The idea was simple enough: to reinforce their Russian allies, the British forces needed a sea port, and those on the Black Sea were much less well defended than those on the Baltic Sea. So it was decided by the British high command, prominent among them the First Lord of the Admiralty, one Winston Churchill, that it would be necessary to invade and hold the Dardanelles – the narrow straits between the Black Sea and the greater Mediterranean. Unfortunately, this mean invading Turkey, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, whose capital of Istanbul sat at the far end of the straits.
The invasion was seen primarily as a naval engagement, with British naval forces blockading the straits and its ports. A few land invasions were planned to capture key strategic points – forts and watchtowers – after initial resistance to the British navy proved stronger than intended.
The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) was at this point largely encamped in Egypt, making them conveniently close at hand to serve as an invasion force. On the morning of April 25, 1915, the ANZAC forces landed at what is now called Anzac Cove. Ottoman resistance again proved stronger than anticipated (it’s almost like the British high command was composed entirely of arrogant racists incapable of learning from experience or something), and although some land was held, it was eventually evacuated in January the following year, and the idea of capturing the Dardanelles was abandoned. Of course, before that point was reached, approximately 250,000 men on each side lost their lives in what was ultimately one of the most pointless military campaigns of the entire Twentieth Century.
As the first major engagement to be fought in by Australian forces, it is still commemorated today as Australia’s national day of remembrance, Anzac Day.
Actually written by a naturalised Australian rather than a native born one, Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” grapples with the conflicting nobility and futility of war, with the ANZAC landings at Gallipolli and their annual commemoration as its particular focus. The incredible power of its simplicity and sentiments can be seen in how widely it has been covered – and the fact that not a few of those who cover it have no idea who wrote it, believing it to be a traditional folk song.
Scottish-born Bogle moved to Australia when he was 25, and fell in love with the country – although his song-writing reflects the conflicting impulses that love arouses in him: pride in our achievements and frustration with our national failings. His fierce idealism is tempered by an active sense of humour and a love of silliness, all three of which are features of many of his songs (albeit the first rarely found with the latter two). More than forty years after leaving Scotland, Bogle still has a strong accent, and like most Celts, a profound distrust for Saxons and Normans.
Questioning the point of war is a common theme in Bogle’s work, with “No Man’s Land” a similar questioning of World War One in general, and “My Youngest Son Came Home Today” doing the same for the Troubles in Northern Island. He also has a great sympathy for the plight of the Australian farmer, as seen in “Now I’m Easy”. Bogle has also taken potshots at Australian racism in “I Hate Wogs” (it’s not what you think from the title). For a man not born here, he gets Australia in a way that many who were do not.
“And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is one man’s tale of naively volunteering for the Great War, getting both his legs blown off, and wondering why in Hell we celebrate as the birth of our nation a defeat created by our supposed superiors in the Mother Country. It was written long before the Howard years – in 1971, leading some to see it as a Vietnam allegory – and the glorification of the legend of ANZAC, but listening to it, it’s hard not to hear the song as a reaction to little Johnny’s aping of the 1915 British High Command.