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And The Band Played On

And The Band Played On


Robert Holden. Published by Hardie Grant Books.

Review for the SMH/The Age 2014

When Britain sounded the first bugle call for the Great War Australian patriotism leapt to attention. Men and boys from farms and factories across the nation marched into makeshift training camps like Broadmeadows, Puckapanyal, Marrickville and Liverpool and were as ‘green’ as any new chum imaginable. What they lacked in preparation they made up for with gumption and determination that eventually identified the Aussie Diggers as the ‘fighting kangaroos’, a force to be reckoned with. This year marks the beginning of WW1 and bookshelves are already starting to groan with the sheer number of publications. This interesting history of a little-known aspect of war deserves a place alongside the big guns..

History tells us that WW1 was incredibly loud – bolt-action rifles, rattling machine guns and deafening field bombs rained on the troops day and night. And the Band Played On, as the title suggests, explores a different sound of war, the music and live entertainment that helped divert our soldiers from the horrors of the front line where death was never far from mind. Our troops trained and marched to war to the sound of brass bands, buglers summonsed soldiers into action from morning to night and, when there was a break, be it in the mess huts, transport vehicles or the endless time spent in lice-ridden trenches, songs were sung, poems recited or music made on simple instruments like the harmonica, jaw harp, tin whistle or concertina. This ‘down time’ was incredibly important in fortifying our troops encouraging relaxation, camaraderie and a reminder of better times. It was diversion therapy of the very best kind.

Robert Holden points out that Australia appeared to recognise the importance of wartime entertainment before Britain. This possibly had something to do with the fact a decade or so prior to the war the bulk of our population lived in the bush where singsongs and party pieces, especially recitations, along with community dances, were the main form of entertainment. Certainly the majority of our first army entertainers were enlisted from relatively untrained musicians and singers. We were a nation of people used to entertaining each other although the then recent population migration to the cities, and the growing popularity of the gramophone, radio and motion pictures, signalled a developing passivity.

One aspect of Holden’s history that puzzles me is the obvious disregard for the oral tradition. Australians were extremely clever in creating and circulating parodies, especially bawdy songs, however they hardly get a mention. Even our first anonymous parody of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, itself a relatively new song at the time, received wide circulation.

Fighting the Kaiser,
Fighting the Kaiser,
Who’ll come a fighting the Kaiser with me?
And we’ll drink all his beer,
And eat up all his sausages,
Who’ll come a fighting the Kaiser with me?

Anonymous songs and ditties, and there are hundreds from WW1, had a knack of addressing topics that popular song typically avoids. Holden rightfully points to the popularity of songs like ‘Little Grey Home in the West’ and ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ (although he fails to mention Australian-born Florrie Forde popularised it and the other WW1 classic ‘Goodbye-ee’) however these singalong songs hardly capture the harsh reality of folk songs like ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’ or ‘I Want To Go Home’ (Oh my, I’m too young to die, I want to go home). These are songs that acknowledge the reality of war where your mate’s head could be blown clear off yet you had to stand ground.

Holden has done some fine digging in TROVE and the Australian War Memorial archives to tell us who the army entertainers were and why they were recognised as real soldiers. One quote nicely sums up the soldier-entertainers as ‘necessary as the dry socks and duckboards’ and ‘as much a part of the army as the Machine Gun Corp’. Certainly the accounts of front line stage shows, where the whizz bangs were flying far too close for comfort, give new meaning to the term ‘stage fright’.

There’s some tantalising entertainments mentioned. What I’d give to hear the No. 1 Army Service Mouth Organ Band, the No. 2 Army Service Drum and Fife Band, or sit through a performance by the HMAS Sydney’s Hobo Band. The most intriguing accounts cover two theatrical show bands, The Coo-ees (often accompanied by a full orchestra) and the wonderfully named Anzac Coves featuring their ‘star turn’, Vic Kemble, a female impersonator. The army magazine Aussie summed up the show’s highlight , ‘Aussie has seen a lot of girl girls not nearly as girlish as Pte. V. Kemble’s impersonation.’ (Kemble ultimately received three medals for his war service.)
Warren Fahey is a cultural historian and author. His latest e-book is ‘The World Turned Upside-Down’ a history of the Australian gold rush era. www.warrenfahey.com