The Songs the Diggers Really Sang
© Warren Fahey
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Down through the years the Australian soldier became respected as a reliable fighter; a mate, when a mate meant the difference between life and death and, above all, the Australian soldier was considered to be a 'larrikin' who saluted but would not 'dip his lid' to no man. He was Aussie, he was Cobber, he was Bluey, he was Pongo, he was Curley and he was Digger. His progress has been documented in song.
To survey the songs that Australians have sung in the eleven wars that we have fought in is to study folklore in action. It seems incredible but eleven times we have responded to the sound of the bugle and every time it was a call to join our allies at arms. We fought in the so-called 'Maori Wars' of Taranaki and Waikato, a contingent of gallant lads travelled to the Sudan War and then our famed lighthorsemen galloped into the Orange Free State to do battle with the Boers. Next came the Boxer Rebellion and then the first and second World Wars. We glibly believed that WW2 was 'the war to end all wars' but we were wrong and our troops were once again called to war in lands 'too close to home' - Malaya, Malta, Korea and Indonesia and these were followed by the horrors of Vietnam. As if to remind us that war is always 'just around the corner' our troops rallied in 1990 to confront the threat of yet another uprising in the war-torn Middle East.
Australians have sung in every war. They sang on the march to relieve boredom and as an aid to maintain uniform marching time, they sang in the barracks, they sang in the troop trucks as they cris-crossed foreign lands and, of course, they sang in the trenches. Above all, they sang on those rare opportunities when they were 'temporarily free men' on leave and on the rantan.
With all the kafuffle of the 1995 anniversary celebrations one got the picture that our diggers only belted out songs like 'Lili Marlene' and 'Till We Meet Again' however this is far from the truth for our soldiers were renowned singers and in true-blue Australian style the songs they sung were a long way away from Florrie Forde's 'Tipperary' and Vera Lynn's 'White Cliffs Of Dover'!
Whether the point of the song was directed at the enemy, or at the army institution, or at the seemingly deplorable character and attitude of any or all Sergeant Majors, or whether it compares the singers' troop unit with other units (always with much ridicule of the latter), or dwells plaintively on the delights of beer and women; or whether it has no point whatever and is just plain silly - the idea is the same: get your troubles off your chest and 'pack up all your cares and woes'.
As a folklore collector I tend to be like a recycling unit that gathers in the material and then returns it in a more user-friendly package. I see folklore as a social barometer and as far as military folklore is concerned it can also be seen as an emotional barometer for heartfelt songs and poems can often tell the story far better than facts and figures. It is interesting to observe that the military songs, like songs from other historical periods of frustration and fear such as those from the Great Depression, tend to be short and, in true Australian style, they don't beat around the bush preferring to call a spade a spade! They also make liberal use of the parody and it seems as if no subject nor popular song is sacred from the songwriter's aim!
The first songs come from the enlistment training camps where 'new chums' are supposedly screeched at, made to salute anything that moved, marched endless miles to nowhere with seemingly no reason and fed unbelievably disgusting food and made to drink tea and coffee loaded up with 'bromides'! Small wonder ditties like this parody of 'Bye-Bye Blackbird' gained wide favour!
Pack up all your bags and kit,
Puckapunyal's' up the shit,
Stew for breakfast,
Stew for tea,
No more bloody stew for me,
No more hiking over bloody mountains,
We'll be drinking Fosters out of fountains.
No more blanco, no more brass,
You can stick them up your arse,
It wasn't long before the recruits were singing the damnation of anyone who wore a stripe or crown and considering that the average Warrant Officer had a tendency to scream didn't make things any better. The only retaliation was through songs and jokes that demeaned such absolute power.
Sod 'em All (Tune: Bless 'em All)
Sod 'em all, sod 'em all,
The long and the short and the tall,
Sod all the Sergeants and W.O. ones,
Sod all the Corporals and their bastard sons,
For we're saying goodbye to them all,
As back to their barracks they crawl,
You'll get no promotion
This side of the ocean,
So cheer up me lads, sod 'em all.
The Australian digger had a reputation for caring little for the shenanigans of the top brass and one story relates how an Australian soldier passed a British Officer without saluting.
British Officer: "Soldier! Why didn't you salute me!"
Digger: "Bugger you, mate! Think a man's a bleedin' windmill? 'Ave a good look at me and then go 'ome and tell yer ma that you've seen an Australian soldier!"
A well-known ditty also commented:
We are a ragtime army,
The Australian AIF,
We cannot shoot,
We won't salute,
What bloody use are we?
And when we get to Berlin,
The Kaiser he will say:
Ach, ach, mein gott
What a bloody rotten lot,
The Australian AIF.
There was also a general feeling that the average foot-slogging soldier was carrying the greater part of the war effort as everyone above him passed the buck as these two parodies indicate:
(Tune: MacNamara's Ball)
Oh, the Colonel kicks the Major,
And the Major has a go.
He kicks the poor old Captain ,
Who then kicks the NCO.
And as the kicks get harder,
They are passed on down to me.
And I am kicked to bleeding hell
To save democracy!
(Tune: A Wee Doch And Doris)
The Brigadier he gets the turkey,
The Colonel has his duck.
The Officers have poultry,
They always were in luck.
The Sergeants have bread and cheese
And mop up all they can,
But all the poor old private gets
Is bread and tinker's jam!
The folklore process seems to thrive in putting new words to old tunes and I have a vague memory that I first heard the following verses at school where the Marist Brother's Kogarah Army Cadets marched to the strains of 'Colonel Bogey'
Bollocks! was all the band could play.
Bollocks! they played it night and day.
Bollocks! yes, it was Bollocks!,
It was Bollocks! Bollocks!
You could hear it two hundred miles away.
Bullshit! was all the Sergeant could say. Bullshit! he said it night and day. Bullshit! yes, it was Bullshit, It was Bullshit! Bullshit! You could hear it two hundred miles away!