ANZAC: The Birth of a Nation

 

Sandakan Boyup Mar 25 056

Sandakan death march memorial, Boyup, Western Australia

 

This post briefly outlines the origins, development and significance of the Anzac legend for Australians[i]since 1915. The initial reception of Anzac as symbolizing ‘the birth of a nation’ is followed by an outline of the development of the concept during the First World War and over the decades since. The current identification of Anzac with popular perceptions of national identity is briefly highlighted and the article concludes by noting the early and continuing legislative proscriptions surrounding the use of the term ‘Anzac’ and its continuing acceptance by many Australians as the central element of national identity.

Introduction

Although the Anzac tradition originated in 1915, there was little serious scholarship on the subject until the 1960s.[ii]  Since then there has been ongoing interest by historians, anthropologists, sociologists and creative artists.[iii]While Anzac was widely said to be losing its popular appeal from the late 1960s, in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was an unexpected upsurge of community interest in the Anzac tradition – or ‘legend’, ‘myth’, ‘spirit’ – it is called all these things – and scholars have sought to understand this.[iv]Today, Anzac is very much a popular Australian institution and observance, with thousands of Australians journeying to sites of related significance around the world to commemorate its day or to visit the places in which it was created and developed. It has been described as a secular national religion,[v]an indication of its cultural power. As well as having a popular dimension, Anzac has long been the subject of political and official interest, intensively so in the lead-up to the centenary of the Gallipoli landings in 2015.

‘The Birth of a Nation’

Anzac has become a central aspect of Australian national identity and military history since the term was coined in 1915. An acronym of ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’, the exact circumstances of the word’s origin are murky, with claims for its invention made by and for Sir William Birdwood (1865-1951), General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton (1853-1947) and a Lt A.T. White RASC. Whoever invented it, the term rapidly came into wide use during the Gallipoli campaign.[vi]It has remained in both official and popular parlance ever since.

The term moved beyond its origin as a military and clerical convenience to become a signifier of Australian nationhood and cultural identity in association with the reception of the Gallipoli landings from April 25, 1915. A combined Australian and New Zealand force began landing on the Gallipoli peninsula at the start of the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign at dawn on April 25. Although under British control, this was the first large-scale military action of the Commonwealth of Australia, formally constituted from a number of separate colonies in 1901. When press reports of the achievements of the Australians and New Zealanders reached Australia, they painted a glowing picture of courage and sacrifice expressed in the conventional views of the time about nationhood and military glory. On May 8, 1915 Australian dailies published a report of the Gallipoli landings by the English journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (1881-1931). He had witnessed the landing from a ship out at sea but nevertheless provided a laudatory report that read, in part:

‘There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and the storming of the heights, and above all, the holding on whilst reinforcements were landing. These raw colonial troops in these desperate hours proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres, and Neuve Chapelle. …[vii].

It was another nine days before Australia heard from the official war correspondent, Charles Bean (1879-1968). His account had been held up by military red tape but it confirmed the glory already admired by Bartlett. All the more so as Bean took part in the actual landing: ‘They all fought fiercely and suffered heavily; but considering that performed last Sunday, it is a feat which is fit to rank beside the battle of the heights of Abraham.[viii]

An Australian public, largely eager for news of their troops generally received these glowing accounts rapturously. The idea that this event was the real ‘birth of a nation’ was immediately established in the public discourse and organisations and communities began searching for ways to signify the moment and the meanings they attributed to it. To some extent, pre-existent attitudes derived from the pioneering era, including an emphasis on masculine prowess, manual labour and anti-authoritarianism, provided a cultural basis for the reception of the Gallipoli landings.

Soon, groups and committees in suburban and regional Australia embarked on memorial projects to mark the magnitude of the landings and the new concept of Anzac. A memorial was erected in South Australia in 1915. Early in 1916 an ‘Anzac Cottage’ was erected on donated land and with donated goods and labour in a Perth suburb through the efforts of the local council. It was for a returned ‘Anzac’ and his family to dwell in.[ix]Soon, a ‘homes for heroes’ movement was in full swing in many parts of the country, together with a wide range of usually patriotically inspired activities in support of the Australian troops, inspired by widespread commemorative sentiment. This was fuelled by pride in the reported actions of Australian troops, by personal and family mourning and by many community activities in support of the war effort by churches, charities and other groups.

As the war progressed and casualties mounted on the Western Front and in the Middle East, these meanings of Anzac became increasingly acute. More and more families lost loved ones, became involved in the ever more intense war effort and, like all civilian populations of the various theatres of combat, became enmeshed in the new realities of total war, even if in Australia’s case, at a considerable distance from most of the fighting.

Development through the Great War

A central figure of the Anzac tradition soon evolved in the shape of the civilian foot soldier, known from 1917 as the ‘digger. Roughly synonymous with the French ‘Poilu’ and the British ‘Tommy’, the digger is an idealised Australian infantryman who conflates the tough but usually compassionate soldier and the mythic aspects of the bushman and larrikin. The bushman image derives from the frontier pioneering experience and is a stereotype white, male manual bush worker of independent spirit. These attributes are overlain with those of another stereotypical Australian figure, the larrikin. Primarily a phenomenon of developing cities from the mid-nineteenth century, the larrikin image was that of a rough, fun-loving and irreverent working class male youth.

While the realities of the bushman and larrikin figures were often less than positive, their romanticised attributes quickly became fused in the digger image, particularly through popular literature, illustration and in folklore. The outcome was a characteristically ambivalent figure who was not a soldier yet fought hard and well; did not take military rank and hierarchy very seriously and was more than a bit of a gambler, brawler, drinker and womaniser.[x]Despite these pardonable blemishes, the digger was a genuine ‘rough diamond’ who represented and actualised all that was believed to be best about the typical Australian character. The essential equation was simple but powerful: the digger was Anzac and Anzac was the Australian spirit, ethos and identity.

In the unprecedented experience of total warfare, arguably sharpened by the effects of large distance, Australians remaining on the home front immediately sought to find ways to recognize and to commemorate the sacrifice of their ‘boys’ in faraway Europe and the Middle East. The first attempt to publicly acknowledge the significance of the Gallipoli landings took place on October 1915 when the South Australian (Labor) government decided to change the Labour Day celebration into ‘Anzac Day’. This was followed in 1916 by official commemorative events in London, among serving Australian troops abroad and around the country in citizen-generated memorial services, marches and related events. In 1917, 1918 and 1919, April 25 was increasingly observed at home and abroad. Through these acknowledgments, the digger became an increasingly potent symbol of Australia and its most cherished ideals, aspirations and myths.

The loss of over sixty-one thousand soldiers and the wounding of almost 170 000 more had an especially broad impact in Australia. Very few families were unaffected by these tragedies and, in many cases, the ongoing burdens of repatriation. While the digger was in his contextual origins a military figure, his links with the legend of the busman and the larrikin and his primarily civilian status (all Australian troops were volunteers), also made him a civic figure. In essence, a culture hero whose warrior features dovetailed with the contemporary need for a heroic national stereotype.

This figure conveniently combined the young country’s need for military glory with existing popular notions of national and cultural identity, derived from historical experience and folklore. In his official and military guise, the digger appears as a tough, no-nonsense soldier exemplifying the Australian versions of combat courage, loyalty, sacrifice and duty. In his folkloric form, the digger is an offhanded, anti-authoritarian rascal, uncaring of military discipline and etiquette and with the attitude of an average ‘bloke’ just getting on with the job of fighting wars on behalf of the national population rather than the generals and the politicians.

Since the Great War

In the immediate postwar years, Anzac evolved into Australia’s most important cultural discourse. Once politicians – at first slowly – realised this, the tradition became politicised. It evolved along with the modes of commemoration felt to be appropriate for the observance of Anzac Day as a national public holiday, with the building of the elaborate shrine and museum known as the Australian War Memorial. Returned soldier organisations, notably the entity now known as the Returned and Services’ League (RSL), also played a central role in the evolution of Anzac, particularly in controlling participation in public observance of the tradition and in proselytizing a particular version of it in schools, the community and, for a considerable period, among state and federal governments.[xi]There has also been ongoing military interest in a valuable symbol of fighting spirit, mobilised again in World War 2 and in every conflict in which Australia has since been involved. Despite the official appropriation of Anzac, it also – incomprehensibly and regrettably to some[xii]– remains a popular manifestation of national sentiment.

Despite ups and downs in Anzac Day attendances and numerous controversies in the years since, Anzac has generally retained this popular understanding and appeal, reinforced through school curricula, the annual observances on 25 April, the central institutional presence of the Australian War Memorial and endless speeches, articles, books, films, television shows and other effusions. Anzac Day has become a de facto national day for many, perhaps most Australians. While these developments have expanded and intensified since the end of the war, the basic significance of Anzac was initiated between 1915 and 1919, by which time Australian troops had been finally repatriated.

Because the casualties and aftermath of World War 1 had such a deep impact on Australian society, a large number of Australians with no direct connection to the experience of World War 1, or even World War 2, have discovered links with these pasts through the burgeoning family history movement. An Anzac ancestor has become as prized an antecedent as a transported convict in the popular discourses of national identity.

Conclusion

The intriguing ambivalence of Anzac has been briefly outlined here, mainly in its origins and the first few years of its existence. A full appreciation of its significance for Australians requires a longer view than can be given within the chronological framework of the First World War. However, the importance and continuing power of this cultural tradition can be indicated through some actions of the Commonwealth government. From 1916, the term ‘Anzac’ was officially protected from unauthorised uses for commercial, partisan or other unsuitable purposes. This legislation has been amended from time to time since, always with the intention of strengthening it.[xiii]Anzac thus remains an official term and concept as well as a popular focus for what many Australians continue to understand as their national identity. And it remains controversial.[xiv]But despite the best efforts of historians and other scholars to divest Anzac of its considerable mythology, broad community acceptance of these myths ensures its continuing touchstone for a particular but potent idea of Australian cultural identity.

 

Selected Bibliography

Beaumont, Joan: Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Sydney, 2013.

Butler, A.G: The Digger: A Study in Democracy. Sydney 1945.

Cochrane, P: Simpson and the Donkey: The Making of a Legend. Melbourne 1992. New edn. 2013.

Ely, Richard: The First Anzac Day: Invented or Discovered? in: Journal of Australian Studies17 1985.

Fewster, Kevin (ed):Gallipoli Correspondent: The Frontline Diary of C.E.W. Bean. Sydney 1983.

Flaherty, C. & Roberts, M: The Reproduction of Anzac Symbolism, in: Journal of Australian Studies24, May 1989.

Gammage, Bill: The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War. Canberra 1974.

Gammage, Bill: The Crucible: The Establishment of the Anzac Tradition, 1899-1918, in McKernan, Michael  & Browne, Margaret (eds), in: Australia Two Centuries of War and Peace. Canberra/Sydney 1988.

Gerster, Robin: Big-Noting: The Heroic Theme in Australian War Writing. Melbourne 1987.

Inglis, K.S: The Australians at Gallipoli, parts 1 & 2, in:  Historical Studies14:54, 1970 – 14:55 1970.

Kent, David: The Anzac Book and the Anzac Legend: C.E.W. Bean as Editor and Image-maker. Historical Studies21:84, April 1985.

Robertson, John: Anzac and Empire: The Tragedy and Glory of Gallipoli. Port Melbourne 1990.

Peter Stanley: Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, Sydney, 2010.

Thomson, Alistair: Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne 1994.

Winter, Dennis (ed):Making the Legend: The War Writings of C.E.W. Bean. St Lucia 1992.

 

References

i Used here in the lower case form that denotes the term’s distinctiveness from its originating upper case acronymic form of ‘ANZAC.’ Some argue passionately that the word should always be completely capitalised, another indication of the importance of all things ‘Anzac’ in Australian society.

ii Anzac is also important for New Zealand history and culture, if in a less acute form. See Hopkins-Weise, Jeff: Blood Brothers: The Anzac Genesis. Kent Town SA 2009.

[iii]Inglis, Ken: The Anzac Tradition, in: Meanjin24 1965; Serle, Geoffrey: The Digger Tradition and Australian Nationalism, in Meanjin24:2 1965.

[iii]There was some anthropological ethnography of Anzac Day observances in the 1970s and 80s, see Kitley, Philip: Anzac Day Ritual, in:Journal of Australian Studies4, 1979, pp. 58-69; Sackett, Leigh: Marching into the Past: Anzac Day Celebrations in Adelaide, in: Journal of Australian Studies17 1985; Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli(1981), the play The One Day of the Year (1958) by Alan Seymour, among many lesser-known artistic representations and productions.

[iii]Scates, Bruce: Returnto Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of the Great War. Melbourne 2006; Seal, Graham: Inventing Anzac: The Digger and National Mythology. Brisbane 2004; Seymour, Alan/Nile, Richard: AnzacMeaning Memory and Myth. London 1988. Scates, Bruce et al: Anzac Day at Home and Abroad: Towards a History of Australia’s National Day, in: History Compass10: 2012, 523–536. doi: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2012.00862.x.

[iii]Shaw, Brian: Bush Religion: A Discussion of Mateship, in: Meanjin Quarterly12:3 1953; Inglis, Ken, assisted by Jan Brazier:  Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Carlton, Vic. 1998; Seal, Graham:Anzac: The Sacred in the Secular in Paranjape, Makarand (ed), in: Sacred Australia: post-secular considerations. Melbourne, 2009.

[iii]See Bean, C E W (ed): The Anzac Book, p. ix; Joan Hughes (ed): Australian Words and their Origins. Melbourne 1989.

[iii]Ashmead-Bartlett’s dispatch was published in Australian newspapers from 8 May, 1915.

[iii]Bean’s report was transmitted through the Prime Minister’s Department in The Commonwealth of Australia Gazette39, 17thMay 1915 ‘… published for general information.’

[iii]Seal, Graham: Remembering and forgetting ANZAC Cottage: interpreting the community significance of Australian War Memorials since World War in Bennett, et al (eds), in: People, Place and Power: Global and Regional Perspectives. Perth 2009.

[iii]Stanley, Peter: Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force. Sydney 2010.

[iii]Hills, L: The RSSILA. Its Origin, History, Achievement and Ideals, Melbourne, 1927; Kristianson, G.L: The Politics of Patriotism: The Pressure Group Activities of the Returned Servicemen’s’ League. Canberra 1966; Ross, Jane: The Myth of the Digger. Australian Soldiers in Two World Wars. Sydney 1985.

[iii]Lake, Marilyn et al: What’s Wrong With Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History. Sydney 2010.

[iii]See Anzac Day Act 1995 http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Series/C2004A04877and Protection of the Word ‘Anzac’ Regulations http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Series/F1997B02175, which also contains some details of previous legislation governing the use of the word ‘Anzac.’

[iii]Brown, James: Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession. Melbourne 2014.

 

A RHYMING SLANG LETTER FROM THE IRON WRENCHES OF WORLD WAR ONE

The following rhyming slang letter appeared in a World War 1 British ‘trench journal’, or soldiers’ newspaper known as The Direct Hit of July, 1917. Apparently penned by Lce-Corp. A. J. Lilliman, RF, it provides an insight into the popularity of rhyming slang among World War 1 troops. It is couched in the form of a letter to the writer’s sister, providing some news of training camp activity and expected departure to the front and of a planned visit home during an upcoming period of leave. It is unlikely that this letter was ever sent, or that it was ever meant to be; it seems more likely to have been a manifestation of the fascination for rhyming slang at the time and place, something the editor of the Direct Hit also mentions in introducing the letter. Many of the terms are not recorded in the usual compilations and dictionaries of rhyming slang, or have other meanings, and so can either be considered personal inventions of the writer and/or terms that had a brief and perhaps restricted currency among those with whom he socialised.
MY DEAR JUST-MISSED-‘ER,
Many thanks for the all-the-better and the Windsor Castle received the last pip-squeak. I am glad to hear mother and the old pot-and-pan are still keeping fit, and that the Giddy-Gaby is doing well. The contents of the parcel were highly appreciated by the Sain-Foys in my water-butt; the piper’s knees went down well for supper with a piece of mine-host made in front of the old-cove, and a drop of pig’s ear. The you-can-bets smoked like small American bars. Keep on sending the bones-and-rags. The give-and-take was one of the best, whilst the small-kits came in very handy on the stiff-as-starch.

We are all still hiding in the rob-and-pillage and expect to be here until the lager beer. I suppose we shall be going on-our-knees early in the wedding ring; it is quite time we put some of the Germans’ Hampstead Heath down their ugly nanny-goats. I am fed-up with cleaning my small-trifle to satisfy the Sergeant’s mince pie, and with firing nothing but muddy-banks.
I went sick the other day with a saucy-goat, but the oh-dear-oh! only gave me a darling-mine with Sleeping Beauty, so I went on first-aid the following day. I am pleased to say I am quite William-Tell again now, although the tough-as-leather has left me off with a bit of a up-the-hill and a slight old-toff.
I had a double-mine from Jimmy last week. He has been in the iron-wrenches for three weeks now, and so far has come through all John-Bright. He says he is going back to the fried-fillets in a day or two for a give-and-be-blest. I am glad he is safe and baker’s-round, for Jimmy was always a good world’s-endt o me.
Now I must hurry up with my you-and-me, get a wave-after-wave and a shine up just call in the always-man to light me to my white-and-red tonight, and then I’m off to the knock-me-down to see the pictures at the new near-and-far.

I am hoping to see you shortly, for I believe we are to get four day’s Adam-and-Eve. So keep you’re eye on six o’ clock, and be sure to meet me at the Birth-of-a-Nation when I let you know the only-way I am coming, and the time the might-and-main will arrive.
Write soon, and don’t forget the old-nags.
Your loving Brother, SAM.
Lce-Corp. A. J. Lilliman, RF.
The rhyming slang terms used in this letter translate as:
just-missed-her  sister
all-the-better  letter
Windsor-Castle  parcel
last pip-squeak  last week
old pot-and-pan  old man (father)
Giddy-Gaby  baby
the Sain-Foys  the boys
water-butt  hut
piper’s knees  cheese?
mine-host  toast
old-cove  stove
pig’s ear  beer
you-can-bets  cigarettes
American bars  cigars
give-and-take  cake
small-kits  biscuits
stiff-as-starch  march
rob-and-pillage  village
lager-beer  new year
on-our-knees – overseas
wedding-ring  spring
Hampstead Heath  teeth
nanny-goats  throats
small-trifle  rifle
mince-pie  eye
muddy-banks  blanks
saucy-goatsore throat
oh-dear-oh!  MO – Medical Officer
darling-mine  number nine pill ( a laxative)
Sleeping Beauty  duty
first-aid  parade
William Tell  well
tough-as-leather  weather
up-the-hill  chill
old-toff  cough
double-mine  line (letter)
iron-wrenches  trenches
all John-Bright  alright
fried-fillets  billets
give-and-be-blest  rest
safe and baker’s-round  safe and sound
world’s-end  friend
you-and-me  tea
wave-after-wave  shave
always-man  batman
broom-handle  candle
white-and-red  bed
knock-me-down  town
near-and-far  cinema
Adam-and-Eve  leave
[the] six o’ clock  clock
Birth-of-a-Nation– station (from the title of D W Griffith’s movie just released at this time)
only-way  day
might-and-main  train
old-nags  fags (cigarettes)

RAGTIME ARMIES: TRENCH SONGS OF THE GREAT WAR




Singing was a pronounced feature of the Great War, 1914-18. Soldiers sang in camp, on the march, in the trenches and wherever else they felt the need. 1st Lieut. Elmer Hess of the 15th Field Artillery wrote in his diary:
‘The battalion moved again to the front.  The left side of the road was filled with trucks, ammunition, retreating French soldiers, field hospitals-all in great confusion.  We marched until midnight with practically no rest and on into the morning.  We could hear the songs sung by the American artillery marching ahead.’
Many of these songs were made by the soldiers themselves. They were based on their experiences and attitudes to the war and to the authority of officers and were circulated among themselves without commercial involvement or intention. Rifleman Patrick MacGill of the London Irish fought at Loos and left a brief but evocative account of such songs and their singers. He wrote:
‘Their origin is lost; the songs have arisen like old folk tales, spontaneous choruses that voice the moods of a moment and of many moments which are monotonously alike. Most of the verse is of no import; the crowd has no sense of poetic values; it is the singing alone which gives expression to the soldier’s soul.’
One of MacGill’s comrades observed the essential difference between trench songs and those sung elsewhere: ‘”These ‘ere songs are no good in England,” my friend Rifleman Bill Teake remarks. “They ‘ave too much guts in them.”’
Here are some of the most widely sung songs among British, Canadian, Australian and, later, American troops in the trenches …
The Ragtime Infantry
One of the earliest and eventually most widely-heard trench ditties of the war was known variously as Fred Karno’s Army’ or ‘The Ragtime Army’. Sung to the hymn tune ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, its lyrical variations were many, though the core of satirical self-deprecation remained the same. Ragtime was a form of popular music of the period and Fred Karno was a renowned comic, whose crazy stage antics were the perfect metaphor of the madness in which the soldiers found themselves:
We are Fred Karno’s army, the ragtime infantry,
We cannot shoot, we cannot fight, what bloody use are we?
And when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say:
‘Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody useless lot
Are the ragtime infantry’.
The Bells of Hell
A Royal Welch Fusilier wrote home in December 1917 describing the songs he heard in the trenches. He thought they expressed ‘the men’s stoical cynicism, which is always cheerily, and usually blasphemously expressed’. He gave the lyrics of ‘The Bells of Hell’:
The bells of hell ring ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me;
The herald angels sing ting-a-ling-a-ling,
They’ve got the goods for me.
Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling
Oh grave, thy victoree!
The bells of hell ring ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me.
Hush, Here Come a Whizzbang
A whizzbang was any kind of artillery shell, as in the trench parody of a pre-war pop song titled ‘Hush, Here Comes the Dream Man’:
Hush, here comes a whizzbang,
Hush, here comes a whizzbang,
Now, you soldiers get down those stairs,
Down in your dug-outs and say your prayers.
Hush, here comes a whizzbang,
And it’s making straight for you,
You’ll see all the wonders of no-man’s land
If a whizzbang – crump! – hits you.
Keep Your Head Down, Allemand
One of the popular trench ditties of the war, referring to the enemy as Alleymand (Allemand) from the French for German, described what each side did when the other was erecting barbed wire defences:
Keep your head down, Alleymand,
Keep your head down, Alleymand,
Last night in the pale moonlight
I saw you, I saw you,
You were fixing your barbed wire
So we opened rapid fire
Keep your head down, Alleymand.
I Want to go Home
A widespread trench ditty summed up the effect that machine guns had on morale:
Machine guns they rattle, Jack Johnston’s they roar,
I don’t want to fight with these Fritz anymore,
Take me over the sea where the Germans they can’t get at me,
O my, I don’t want to die
I just want to go home.
My Little Wet Home in the Trench
A soldier parody of the pre-war hit song ‘My Little Grey Home in the West’, this ditty was known not only to Canadian, but also Australian troops and would probably have been sung by British soldiers as well. ‘Jack Johnson’s’ were large, loud shells that left dark smoke in their wake, named after the African American boxer of the period.
I’ve a little wet home in the trench,
Where the rainstorms continually drench,
There’s a dead cow close by,
With her hoofs towards the sky
And she gives off a beautiful stench.
Underneath in the place of a floor,
There’s a mass of wet mud and some straw,
And the ‘Jack Johnsons’ tear
Thro’ the rain sodden air,
O’er my little wet home in the trench.
There are snipers who keep on the go,
So you must keep your napper down low,
And their star shells at night
Make a deuce of a light,
Which causes the language to flow.
Then bully and biscuits we chew,
For its [sic] days since we tasted a stew,
But with shells dropping there,
There’s no place to compare
With my little wet home in the trench.
The Purple Platoon
Some ditties were even more directly critical of the war and those running it, as in the Australian version of some short but pointed couplets:
Our officer’s out on his favourite stunt,
Taking us out for a souvenir hunt,
Taking us out in front of the wire,
Getting us killed by our own rifle fire.
We used to be fifty-odd non-coms and men,
We used to be fifty but now we ae ten,
And if this cross-eyed war doesn’t end ruddy soon,
There’ll be no Aussies left in our purple platoon
The Wrong Way to Tickle Marie
There were few subjects that the Tommies, Poilu’s, Diggers and, later, the Doughboys, did not subject to musical mistreatment. Usually their ditties were to the tune of popular songs of the war or immediate pre-war period, such as ‘Tipperary’ and were often sexually suggestive:
That’s the wrong way to tickle Marie,
That’s the wrong way to kiss!
Don’t you know that over here, lad,
They like it best like this!
Hooray pour le Francais!
Farewell, Angleterre!
We didn’t know the way to tickle Marie,
But we learned how, over there!
Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire
Comments on the perceived inequities between officers behind the liens and the fighting men at the front were not uncommon in trench songs. In one or another of many versions, this one was very popular:


If you want to see the infantry, I know where they are,

They’re hanging on the old barbed wire,
I’ve seen them, I’ve seen them,
Hanging on the old barbed wire I’ve seen them,
Hanging on the old barbed wire.
If you want to see the generals, I know where they are,
They’re miles and miles behind the lines,
I’ve seen them, I’ve seen them,
Miles and miles behind the lines I’ve seen them,
Miles and miles behind the lines.
The fresh troops arriving from America in 1917 were full of the same confident enthusiasm that the British troops had initially possessed. An American ditty to the tune of ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie’ expressed a no-nonsense approach to winning the war by finishing off, or ‘canning’, the German leader:
We’re off to can the Kaiser,
Hurray! Hurray!
In Kaiserland we’ll take our stand,
Until we can the Kaiser.
Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go and can the Kaiser.
The following year allied troops did exactly that.

MORE: Graham Seal, The Soldiers’ Press: Trench Journals in the First World War, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
KEYWORDS: World War One; Great War; trench songs; soldier songs