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"At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man - they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze - knee to knee and horse to horse - the dying sun glinting on bayonet points..." Trooper Ion Idriess

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Sunday, 30 November 2008
Australian Imperial Forces, Marching Songs, The quest for an authentic Australian marching song
Topic: AIF - Marching Songs

Australian Imperial Forces

Marching Songs

The quest for an authentic Australian marching song


Harry Lauder


In Melbourne, and I believe it must have been much the same elsewhere in Australia, folks didn’t know what they were to do, how they were to take this war that had come so suddenly upon them. and rumours and questions flew in all directions
- Harry Lauder


The war broke out and Australia had no marching song. In response, the public turned to the song that had been adopted by the British Army as its favourite marching song, It's a Long Way to Tipperary.


It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long way to go.
It's a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye Piccadilly,
Farewell Leicester Square!
It's a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart's right there.


But this was a British song. Indeed a whole genre of English patriotic songs flourished, all competing for the hearts and souls of true Englishmen, where ever they may reside.

Here is one popular song of late 1914 called For an Empire Beloved written  by EA Henty (Mrs Edward Starkey). It reaches out to the Empire with its lofty words:


'Tis near Springtime in Australia, with the night air wattle scented
'Neath Southern Cross as fairest flowers unfold;
Or in further Northern Country there are misty days of Autumn
When God's touches turn the maples to a world of red and gold.
Can you hear them? They are coming, and the loyal hearts are beating,
'Neath dusky starlit Heavens from radiant lands in Tropic's glow,
With green palm leaves softly waving and bamboo rustling gently,
Wood by night winds in hushed silence, as they softly come and go.


Even though one stout group of solid Englishmen in Australia strongly identified with all things that belonged to "Home" as England was called, the complex mix of the Australian population meant that this identification excluded a large part of the population. The largest group in this mix, Irish Australians, could not identify with these sentiments, especially when notions of sectarianism and "Home Rule" were the major issues of the day.

The problem was to implement the notion of inclusiveness. The first attempts created some strange and often juxtaposed fusions. One writer, Morley Roberts, wrote a song called Australia which was set to the tune of a popular Irish ballad that spawned an Australian offspring called the Wild Colonial Boy.


The word came up from Melbourne Tower
That shines by Hobson's Bay
And sunlit Sydney cheered the news
Which Brisbane heard that day;
And Adelaide, whose broad land runs
To Arafura's sea,
Took up the cry and sent it forth
 To Perth and Kimberl


While hijacking the Irish tune, the Robert's song never gained traction because of the excessive English patriotic sentiment contained within the song. While some Australians were excited by the war, most of the population were indifferent and could not identify with the feigned excitement expressed in the lyrics. Australians were concerned about the drought, a rural crisis, water shortages, government indebtedness and high unemployment. The beginning of the war may have been a pleasant diversion allowing the people to enjoy a carnival like atmosphere but that was not the answer to every day concerns. Patriotism did not put food on the table, pay the rent or put water in the dams. Any excitement created by the announcement of the war died down very quickly. A marching song needed to reflect these personal problems in the lyrics.

To be a successful marching song, there must be a few elements present. The tune needs to be simple, the cadence to the march pace and the words should be identifiable in the lives of the men marching to the beat. Tipperary fulfills all these requirements. No lofty ideals, just a simple tune about a boy who misses his sweetheart while away from home, something most soldiers can identify with while on active service.

In Australia, one of the more neutral marching songs that was highly popular amongst the men was the old American Civil War favourite, Marching Through Georgia. This motiff was employed by the first AIF sanctioned marching song called Cooee, Cooee, here come the Kangaroos.

So keen were the military authorities to see this song adopted, the words were printed off and circulated to all the troops of the 1st AIF Contingent. It missed the mark because it reverted back to the old Enlish patriotic theme.


Pull yourselves together, boys, we're marching to the front,
Off to join the British Tommies in a little hunt,
Kaiser Bill will have to leave his sauerkraut and shunt;
Cooee my boys for dear Australia.

Cooee, Cooee, here come the kangaroos,
Cooee, Cooee, we never get the blues,
When we're marching home again,
We'll bring the best of news
Cooee my boys for dear Australia.


When the soliders received their copy of the song, it appears as though it was sung with little enthusiasm. At the troop level, the words were spiced up to give it a more identifiable flavour. Rather than lofty words, it utilised the every day language of the men. The transformation added to the enthusiasm. In the first verse, there were substitutions of words that were far more earthy than intended.


Pull yourselves together, boys, we're marching to the front,
Off to join the British Tommies in a little hunt,
Kaiser Bill will have to leave 'cos he's a f***ing c**t;
Cooee my boys for dear Australia.


Obviously not the version to be sung in public. It employed common language that under a prudish officer would earn a criming for swearing, a military offence. However, the corruption of popular tunes to add more earthier concepts was undertaken all the time. The Colonel Bogey has been subject to a tremendous number of earthy corruptions as was Mademoiselle From Armentieres.

On the homefront, songsters were churning out patriotic pap to bolster recruitment. Edward H Tyrrell turned out these tunes by the dozen. Just in 1915, his catalogue included Cooee! Cooee! You're Wanted at the Dardanelles, Heroes of Gallipoli, Our Heroes (at the Front), Rainbow March, New South Wales Lancers March, and Soldiers of the Southern Cross. They sold many copies in Australia but in Egypt and the Dardanelles where the daily reality was different, they were barely ever heard. The stinking trenches of Gallipoli presented a different reality, articulated by Ion Idriess in his book Desert Column:


We have just had "dinner". My new mate was sick and couldn't eat I tried to, and would have but for the flies. I had biscuits and a tin of jam. But immediately I opened the tin the flies rushed the jam. They buzzed like swarming bees. They swarmed that jam, all fighting amongst themselves. I wrapped my overcoat over the tin and gouged out the flies, then spread the biscuit, held my hand over it, and drew the biscuit out of the coat but a lot of the flies flew into my mouth and beat about inside. Finally I threw the tin over the parapet. I nearly howled with rage. I feel so sulky I could chew everything to pieces. Of all the bastards of places this is the greatest bastard in the world. And a dead man's boot in the firing-possy has been dripping grease on my overcoat and the coat will stink for ever.


No lofty flags, patriotism or love for old Mother England, just the daily grind of survival which is the lot of the common soldier at the front line.

The Gallipoli experience was so profound that it filtered through into the soldier's own songs. One of the best expressions of soldier written marching songs of January 1916 was the Marching Song of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade:



Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Signallers, Field Ambulance and Train
We did our bit at Anzac, where we’d like to go again,
For though we got it in the NEK, we’ll fight with might and main,
To square our mates who took the count before us.


We are, we are, the Third Light Horse Brigade.
We face the odds with ne’er a man afraid,
We lost our gallant comrades and there’s many a score unpaid,
Undaunted still we’re out for what’s before us.


This marching song reverted back to the safe musical score of s were played to the tune of Marching Through Georgia, an echo of the earlier march song but updated to reflect a reality. The men were angry and wanted revenge. It was reflected in the hostility and sadness in the song.

After the split between the Infantry who went to France, and the Light Horse who remained in Egypt, the concept of a marching song became quite remote. Infantry marching as a group find it relatively easy to sing a simple song as a bonding exercise but the task is far more difficult when a regiment of horses are marching where even in line of Troop, it is difficult to hear something from one end to the other over the din of horse movement and the space required to travel. So instead of Light Horse Marching Songs, the Light Horse slipped into poetry, a solitary activity which required individual experience. It was now the time when Trooper Bluegum and Gerardy came into their own.


Ah well! We’re gone! We’re out of it now.
We’ve something else to do.
But we all look back from the transport deck to the land-line far and blue:
Shore and valley are faded; fading are cliff and hill;
The land-line we called ‘Anzac’ … and we’ll call it ‘Anzac’ still!


The Light Horse poets struck a chord within the ordinary trooper in a way that no marching song could ever achieve.


Further Reading:

AIF Marching Songs

Australian Light Horse

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920


Citation: Australian Imperial Forces, Marching Songs, The quest for an authentic Australian marching song

Posted by Project Leader at 10:33 AM EAST
Updated: Thursday, 12 May 2011 5:50 PM EADT

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