians are.  After all, they won.  It was a rare bright spot in a gloomy war, elevating the Turkish commander Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to national hero status.  It also served as a jumping off point for the creation of modern Turkey eight years later, with Ataturk as its first president.  Truly a nation-defining moment!

Australians, on the other hand, are fervently celebrating a massive cock-up foisted on them by their incompetent British allies.

Strangely enough, I've lived through the entire breathless leadup to this years 100th anniversary without once hearing Eric Bogle's classic Gallipoli song, '...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda'.

The Scottish-Australian singer/songwriter wrote this song in 1971.  Bogle is a prolific songwriter but this is the song that pays his bills in his advancing old age.  It was something of a slow burn.  Bogle himself was a part-time folk singer and full-time accountant in the early 1970s and was somewhat surprised, during a tour of British folk clubs in 1976, to find audiences requesting it following English folk singer June Tabor's solemn a capella recording.  Since then it has been recorded by various people of even greater eminence - The Pogues, Joan Baez, Redgum and John Williamson among a host of others.

In some ways it's not Bogle's best song.  It rambles a bit, some parts are repetitive and it seems to have two endings.  It also takes some liberties with history - the Anzacs didn't land at Suvla Bay (that was the British) but it rhymes with "terrible day".  Nor did they wear tin hats.  Yet all this is overshadowed by the way it captures the unvarnished, gruesome experience of war for the young volunteers who landed at Anzac Cove and were cannon fodder in so many subsequent British battles.  As a bonus, it has depths you can plumb if you are interested enough.

He doesn't labour the point, but a few lines lay out the horror a clearly as pages of purple prose.

How well I remember that terrible day, 
Our 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 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.

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.
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.

There's no glory, no heroism, no sacrifice, not even any particular bravery, just a dour struggle for survival, ended finally by his being knocked "arse over head" by a Turkish shell and waking up without any legs.

There is a twofold resonance in the loss of his legs.  While his fellow veterans march each Anzac Day he is forced to sit on the porch and watch, his marching days long gone.  From this position he expresses two forms of ambivalence.  When the young people ask, "what are they marching for", they might be asking a genuine question, expressing the fading memory of the battle and the men who took part in it, the sense that a nation is moving in.  This is reinforced by the ongoing death toll.

Year after year the numbers get fewer
Someday no-one will march any more.

His own echo of the young people's question is a lot more bitter.  What was it all for?  he wants to know.  Why celebrate what cost him his legs?  Why celebrate pointless slaughter?  As Bogle says in his second most famous song, 'No Man's Land', "did they really believe that this war would end war?"

In a superficial way, he was wrong.  The memory of Gallipoli didn't fade.  In 2015 we celebrate the day with an over-the-top fervour hardly dreamt of in 1971, with lavish and expensive celebrations, a huge Australian re-invasion of Anzac Cove and commemorations in every suburb and town.  Yet in the midst of this militaristic orgy we are watching a massive forgetting.  Instead of the "mad world of blood death and fire" we celebrate heroism, noble sacrifice, the undaunted warrior.  Meanwhile we continue to blindly send troops to help our colonial masters fight ill-considered wars in faraway Islamic countries and pointlessly sacrifice their lives in the service of some new piece of imperialist folly.

The narrator's amputation is given its second resonance by referencing Banjo Paterson's 'Waltzing Matilda'.  This other iconic Australian song celebrates an older vision of Australia, one that Bogle's narrator is living before the war intervenes - the romance of the swag, Australia as a place of freedom from care, of wandering labourers travelling the vast outback, fighting the elements to carve a new nation out of this arid continent.

No more.  "It's time to stop rambling, there's work to be done", and the old life can never be resumed.  The band might still play the song, but there is no such thing as a legless swagman.  Australia is a different place.  The "free life of the rover" is replaced by this grim, baffled marching, the old men "all bent, stiff and sore" if they are not confined to the porch.  If Gallipoli was a defining moment for our nation it defined our loss of innocence, the replacement of our romantic pioneering spirit with the serious and bloody business of war.

If we must remember Anzac Day then at least we should refrain from celebrating it.  Instead, the appropriate response is a sustained day of weeping, the donning of sackcloth and ashes and solemn vows to stop making the same mistakes.  Until then, I will be staying home.