Hearing snippets of war songs at parades or on television on Anzac Day has made me want to dig deeper as a mark of respect and remembrance. The particular power of war songs, or anti-war songs, are in their strength and diversity of emotion: sorrow, action, anger, remembrance, fear, mateship, loneliness, love, generosity, authority and protest.
What I’m attempting to do is to focus on just a few songs, while touching on some themes about Anzac Day that some may not have considered or are contentious. The songs start with the most recent wars then end with World War I. On casualties alone that latter war has the most meaning and I’ll show it has meaning in my family’s history.
The songs would be difficult to play without Youtube and, of course, would not exist without their performers and composers. Please buy the original songs from Aussie and Kiwi artists.
Australia's new main war in Afghanistan seems too current for songs to have decent lyrics. Physical and mental scars may need to heal and perhaps few soldiers who have fought in that country, or Iraq, have fully left the army system. As the Afghanistan quagmire slowly deepens time and communication will produce great songs. In the meantime Afghanistan War says much (better loud) without words.
I Was Only 19 is without doubt the most famous and realistic Australian song of the Vietnam War. It was written and sung by John Schumann when he led the far left and undervalued Australian group Redgum. Redgum produced a large number of great songs, but perhaps too critical of the social order, principled and deep for the commercial music industry.
While not a song Clip 3 from the 1988 Australian TV series Vietnam is poignant. It highlights a recurring theme of Australia in war - backing the “great and powerful friend” (currently the US) but then losing our way. After footage of the famous, illegal, street execution (warning, that is violent) a young Nicole Kidman sets it out clearly to her defence official father "you refuse to see what bastards are on your side".
Less about World War II appeals, for example, The Dambusters like many tunes appeared too unquestioning and British. Band of Brothers was a superb series with a memorable theme tune but the lyrics are too American, for my taste anyway.
Politicians and the commercial media perpetuate the assumption that true Anzacs had to be front line infantry. However, as early as 1916 such men were in the minority compared to the support units (artillery, armour, logistics, engineering, intelligence, and so on) which were usually in shellfire range and all could be bombed from the air.
Other occupations were more dangerous than infantry. Pilots and aircrew often suffered the highest casualties and shortest life expectancy of any service. Sailors, in particular submariners, were often in great danger both from the enemy and also from accidents while encased in their high risk vessels: Eternal Father - The Naval Hymn.
The Anzac legend usually implies that we had the best troops with the strongest bonds of mateship. There were however other armies that fought throughout World Wars I and II, on several fronts simultaneously, even though their commanders knew they would lose. This is a song from Australia’s main former enemy.
Religion is an undoubted comfort to many soldiers while fighting and years later to those who returned alive. The hymn Abide With Me is sung by Hayley Westernra from Christchurch, New Zealand.
The connection with New Zealand is probably another aspect of Anzac Day many forget. Vic McDonald, also from Christchurch, sings In Memoriam.