The Collection

Australia at War – Digger’s Songs

Australia has participated in many wars and skirmishes – far too many. Humour and songs played a very important role in the early wars, mainly land wars where troops endured long periods of training and trench life. As war became more computerised, especially from the Vietnam War onwards, singing progressively because less important. It is difficult to sing over computers and aircraft noise. 

The songs from WW1 and WW2 represent the most vibrant era of singing and songwriting and the songs ranged from the sentimental to the downright ridiculous. Singing boosted morale, soothed fragile nerves, it allowed steam to be relieved when under pressure, especially in training, and. of course, some of the songs reminded the troops of home.

There are four main categories of military songs. Those composed and sanctioned to encourage patriotism, those created for a particular purpose like route marching, those released commercially on recordings and in songbooks, and those composed by servicemen and women and including the most popular of all songwriters – ‘Anonymous’.

In this section of the site, you will find songs, poems, parodies, humour and stories.


Army Songs Are Part Of Our Digger Tradition

Dinki-Di (Horseferry Road)

One of the most enduring traditions of ANZAC Day is the fellowship of sharing songs and ditties. These song-swapping rites, usually accompanied by a bellyful of Anzac day beer, are conducted under Rafferty’s Rules with popular wartime songs being belted out alongside bawdy ballads, tall stories and barrack-room ditties. The songs of the Australian at war also show us another side of the Digger mythology and how we unconsciously use popular music to record our folklore.

It’s hard to believe that we have fought in thirteen wars since the 1860s: The Maori Wars of Taranaki and Waikato, Sudan, Boer, Boxer Rebellion, WW1, WW2, the ‘Cold Wars’ of Korea and Malaya, Vietnam, Gulf, Timor, Afghanistan and, most recently, the War Against Terrorism. Every one of these conflicts produced a body of anonymous song and, in each case, reflecting the popular music of the time.

Soldiers sang on the march to relieve boredom and to maintain uniform marching time, they sang in the barracks, in trucks as they criss-crossed the country and, of course, they sang in the trenches. Above all, they sang in those rare opportunities when they were temporarily ‘free men’ on leave and on the rantan.

When researching my book ‘Diggers’ Songs’ (Australian Military History Press, 1996) I became fascinated how songs were used by the armed forces. In the Sudan and Boer wars the songs tended to reflect the nationalistic parlour songs complete with matching sentiment and doggerel. The first and second World Wars saw popular song, mostly British, being the most accepted parody vehicle whilst the Korean and Malaya wars saw the songs turn more introspective. Vietnam saw American influence grow stronger and, of course, the circulation of a whole genre of songs voicing disagreement with Australia’s involvement. The most traditionally circulated song to emerge from the Gulf war was a current popular song that lent its title to a different beat as Phil Collin’s ‘Something In The Air Tonight’ took on new meaning.

The Korean War signalled a change in how we fought with the airforce playing an increasingly important role. As wars staged primarily in the air the role of the songs were different and, as you can imagine, staring at a computer screen, surrounded by whirring noises, is not conducive to singing. In the earlier wars the infantry had to spend days, weeks, months at the front living in trenches and waiting for ‘further orders’. Returned servicemen told me that the boredom was just as bad as the battle and one of the few possible forms of entertainment was singing or playing a small instrument like the mouth organ or tin whistle. What started out as a lone voice often finished as a trench full of soldiers singing the same song. Such isolation, and the need to stay awake through the long nights and days, provided an ideal platform for the ‘wits’ to change the words of popular songs creating new words and ditties. ‘I’m Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage ‘ became ‘I’m Only A Girl In Uniform’. ‘My Little Grey Home In The West’ became ‘My Little Wet Home In The Trench’ and the perennial bush favourite ‘The Dying Stockman’; became ‘The Dying Aviator’.

Traditional songs, mostly anonymous, are passed on by oral transmission and, quite often changed, for better or worse, in the process. Songs from the various branches of the armed forces are an ideal study because of the way military personnel are continually relocated. It is fairly easy to appreciate that a song could be carried from barrack to barrack, camp-to-camp, war zone to war zone by one soldier. That same soldier could have sung the song in a bar frequented by sailors and airmen who, relating to the subject matter, carried the ditty back with them to their own base. This is exactly how the old shearing and droving songs moved around in the bush with the song carrier being the itinerant worker. One also needs to factor in that up to fifty years ago Australians sang a lot more. We entertained ourselves rather than today’s society that gets entertained, mainly by the electronic media. Some songs, like ‘The Quartermaster’s Store, started life in WW1, served time in subsequent wars and is still being sung today.

In surveying the songs we sang in the thirteen wars it is easy to track those periods when singing was a popular past –time. Songs were definitely sang in the bars of Saigon during the Vietnam War however fewer occurrences were reported from Timor, Afghanistan and the Gulf. This most probably has a lot to do with the shorter time-span of the conflict, technological change, fewer troops and the reality that we hardly sing anymore.

As a folklore collector I was also curious about the role of women in creating, singing and circulating songs. I am assured the Red Cross Nurses, the WAAF and other women certainly sang in the early wars however it was difficult to find out what songs they sang. War historian and WW2 serviceman, Tom Johnson, told me “The WAAF and nurses were usually quite reserved and although they no doubt enjoyed singing popular songs it simply wasn’t acceptable to sing the usual army songs, especially the bawdy ones”. As a folklorist I know women nowadays are not shy about telling jokes and I’ve known quite a few to belt out a bawdy song or two. Things were different fifty years ago.

One area that produced a large body of interesting parody was the Women’s Land Army, which was a well-organised national scheme to introduce young women into service in the rural sector during WW2. As an army they were trained, uniformed and sent to properties all over Australia where they either lived in a community or were assigned to farms. I was fortunate to meet the Land Army’s unofficial historian, Jean Scott, who remembered some of the ditties including this parody of Two Little Girls In Blue.

Two little girls in overalls,
Two little girls I knew,
They were sisters and they had blisters,
And often frozen toes.

Those two little girls in overalls,
Each had a job to do,
They joined the land Army
And now they’re quite balmy,
For helping to pull Griffith through.

Jean Scott told me that singing was an important recreational activities and many of the women composed songs as well as parodies. This backwards parody of Show Me The Way To Go Home was a popular item.

Oh, way me the show to go home,
I’m bed and I want to go to tired,
I had a little hour about a drink ago.
And to my head right went,
I’ve roamed no matter where,
Over foam or land or sea,
You will always find me songing this sing,
Way me the show to go home.

In WW1 and WW2 it is clear that the songs helped relieve the tension and the horrors of battle where one’s mate could be blown to smithereens and you had no option but to continue to fight. Songs offered a fantasy escape, bolstered the spirit so you could struggle on regardless. This is not to say that the songs were sentimental for the reality is far from it as they glossed over such horrors – preferring to sing about the enemy, home and that ‘other horror’ – mess hall food. Interestingly few songs could be described as ‘hateful’ to the soldier on the other side and, especially in WW1 and WW2, there was an unspoken respect for such front-line fighters. The same could not be said of their leaders.

Songs played an important role in taunting the enemy and especially in putting a ‘monster’s face’ that could be derided and ridiculed. This appears to be a psychological necessity and we can trace the history of our wars through the Mahdi, The Empress Dowager, Kaiser Bill, Adolph Hitler, Emperor Tojo, Ho Chi Min, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Putting a hated face to the enemy allows our soldiers to kill soldiers of the other side.

In WW1 our soldiers sang ‘Fighting the Kaiser’ to the tune of ‘Waltzing Matilda’

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?

Nearly everyone knows the first verse about Hitler’s testicles sung to the marching tune ‘Colonel Bogey’ but there’s a second verse that goes:

Hitler has only got one ball.
His other is in the old town hall,
His mother, she pinched the other;
Now Hitler ain’t got none at all.

In 1995 Ken Clift of Bondi Beach sent me four verses about Mussolini (to the tune of Our Sergeant Major) that included the verse:

When we meet that Musso guy,
We will piss right in his eye,
We’d rather root him than salute him
Bloody old Mussolini.

In the same year Len Sprong of Wollongong sent me some verses about King Farouk and Queen Farida to the tune of the Egyptian National Anthem:

Old King Farouk, old King Farouk,
Hang his bollocks on a hook,
Queen Farida, Queen Farida,
How the boys would love to ride her.

King Farouk, give us baksheesh,
Queen Farida, give us baksheesh,
She’s the Queen of all the wogs,
And all the jackals and the dogs,
Squire, squire, squash keterre, bah dean.

While these songs had a purpose in focussing hatred there was another class of song that relieved pressure in the camp. The Sergeant Major was a natural target and it was only through such ditties that the average soldier could let off steam to show indignation after digging latrines, scrubbing blanco, peeling spuds or returning from a seemingly pointless route march.

It’s easy to understand that the following ditty, sung to John Brown’s Body, provided the infantry footsloggers with a sly laugh.

Our Sergeant Major’s got a crown upon his arm,
Our Sergeant Major’s got a crown upon his arm,
Our Sergeant major’s got a crown upon his arm,
And he thinks he’s got it on his fucking head.

Some of these songs emerged before active service and here’s a classic I collected from Allan Brittan, of Kogarah, in 1986, about Puckapunyal training centre, Victoria, set to the tune of Bye Bye Birdie:

Pack up all your bags and kit,
Puckapunyal’s up the shit,
Bye-bye Pucka.
Stew for breakfast, stew for tea,
No more bloody stew for me,
Bye-bye Pucka

No more hiking over bloody mountains,
We’ll be drinking Foster’s out of fountains,
No more blanco, no more brass,
You can shove them up your arse,
Pucka, bye-bye.

It doesn’t take much for this type of parody to be born and circulated. Soldiers had to entertain themselves and some song titles scream out to have their words changed to suit the local environment. Joe Watson, of Caringbah, sang this one to It’s A Long Way To Tipperary

It’s a long way to the Riverina,
It’s a long way to go.
Goodbye Wagga Wagga,
Farewell dear old Hay,
It’s a long way to the Riverina,
And the sweet bush girl I know.
It’s a long way to the Riverina,
It’s a long long way to go –
But we’ll come back I know.

Some ditties aimed themselves straight for the top brass reflecting the Australian myth that our soldiers were amongst the best in the world – but they wouldn’t salute another man, whatever rank. There was also general discontent with army food.

The Brigadier he gets the turkey,
The Colonel has his duck,
The Officers all have poultry,
They always were in luck.
The Sergeants have bread and cheese,
And mop up all they can,
But al the poor old private gets,
Is bread and tinker’s jam.

And to the tune of McNamara’s Ball the anonymous Private figured out military order.

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 bleedin’ hell,
To save democracy.

Undoubtedly WW1 contributed more songs to our military song tradition than any other war. This has a lot to do with the influence of the early radio and gramophone industries in making music more accessible in a short period of time. It was also the first time songs openly expressed the emotional fears experienced by soldiers. This was new in the history of soldier songs and it was apparent the army ‘brass’ turned a ‘deaf ear’ to allow such fears, grievances and down-right bitch-sessions to be aired. It was also a lengthy war and the songs played an important role in maintaining solidarity and morale. There is something spirited in defiantly singing in the face of the enemy and possible death.

There is little doubt that the men and women who fought in our wars deserve our eternal gratitude. Long may they sing!


The Life Story of Harry Peck

Gunner Peck was a mythical character of the Australians at war, especially WW2.
He was the bloke everyone used as the scapegoat. Because he didn’t exist culprits were never found out.

The “official” version of how Harry Peck was born started at Ingleburn army Camp, NSW, in 1940, when an officious orderly sergeant was inspecting the huts of the gunners of the 2/5th Australian Field Regiment (Royal Australian Artillery). The sergeant, seeing an untidy bed littered with gear and accoutrements, said to a gunner standing nearby, “Who sleeps in that bed?”. The answer came back in a flash, “That’s Harry Peck’s bed.” The sergeant noted the name of Gunner Peck in his book with a view to extra fatigues in the near future and left the hut.

The gunners immediately turned to the one who had answered the sergeant, saying “The bloke who sleeps in that bed isn’t named Peck – why did you say it was?” Back came the reply, “You don’t think I was going to dob in a mate, do you? That’s why I said Harry Peck slept there. You know Harry Peck – the Anchovette King!” And in this simple incident, Harry Peck was born and enlisted on the strength of a regiment of the Royal Australian Artillery.

But there is another version of the Peck story. According to some members of 2/5th Field Regiment, the true birth of Harry Peck went something like this:

An officious orderly sergeant marched into the huts and demanded “Where’s the duty driver?” When he did not receive an answer, the officer demanded to know the name of the duty driver.

It was Gunner Terry McGurren who answered “Harry Peck”. The orderly sergeant then went to have Harry Peck put under arrest, the charge sheet reading “Being absent from place or state of parade.”

The regiment sailed overseas and settled in at Deir Suneid Camp, Palestine. One night, an almighty fracas broke out among the gunners and the sergeant of the guard inquired who had started the trouble. Again came the answer that Gunner Harry Peck was the culprit and the poor unfortunate sergeant dashed off and prepared a charge report, the object of which was to confine Gunner Peck to the camp for 14 days.

The regiment moved down to Mersa Matruh and here the “Peck racket” started in earnest. A nearby Ordnance store of the British Army began to supply vast and incredible quantities of war materials and supplies to an Australian unit, the goods in question ranging from motor vehicles to pistols and binoculars.

Not until the British began to check the issue vouchers was it discovered that all the goods were signed for by ostensibly the same person – Harry Peck – although the signatures were in a dozen different hands and many different ranks ranging from bombardier to major.

By some twist of fate there chanced to be an inoffensive officer named Peck in another unit at Mersa Matruh and rather naturally he was viewed with a great deal of suspicion by the high authorities, who had come to hear of the matter and were furious.

And so it went on. A Jewish sports dealer in Tel Aviv sold many pairs of football boots to an Australian officer with a very Jewish appearance: the docket was signed for by Heinrich Pfeck but the boots are still unpaid for.

In Syria, Harry Peck became notorious. Ten tons of building stone was carted away by Australian military vehicles and the bill was received by Headquarters AIF. It referred to the “goods taken away by the solder H. que of the 31st Anchovy Division Army. Australienne”. Needless to say, the building stone is still another bad debt.

Vast quantities of goods were taken over in Syria by Harry Peck but his unit, the Anchovy Division, was not on the Order of Battle and therefore untraceable.

In Bsarma, pipes needed by ‘A’ Troop to construct a culvert were drawn by Major Harry Peck from the Public Works depot in Tripoli – the document given by the truck party was an oblong of blue cardboard entitling bearer to a motor trip from Jerusalem to Jericho and back by none other than Major Harry Peck himself.

Across the globe, wharfies were loading stores at the wharf for New Guinea, when cartons of Bulimba Beer were found in a stack bearing the 2/5th Field Regiment sign, authorised by Lt. Col. Harry Peck, AIF, HQ ASC. These stores were duly delivered TO THE REGIMENT at Port Moresby.

In another incident, a taxi on a wharf was allegedly loaded onto a ship while the unfortunate taxi-driver’s attention was momentarily diverted and transported to Port Moresby for Harry Peck’s use.

In a program from Radio Cairo, “Calling the Forces”, many florid and verbose birthday calls were regularly given to the ‘wounded hero’ Harry Peck. On another occasion, an Australian officer calling himself Lieutenant Harry Peck gave a five minute talk on the alarming subject of “Mohammedanism in Australia”. This talk was from Jerusalem radio.

Even after the 2/5th Field Regiment arrived back in Australia, Harry Peck was still very much alive. Today a quiet little town in North Australia possesses a beautiful wooden bridge, built by the friends of Peck and bearing an artistic sign in several languages which says “Harry Peck’s Bridge”, “Le Pont de Henri Peque”, and so on.

It was Harry Peck’s Battery that smashed the Japanese with 25 pounders at Milne Bay, and wherever this regiment is privileged to serve, the name of Harry Peck will live on its Roll of Honour.

This article was produced in ‘IN SUPPORT”, the official Newsletter of the Friends of the Second Battalions.

I am grateful to John Piggott who sent me the piece in 2007.WF

My Little Wet Home in a Trench


(adapted and recorded by Warren Fahey 1996)

I first heard this wonderful monologue from my old mate,  Alex Hood, and have since added it to my repertoire. I couldn’t resist adding to the story as it went along. I believe it is an early work of Judah Waten (born Odessa, Russia, 1911 and died Australia in 1985). I have never been able to verify this authorship and the piece, rarely published, has entered the yarn tradition of Australia as ‘anonymous’.

I struck him first in a shearing shed in outback Queensland. He was sweating over a greasy four-year-old wether when I asked him the innocent question: “how would you be?”

He didn’t answer immediately, but waited until he had carved the last bit of wool from the sheep, allowing it to regain its feet, kicking it through the door, dropping the shears, and spitting what looked like a stream of molten metal about three yards. Then he fixed me with a pair of malevolent eyes in which the fires of a deep hatred seemed to burn and he pierced me with them as he said: “How would I be?”

“How the bloody hell would you expect me to be?” Get a hold of me, will you? Dags on every inch of my bloody hide; drinking me own bloody sweat; swallowing dirt with every bloody breath I breathe; working for the lousiest bastard this side of the rabbit-proof bloody fence; and frightened to leave because the old woman has got some bloody private Dick Tracey looking for me with a maintenance order. How would I be? I’m so unlucky they could be showing free movies up a sheep’s bum and I’d still be some dag hanging around the back! I haven’t tasted beer for weeks and the last glass I had was knocked over by some clumsy drunken bastard before I’d finished it! How would you bloody expect me to be!”?

The next time I saw him was in Sydney; he was struggling to get into a set of regulation army webbing and had almost ruptured himself in the process. I said: “How would you be?”

“How would I bloody well be?” he said, “Take a bloody gander at me! Get a load of this bloody outfit; take a captain cook at this bloody hat – size 9.1/2 and I take a 6.1/2; get a bloody eyeful of these strides – why you could hide a bloody bullock team in the seat of them and still have room for me; get an eyeful of this shirt, just get on the bloody thing, will you? Get on these bloody ‘daisy roots’; why there’s a enough boot leather in the bastards to make a full set of saddle and harness; and then some know-all bastard told me this was a man’s outfit! How would I be? How the bloody hell would you expect me to be?”

I next saw him in Tobruk. He was seated on an upturned box; tin hat over one eye, cigarette butt hanging from his bottom-lip, rifle leaning against one knee; and he was engaged in trying to clean his nails with the tip of his bayonet. I should have known better, but I asked him: “How would you be, Digger?”

He swallowed the butt as the bayonet sliced off the top of his finger and he fixed me with a murderous look. “How would I be? How would I bloody well be? How the bloody hell would you expect me to be? Six months in this hellhole; being target practice for every Fritz in Kingdom Come; eating bloody sand with every meal; flies in me hair and eyes, frightened to sleep a bloody wink, expecting to die in this bloody place and copping the crows every time there’s a handout to anybody. How would I be? How the bloody hell would you expect me to be?”

The last time I saw him was in Heaven. I know I should have kept on flying but I ventured a cheery ‘How would you be, cobber?”

He pierced me with an unholy look that riveted my soul as he muttered: “How would I be? How the bloody Heaven would I be? Get a grip on this bloody regulation nightgown, will you! A man trips over the bloody thing fifty times a bloody day and it takes a cove tern minutes to lift the bloody thing just to relieve himself; and get a gander at this bloody right wing – feathers missing all over the bloody thing – a man might be bloody well moulting! Get an eyeful of this halo – only me bloody ears keep the rotten thing on me skull – and look at the bloody dents in it – it’s obviously second hand! How would I bloody well be? Cast your eyes on this celestial bloody harp; five bloody strings missing and there’s a bloody band practice in six minutes. How would I be, you ask? How would you expect a man to bloody well be?”

(Warren Fahey) Conscripting young men into military service has never been a popular issue in Australia. Whoever said: ‘wars are started by old men and fought by young men’ was right. The author of this site was raised a pacifist and was ‘called up’ in the first draw of marbles for the Vietnam War (they actually had Lotto-type marbles with dates on them – if your birthday came up you were called up!) Thankfully, the Army wasn’t very particular in those early days and I failed the medical tests because of poor eyesight. Our participation in that war was nothing short of disastrous and many young men lost their lives for a futile cause. They were brave and felt betrayed. Although I marched (and sang) at the Sydney and Newcastle moratorium demonstrations I maintained the utmost sympathy and respect for all those that served. History has shown the system and the motive for our involvement were wrong. Demonstrations were continually staged all over Australia and, because folk songs were widely popular, music was an integral part of the events.

Rolling back in time to the first decade of the then newly federated Australia, conscription became a major issue. Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ Hughes, also known as ‘The Little Digger’, was an outspoken (he shouted!) enthusiast for conscription. As the wars drums of Europe grew louder, so did Billy’s rants as he called on Australians to support conscription – “We need 5000 more!” he crowed. Conscriptions was vocally opposed by many Australians, especially members of the Catholic Church and trade unions. Hughes, determined we should support the ‘Motherland’, took the issue to two referendums – and lost both.

In 1916 Prime Minister Hughes travelled to England to show support to England. These days we would call it a ‘press junket’. He was photographed with the troops and even smoked a cigar with King George. Some anonymous wit wrote the following parody.

That Dirty Little Traitor, Billy Hughes

Frontline amusements

WW1 & 2, like all wars before them, were primarily frontline wars. Soldiers advancing like chess pieces. The twentieth century introduced air and reinforced sea power. Each division of the services created its own folklore and entertainment. However, it was the frontline forces, living desperately in the very worst of conditions, in thousands of miles of trenches, who had the hardest battle to remain fit, sane and ready for battle. Endless hours, days and weeks living like rabbits down a burrow. To keep their sanity the soldiers devised or employed all manner of amusements. Here’s a list of some of the amusements.

Letter writing. State library of NSW

Diaries. The Australian War Museum and the various State libraries, hold a vast collection of personal diaries. These often heart-wrenching scribbles are a fascinating and sobering insight into the soldier’s like. Some include poetry, songs and drawings.

Writing Letters. Although letters were censored, the soldiers were frequent writers to loved-ones, families and friends. Receiving letters was usually a cause for celebration. Personal letters were often shared with mates.

Knitting. It was often freezing cold in the trenches and some soldiers knitted socks, scarves and jumpers.

Sketching. Drawing war images, or imagined, remembered scenes from ‘back home’ was a distraction. Gum trees, wattle sprigs and even sheep were drawn in writing pads. Often families sent crayons and notepads to the soldiers.

Billy Art. WW1 saw billy cans arrive in the mail. They were the perfect way to pack ANZAC biscuits – it’s not a coincidence the biscuits are flat and about the size of a billy can. The biscuits were a welcome treat and often shared with mates. The billy cans were never wasted and some soldiers used them to paint images and cartoons.

Sewing. Bush kids, especially those who had been droving, could often sew and darning socks, shirts etc was a valued skill.

Boxing. Amateur boxing matches were staged. Sometimes these were a way of letting off steam.

Reading. Magazines, books and the bible were read and re-read.

Magic tricks. Some soldiers sent away for books on hypnotism and magic tricks. there was always an audience.

Plays. Half-remembered plays would be re-enacted.

Leatherwork. Whips, book covers and novelties were made when leather was available.

Singing. There are reports of singers starting songs, usually at a low volume, and then the songs being picked up as it travelled own the trenches. It must have been quite some sound. There’s a story, possibly folklore, of a soldier singing ‘Silent night’ on Christmas Eve and the entire trench community picking it up… and then the Germans started singing as well.

Storytelling. Aussie soldiers loved yarning, and good storytelllers were valued – and often, the same story would be repeated time and time again. “Hey, tell us that story about the cocky farmer and the bull, Bill”

Reciting. Many soldiers carried copies of books by A .B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Henry Lawson and C. J. Dennis and the stories were loved. Sometimes they were read aloud. ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ was a favourite.

Painting. When tubes of paint, charcoal or crayons were available, soldiers created art on anything available. Cigarette and cigar boxes were ideal.

Playing Instruments. Small instruments like the tin whistle, nose flute, jaw harp, banjo mandolin, ukuleles, concertina and melodion, were often heard in the trenches.

Craving. Most soldiers carried a pen knife. Pieces of wood would be carved into shapely ladies, birds, etc

Games. Card games were extremely popular. The Army discouraged gambling for money so the stakes were often cigarettes and chocolates.

Two-Up. “The fairest game in the world” was popular and is ‘revived’ every ANZAC Day.


Warren Fahey sings ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed-Wire’. with Mic Conway.

An essay on the folklore of Australians in times of war. It is also a comment on how we use popular music as parody vehicles. ‘With your drums and guns and guns and drums, Haroo, Haroo, With your drums and guns and guns and drums, Haroo, Haroo, With your drums and guns and guns and drums, The enemy nearly slew you, oh, Johhny dear, You looked so fine. Johnny, I hardly knew you.’ (Recorded from Mrs Rollinson, Brisbane, 1973) My task as a folklorist is that of a recycling unit! I scour the country collecting the bits and pieces that we recognise as ‘folklore’ and then, through books, recordings, radio and now the internet, I deliver it back, with or without comment, to the people who rightfully ‘own’ this heritage or, at least participated in the creative process that gave them their start in life. As Australia inevitably moves towards a more multi-cultural society it also becomes more important that we understand and appreciate the ‘how’s, why’s and where’s’ of our folklore for it is through these expressions of our creative memory that we express our fears, frustrations and aspirations. It is also through our folklore heritage that we record and document our social history. This is not to say that folklore is history for it is clearly not and ‘the folk’ have shown that they have little regard for accurate accounting of their history – a case of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story! What folklore does offer is the emotional history of our march through the years and all the facts and figures, dates and names are nothing when compared to the often heart-wrenching reminiscences of someone who was there and wished that he or she was not! Listen to a returned soldier repeatedly telling the tales that have been told hundreds of times before and you will discover stories to chill the bone. You will also hear tales of mateship and of heroic deeds carried out as matter of fact for this was the way of the ‘Digger’ at war. It also has to take into account that such ‘storytelling’ is part of a very old traditional process and although the songs and stories are regarded as ‘community property’ or ‘public domain’ the storyteller often feels a need to embellish the story ‘for the good of the listener’. This is why it is not unusual to find someone telling a story in the first person when he or she was not actually present at the event – in these cases the story or song has usually been so importantly intertwined with their own life that they believe that they were a witness to the event. I rush to say that this is not lying for it appears to be an emotional mechanism that is very much a part of the tradition. Surveying the songs in this collection you will gain a real insight into how the folklore process works. Several of the songs will travel with you and a commercial song like ‘Tipperary’ or ‘A Wee Doch and Doris’ will feature in two or three wars with obvious changes of text. It is also fascinating to see how the songs were used in the various wars. In the Sudan and Boer wars, the songs tended to reflect the flavour of nationalistic parlour songs complete with matching sentiment and doggerel. The first and second World Wars saw popular song being the most accepted parody vehicle whilst the Malayan and Korean wars saw the songs turn more introspective. Vietnam saw the American influence grow stronger and, of course, the circulation of a whole genre of songs against Australia’s involvement in this war. The most traditionally circulated song to emerge out of the Gulf war was a current popular song that lent its title to a different beat as Phil Collin’s ‘Something In The Air Tonight’ took on new meaning. I have long been fascinated by how songs travel and the military songs are an ideal study because of the way military service people travel around moving from one confrontation to the next. It is fairly easy to appreciate that a song could be carried from camp to camp, war zone to war zone by a travelling soldier and just as easy to imagine that the very same soldier could have sung the song in the local bar where airforce or naval servicemen could have heard the song, related to it, and took it with them as they themselves travelled on. By definition folk songs or traditional songs, and that definitely includes parodies, are those songs passed on by oral transmission as opposed to the printed page. The truth is that no matter what the original songwriter’s intentions, the travels and fate of the song depends on how it is influenced by history, politics and cultural situations. I am sure the original writer of ‘Tipperary’ never dreamed about how many parodies would ride along on the same melody! One can only speculate on why a particular tune can tickle the fancy of so many people. To understand the folklore process one needs to look back in time because in so many ways our entertainment patterns have changed and continue to change. At the time when Australia was being used as a colonial goal, the broadside ballad was in its heydey and the printers surrounding the Seven Dials area of London acted as the popular press reporting on savage murders, sensational transportation sentences and the latest news from the soldiers at the front. These stories, court decisions and military despatches were promptly turned into ballads which were printed and sold as ‘penny dreadfuls’ and, in many cases, were set to popular old tunes indicated on the ballad sheet. Most of the military songs tended to be reports of ‘gallant soldiers’ and of ‘glorious battles’ however the printers and ballad writers were not beyond publishing songs about unfair recruiting practices and even songs that criticised particularly harsh military leaders. The ‘folk’ loved these ballads, especially the more sensational, and many of these songs became firmly entrenched in the tradition and down through the years the stories became more embellished by the contributions of the ‘folk’. The style of singing would have been primarily unaccompanied as this was the style of the day and dictated by the reality that most working class families simply could not afford the luxury of a musical instrument. It is also related to the fact that the singing of songs served several purposes – many of the songs were thought of as ‘family songs’ as they had been passed down through several generations; they had often been localised to mention family and friends; they were educational in as much as many poor families had used the broadsheets as a tool for learning as books were too expensive and lastly, the everyday situations where such songs would have been sung, including taverns and as part of traditional ceremony, would have commanded a song ‘at the ready’. At the same time, the upper classes were singing a more patriotic type of ballad or song accompanied by the pianoforte. Australian baritone, Peter Dawson, recorded numerous ‘art’ songs to bolster the troops during the war years. One suspects that the soldiers and sailors of the time would have been singing rather robust backroom ballads whilst their officers would have been singing their continued loyalty to the throne. Jumping ahead in time (about fifty years) entertainment had experienced a dramatic change and the most important disseminator of song was the music hall. These were the ‘people’s palaces’ of song and the working class packed these halls in both England and Australia to listen to an endless parade of performers who not only sang about ‘Corned Beef And Carrots’ but also about the growing unrest in Europe and especially the growing threat of Germany. Thankfully this era coincided with the revolution in the printing industry which led to popular presses which churned out affordable printing including endless volumes of song books. The piano, ukulele, guitar, banjo, mandolin and mouth organ also became extremely popular and as millions practised their scales there developed a huge market for popular songs. By the time World War One was declared these songs had already gained unbelievably wide circulation. Next came the phonographic cylinder then the disc gramophone and, following close behind, the electric wireless all destined to carry the songs even further.

‘Tipperary’ was a popular song that grew up in the music halls and Melboume-born star of the British music hall, Florrie Forde, was the best known singer of the song. She had a good ear for a popular song and was recognised as the ‘greatest chorus singer of them all’ however her early attempts to popularise the song failed. It was only when the British soldiers marched away to war and took the song with them that it became a massive success and an accepted part of every soldier’s kit! Rome’s other big hit was ‘Goodbye-ee’ which pointedly ‘waved goodbye to the fighting men’ and this song was taken up by the civilian population as their tribute to the men leaving for the Front.

The First World War, that war which we foolishly believed was to be the ‘war to end all wars’, saw popular music play an important role as both entertainment and also providing words and melodies that could be and would be parodied. Likewise it would be difficult for many soldiers to even think about the Second World War without hearing the music to ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, ‘Lilli Marlene’ or the much-parodied exploits of a certain ‘Mademoiselle From Armentieres’.

Even ‘Blind Freddie’ would appreciate that the songs of the services tended to be ‘rough and tumble’ and considering that the mess halls, the barracks, the ablution blocks and the town bars were the prime ‘recital halls’ then the use of bawdy language was commonplace and to be expected. As a folklorist I do not censor and I defend the language usage as part and parcel of the performance of the material. (The occasional ‘dots’ are there to protect the innocent, both young and old!) Australians have a well-earned reputation for calling a spade a spade. Blood oath!

The songs and the role they played changed again after the Second World War and this was very much a move reflecting the current state of popular music and the changing face of warfare. Unlike previous wars the confrontations in Malaya, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf became primarily a war of the air and a war where battles became unrealistically described as ‘skirmishes’. Gone were the unbearably long days, weeks and months of waiting in the trenches as airforce personnel despatched load after load of high-powered bombs on daily or dawn raids. Being a war of the air meant that the need to sing or compose songs was unnecessary as the only ‘hanging around’ was at base where you listened to radio or, in the case of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, watched videos. In combat the surrounding noise would have ensured that singing was nigh impossible and, besides, the sophisticated radar equipment demanded intense concentration.

The Australian service men and women who fought in the later wars did sing during those occasions where they hit the towns and cities on Rest and Recuperation leave however the songs that they sang once again reflected the popular culture and contemporary pop songs became the main vehicle for parodies. It is a comment on the times that I was unable to collect many songs about our participation in the Gulf War. This is not to say that we have stopped singing although we have certainly stopped singing as a social entertainment. These days singing is most likely to be restricted to one or two people who have come up through what I call the ‘Neil Young School Of Guitar Playing And Singing’ (well, many of them sound like they are trying to imitate Neil Young). These people will create a parody, sing it and the audience will attempt to join in but it is usually a feeble attempt as the majority of the songs are not conducive to group singing. This is more a comment on the style of contemporary song compared to the usually more melodic and simplistic songs of the earlier part of the century. Compare the ‘structural complexity and memorability’ of ‘Something In The Air Tonight’ to ‘Bless ’em All’ and it is easy to see how ‘Bless ’em All’ is a better song carrier. This is not to say that any one song is a better song – just a better song for a parody vehicle. It is also worth mentioning that alcohol seems to reduce the overall embarrassment of singers (and usually resulting in them being more embarrassing!) and it most probably why the few Vietnam songs that have survived had their debut in a Saigon bar.

It is interesting to note that one of our first military parodies uses A.B. Paterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and many believe that this song became an ‘unofficial’ anthem for the ‘Diggers’ who possibly didn’t feel too comfortable about ‘God Save The King’ as a parody vehicle. Lionel Wigmore in his book “The Japanese Thrust’ (Australian War Memorial Press) talks about the use of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ as a rally cry during the Battle of Muar, in Malaya: ‘a rapid and spirited assault was necessary to gain space. Anderson ordered Beverley to lead his men singing into the struggle. This he did, and these were the words they sang:

Once a jolly swagman, camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree….

‘Waltzing Matilda’, never sung by Australians with more enthusiasm than when they meet in surroundings strange to them, had become a battle song.’

The Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars saw a new type of war as the airfbrce played an increasingly important role. As a war staged primarily in the air the role of the songs were different. In the earlier wars the infantry had to spend days, weeks, months at the front living in trenches and waiting for ‘further orders’. Returned servicemen told me that the boredom was just as bad as the battle and one of the few possible forms of entertainment was singing. What started out as a solo singer often finished as a trench full of soldiers singing the same song. Such isolation, and the need to stay awake through the long nights and days, provided an ideal platform for the ‘wits’ to change the words of popular songs and create new words and ditties so that ‘I’m Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage’ becomes ‘I’m Only A Girl In A Uniform’, I Wore A Tulip’ changes to ‘I Wore A Tunic’ and that perennial bush favourite ‘The Dying Stockman’ becomes ‘The Dying Airman’.

‘Back at the base-camp the men rested on their palliasses playing cards, two- up, writing letters home and singing the old songs. Quite often a soldier would have a mouth organ, a tin whistle, jaw harp or even a guitar and a singalong would erupt. There was usually a wag who had put new words to some familiar old song and even more likely that the ditty mentioned various men in our platoon.’ (Bill Lowry, Penshurst, 1995).

With the advent of sophisticated aircraft and associated weaponry the situation changed and the soldier or airman was surrounded by whirling and whining sounds that were certainly not conducive to singing! The Gulf war saw these planes and weapons become even more sophisticated and it is difficult to imagine a soldier singing to a computer screen!

The fact is that Australians at war have always sung about their experiences at ‘the front’ and ‘at home’ and these songs, reflecting periods of extreme frustration and fear, tend to be short humorously bitter parodies or ditties. The experience of war with its obvious horror is not a pleasant subject for a songwriter to confront so the songs move away from the descriptions of battle to seemingly unimportant subjects like the attitude of the military brass, the lousy food, the lack of booze and women, the loneliness and the memory of home and family.

There are also the songs that have a role in taunting the enemy and there is something to be said for giving the enemy a ‘human face’ that can be hated. This appears to be a psychological necessity and we can trace the history of our wars through The Mahdi, The Empress Dowager, Kaiser Bill, Adolph Hitler, Ho Chi Min and Saddam Hussein. Without these ‘monsters’ we find it difficult to kill everyday soldiers. Another category of song is those that place the soldier at the front line to defend ‘King, Home and the Mother Country’ and whilst predominantly ‘recruiting’ songs they are songs usually developed for the general public and as a conscience-pricking reminder that duty calls.

In every war the soldiers, sailors and airmen sang in the towns and cities where they had their rest and recreational leave. ‘R&R’ meant ‘letting your hair down’, ‘cutting a rug’, going on the ‘rantan’ and ‘cutting loose’! Men travelled in ‘packs’ moving from bar to bar and consuming vast quantities of alcohol as if to flush the fears of war away with the booze. Some of the same songs travelled with the drinkers and songs like ‘Horseferry Road’ or ditties like ‘When I Die’ were common to several wars. Repetitive songs, especially chorus songs, like ‘The Quartermaster’s Store’ which allowed singers to add their own verses were extremely popular and once again the poor old Sergeant Major was the main target. When you think about it the ‘airing’ of such gripes could only be done through song and this was most probably revenge enough for the drill, the early morning abuse and the seemingly endless inspections. You couldn’t very well bop him on the nose but sure as hell you could make him a figure of ridicule through the songs!

The songs also relieved the tension of the horrors of war where one’s mates could be blown to smithereens and you had no option but to continue to fight. The songs offered a fantasy escape that many men would have needed if they were to fight again. This is not to say that the songs were sentimental and the reality is that they were far from it as they glossed over such horrors preferring to sing about the enemy, home and that ‘other horror’ – army food! Interestingly few of the songs could be described as ‘hateful’ towards the ‘soldiers on the other side’ and especially in the WW1 and WW2 songs there seems to be an unspoken respect for the enemy front-line fighters despite the fact that they were definitely the enemy.

Where soldiers did mention death it was a fleeting pass and more likely to be about the enemy such as in ‘My Little Wet Home In The Tent’ where the words of one of the versions offer:

There’s a dead Turk close by
With his feet to the sky,
And he gives off a beautiful stench.

If there is any area of our wartime experience that is glaringly missing it is the songs that came from the female services. Many women fought in the three forces and I know that they sang however I could not track down many specific songs that could be described as representative. Of course many of the songs sung by the men were picked up and also sung by the women however, considering the segregated barracks such opportunities to exchange songs were limited. Some observers point to the fact that women would be disinclined to sing the more bawdy songs and would have restricted their repertoires to popular songs. I find this difficult to accept as I have collected all types of songs from women including a good few bawdy songs! Another area of song are those that were sung back home in Australia particularly by the women involved in essential war industries. Fortunately, and thanks to Jean Scott, I have been able to include a selection of songs from the Land Army and these offer an important perspective of our military folklore.

The songs in this collection come from real people. Many were offered to me by my family and fellow collectors, others were sent to me in response to my continued requests on ABC radio, through letters to magazines and (I often fear) to shut me up as I pestered people to scratch back inside their memory banks. I also trawled my way through many books, army magazines and library shelves so I am indebted to those noble archivists called librarians. What’s left came to me from the back of my own ‘noggin’ and files – over thirty years of collecting and singing. I point out that folklore is a strange little devil having little regard for historical accuracy, preferring to let the emotions run loose and believing that the facts should never get in the way of a good yam! Historians tread carefully for this is the people’s history!

Australians have fought in eleven wars. 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 famed Maori Wars of Taranaki and the Waikato; a contingent of gallant lads travelled to the Sudan Wars and then our Lighthorsemen galloped into the Orange Free State and the Boer War. Next came the Boxer Rebellion and then the First and Second World Wars.We glibly believed that World War Two was the last ‘World War’ but we were wrong and over and over again our troops were called to battle, or to keep the peace, in lands sometimes too close to home – Malaya, Korea and these were followed by the horrors of Vietnam. As if to remind us that war is always ‘just around the comer’ our troops rallied in 1990 to confront the threat of yet another uprising in that wom-tom zone known as the Middle East.

Music has long played a leading role in so many early times of conflict. The British drummer boy signalled that the Recruiting Sergeant had arrived in town to entice enlistments with the King or Queen’s ‘shilling’; the Scots used the bagpipes to signal that the clan war parties were on the move; American Indians, like so many native people, prepared themselves for the battle by fortifying the braves through repetitive drumming, dancing and song; the American Civil War was fought to the sound of the fife and drum whilst the northern European tradition called for excessive feasting, drinking and epic singing before the battle.

Music also played a role in documenting the successes of armies. Even disastrous defeats were made to sound like heroic battles. Nearly all cultures offer epic songs that tell of glorious victories, heroic deeds and sanctioned pillage. Such historic songs obviously played an important role in being retold down through the years to fortify and ready soldiers for the next battle- front. Australia, by comparison, offered only a short European settlement and virtually no experience of war to sing about!

Around the time that Britain commenced establishing a penal settlement in New South Wales the role and sound of military music and song was changing to reflect the times. It had moved from the troubadour days where travelling singers were relied upon to relate and act as custodians for the soldier songs and old ballads to a more disciplined military based-music. Specially composed military songs were created and promoted and the singing style became more of a stylised rendition than the ballad of old. England had, of course, also become a more stabilised monarchy and the songs reinforced this fact swearing loyalty to the King and death to all those who would dare to threaten the Crown. Nationalistic songs with long-winded titles emerged such as ‘The Soldiers Lamentation For The Loss Of Their General’, ‘The Pitman’s Revenge Against Bonaparte’ or ‘The Countryman’s Reply To The Recruiting Sergeant’. This is not to say that there were not songs deploring the war or warning against accepting ‘the King’s Shilling’ – these songs simply were unlikely to be sung by soldiers whose repertoires would have been predominantly songs about loyalty to the King, the separation from loved ones and songs that ‘belonged’ to their infantry battalion.

By the middle of the nineteenth century it became obvious that music had attracted a commercial edge. ‘Penny dreadful’ song sheets or broadsides were giving way to ‘popular songsters’ with arrangements for the pianoforte, violin and mandolin. The popular music industry was starting to replace the old songs that had been sung for years and even the newsworthy broadside ballads of the Seven Dials district were being edged out by singalong songs and sentimental ballads with equally heart-rendering titles like ‘Don’t Sell My Mother’s Picture In The Sale’ or that tear-jerker of all tear-jerkers, ‘The Luggage Van Ahead’. Next came the Music Hall and the choms rang out loud and clear – ‘turn up the music and give us another song!’

By the time of the First World War it was apparent that with this war for the first time both the civilian population and the soldiers would be singing the same songs. Florrie Forde, sang ‘Tipperary’ and ‘Goodbye-ee’ and was joined by thousands as they jam-packed the music halls to sing our soldiers to battle. Commercial recordings were produced and wind-up gramophones carried the songs far and wide, even to the front line.

Australians have also sung in every war. They sang on the march to relieve boredom and to maintain uniform marching time, they sang in the barracks, in trucks as they criss-crossed the country and, of course, they sang in the trenches. Above all, they sang in those rare opportunities when they were ‘temporarily free men’ on leave and on ‘the rantan’. The songs in this collection are mostly songs sung by the troops rather than the work of Tin- Pan-Ally songwriters. Mind you, considering the number of parodies using popular songs of the day it would be unfair to dismiss the role of the professional songwriter. Florrie Forde may have been singing ‘Tipperary’ Oops soon changed the words to suit their needs and the first line soon became ‘It’s a long way to Melbourne, It’s a long long way to go’. It seems that no popular song was safe from the wit of parody.

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! – ‘pack up all your cares and woes’.

In assembling the folkloric jigsaw that could be loosely described as ‘Australian military folksong’ I searched high and low to ensure that this collection would be as representative as possible. Much of the material came from ready informants and, in most cases, returned soldiers, who were eager that the old army, airforce and navy songs be recorded. In this day and age of electronic entertainment even ‘Blind Freddy’ should be able to see that the old songs are threatened as we become a nation of people who get entertained rather than entertain each other.

In reality little has been done to collect this important part of our tradition. Graham Seal of the Centre For Australian Studies at Curtin University published a pioneering ‘work in progress’ as a folklore occasional paper, in 1991, titled ‘Digger Folksong And Verse Of World War One’ and British writer, Martin Page, published quite a number of Australian songs in his highly enjoyable books ‘Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major’ and ‘For Gawdsake Don’t Take Me’. Apart from these three publications the soldier’s song book is rather empty.

It is not surprising that there are no available songs from the Maori Wars considering that they took place in the middle of last century and that they only involved a handful of Australian soldiers. This isn’t to say that songs were not written or sung and I am confident that there were such songs. I, wrote to the New Zealand Library Service to no avail. I am still curious to see if the Maori people have any songs that document this episode of their history and if any such songs mention the Australian participation.

The Sudan produced songs as this was the heyday of the patriotick song complete with jingoistic phrasing and equally bad verse. It is also little wonder that so few songs from this war entered the tradition as they were mostly unsingable and very forgettable! The same could be said of the Boer War where the surviving songs still smack of the heavy hand of the poet as opposed to the free-thinking, free-wheeling pen of the community-at-large and the pack-slogging soldier in particular. One suspects that the soldiers did sing a great deal because singing was so much a part of every day entertainment however these songs were more likely to be ‘barrack room ballads’ than patriotic songs and because of their rowdy and rough language they would not have survived being far too rough-house to be printed or even sung in ‘polite society’. This is more of a comment on the social environment of the time than on the shyness of singing soldiers!

It was in the First World War that the role of the ‘soldier songs’ became more defined and many of the songs created in this war also travelled down through the years to be used in subsequent wars and it is possible to see a WWI song reappear in WW2 and also in the Korean War. Even the ever-popular ‘Dinki Di’ has this distinction and it is fascinating to compare the three versions and see how they travel. In many cases such songs only require a slight change of location or personnel and they are new again.

In studying the songs of the First World War one needs to have one eye cocked towards the popular music industry, especially the British Music Hall, and the emerging gramophone industry. Music publishers played an important role in the dissemination of the songs as they plied their trade promoting songwriters, singers and song books. All these had Australian equivalents and when one considers that some of the most influential international music hall artists were also Australian there is a direct link. Melbourne-born Flon-ie Forde, ‘Music Hall’s greatest chorus singer’, was as influential as Vera Lynn was to become in WW2 and Sydney music publisher and songwriter, Joe Slater, published volume after volume of his ‘Imperial Songster’ and several ‘Wartime songsters’ published ‘in support of our fighting men’.

The music used to carry the songs is also worth exploring. Certain older tunes, especially marching and recruitment tunes reappear with new words, however it is the more popular tunes that the soldiers turned to as their favoured vehicle. The repetitive ‘cumulative’ songs tend to prefer the commonly-known, usually older traditional songs, and this might have something to do with the fact that these songs were favoured for the drunken sessions in bars and taverns. ‘Abdul The Bul Bul Amir’ certainly falls into this category. The popular tunes like ‘Tipperary’ and ‘A Wee Doch And Doris’ turn up time and time again and have a lot to do with the overall commercial success of the original song. It’s easy to imagine how a bored sentry soldier could create a parody for his own amusement and then how such a parody could travel as other soldiers heard the soldier sing his ditty in the shower-room, mess-hall or even in the trenches. One also needs to appreciate that folks used to listen to the words of songs in those days!

Whilst music has a noble history at the front line it appears that musical instruments were few and far between. The smaller, more portable, instruments were obviously the most popular – the harmonica, jaw-harp, tin whistle and ukulele. There were also ‘novelty’ instruments including the musical saw, the kazoo, the bones, spoons, tissue paper and comb and when they could find the right leaf, the ‘gumleaf’. Many the ‘barrack’s band’ would have offered a combination of these instruments to back an inspired rendition of ‘Sweet Adeline’, ‘Ka-Ka-Ka-Katie’ or ‘Ida (sweet as apple cider)’.

It was in WW1 that the songs openly expressed the emotional fears experienced by the soldiers. This was new in the history of soldier songs and it was apparent that the army ‘brass’ was prepared to turn ‘a deaf ear’ to allow such fears, grievances and downright bitch-sessions to be aired. It was also a lengthy war and the songs played an important role in maintaining solidarity and morale. There is something spirited in defiantly singing in the face of the enemy and it appears as if singing songs about ‘top army brass’ was considered good practice!

I’ve always thought that the monologue, How Would You Be?,is so typically Australian with its improbable exaggeration combined with what has become known as ‘a dry sense of humour’. It has also led me to speculate whether the term ‘dry sense of humour’ is distinctly Australian and does it come from our outback with its seemingly endless plains of red dust? I first heard ‘How’d Yer Be?’ recited by Alex Hood in the 1960’s and its hilariously absurd imagery has remained with me ever since. I could not resist the temptation to add even more to this story!

War is always a frustration and the songs, parodies, ditties, poetry and stories serve many well-earned roles as a morale booster, to facilitate camaraderie, to educate and assimilate ‘new recruits’ and to allow that necessary on-going de- fusing of tension. As with other periods of history when all is not well, like economic recessions and depressions, the songs tend to be short and not so sweet, and, army songs being what they are tend to be very much to the point – boots and all! This said, I believe that the bawdy songs were not as bawdy as we would believe and certainly not as crude as today’s society would allow. What was considered shocking in WW1 could be ‘wicked’ in the 1940’s and simply bawdy in the 1990’s. Sexual innuendo certainly played a role in ‘reminding’ the soldiers that there was another side of life however, one suspects, it was similar to the ‘bromide in the tea’ which supposedly suppressed such urges! It is the later wars, particularly the Korean and Vietnam Wars, that the ‘filthy songs’ gained wide circulation and this most probably reflects the fact that the majority of song sessions would have been when the soldiers were relaxing and ‘on the town’ – this being a more acceptable venue for such songs and, besides, the on-leave soldiers wanted to be reminded that there was such an urge as sex!

The first call to arms meant training and there’s a load of truth in the old maxim that ‘life in the army would make a man of you’. There was no choice as recruits marched, marched and marched some more with the only diversion being rifle drill – Present Arms! Attention! Present Arms! – and hour upon hour of boot polishing (Soldier! I want to see your face shine in that!), brass polishing (I want that buckle to be like gold!) and blanco duty (Soldier! I don’t want to see a single mark on that webbing!).

Soldiers have always sung ditties to accompany route marching. It not only served a purpose as a time-keeper but also as a relief from boredom – especially if the words could be spiced up a bit with topical references. This aside, there were several standard ditties used by Australian soldiers down through the years and one suspects that these ditties had another use in regimentation. If you can get a new recruit to sing, march and drill in time you have the makings of an army!


Warren Fahey recites ‘Dear Liz’ – a letter from the front line.

In 1996 I had a book published under the title ‘Diggers’ Songs’ (Australian Military History Press), it was a large book that traced the history of Australian traditional and popular parodies through the eleven wars we had participated in up to that date. I was shocked when I counted the number of times we had packed up our kitbags and headed off in response to the bugle call, mainly the bugle call of Mother England. Our first war were the so-called Maori Wars when we sent off a troop to New Zealand and, at the time of publication, the last war was the Gulf War. Since that date we have fought in another three wars – the Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq. That doesn’t take in our ‘peace keeping’ in places like the Solomon Islands and Fiji. Pretty scary stuff.

There is a lot of military folklore and songs scattered throughout this site, especially in the Australian Folklore Unit section, so much of the following has been recently located and assembled.    WF

Screw Them All

(POW song)
(Tune: Bless Them All)

Screw ‘em all, screw ‘em all
The long and the short and the tall
Screw all the guards and each bow legged Jap
Screw all the cooks and their flamin’ rice pap
When we’re all goin’ away from it all
And there’s no guards to screech and to bawl
They can stuff their own pick axes
Right up their own jack asses
So cheer me up lads screw ‘em all

As sung at Djakarta prison camp 1942 from Norman Carter’s 1966 book G String Jesters

She’ll Be Coming

(Tune: She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain)

They’ll be dropping thousand pounders when they come
They’ll be dropping thousand pounders when they come
They’ll be dropping hard boiled eggs
Around those yellow bastard’s legs
Cos they’ll be dropping thousand pounders when they come.

Sung at Jakarta and Changi

Boer war

Rub a dub dub says the loud beating drum
Country’s in danger so come along come
Rifle on shoulder the brave boys and tall
Bushmen and miners and farmers come all
But where is Sir Fat Paunch
Oh where does he stay?
Can the first at the feast
Be the last in the fray?
Grip what you can get and get what you can
Is the battle cry of the businessman

From The Bitter Fight. Joe Harris 1970


Little puffs of powder
Little squibs of lead
Makes a man remember
He must keep down his head.

Parody of

Little dabs of powder
Little dabs of paint
Make a little devil
Into a little saint.

Diary/Mitchell 05

Twinkle Twinkle

Twinkle twinkle little star
Went for a ride in a yankee car
Hat she did I ain’t admittin’
But what she’s knittin’
Ain’t for Britain

From Tropo Topics RA 1943

Nellie Nellie

Nellie Nellie
Just look at your belly
You’re needing new steppins, I see
Nellie Nellie
Your wobbly belly
It certainly fascinates me
That motor tyre for a girdle
Sure makes my blood pressure curdle
It’s absurd’ll
So bugger your belly
And blame it on the rice<
Not on me.

From ‘Titbits’ POW revue Djarkarta 1942. From ‘G String Jesters’ by Norman Carter


Tattooed Lady

I paid ten pounds to see
A tattooed French lady
She was a sight to see
Tattooed from head to knee
On her jaw was the Anzac Flying Corps
And on her back was the doog old Union Jack
While across her hips was a fleet of battle ships
But on her ‘deaf and dumb’ was the Digger’s rising sun
And drawn upon her kidney\was a picture of dear old Sydney
Then around the corner, upon her horner
Was a map of my old home town in Tennessee

SMH Thur 11/Nov 2004  Article by Johnathon King about old digger (106 year’s of age) Peter Casserly.


The German officers crossed the Rhine, Parlay vous
The German officers crossed the Rhine, Parlay vous
The German officers crossed the Rhine, Parlay vous
The German officers crossed the Rhine, Parlay vous
They raped our women and drunk our wine
Inky pinky parlay vous
They came across a wayside inn etc
They marched across and marched right in
I think there’s a verse missing here
Up the rickety stairs they went etc
When they came down their knees were bent.
They threw her on the feathery bed etc
Fucked her ’till she was nearly dead.
Now she’s working up the Cross*
Selling herself for a hell of a loss
Inky pinky I DON”T THINK!!

(Sydney’s red light district is King’s Cross)


Australian schools refer to organised rubbish collection in the playground as an ‘emu parade’ where the kids – stooping up and down – resemble emus pecking at the ground. It originated with soldiers who cleaned up their camps in the same way and used the same description.


yarn told by John Dengate (to WF 3/05)

This bloke in the second world war was trying to get out on an insanity discharge. Every day he’d walk around the camp picking up any scrap of paper and then throw it down saying “That’s not it”. This went on for over a year until he was finally handed his discharge papers to which he responded “This is it! This is what I’ve been looking for!”


My father, George Fahey, served in the pacific campaign and he told me about a man who spent every day and night acting as if he were a chicken. He would cluck cluck chirp all around the camp, scratch at the ground etc so the doctors would certify him as crazy. He was known as the ‘chicken man’


During the post WW2 period a deserter hid in the Cootamundra hills in NSW and became known as The Wild Man of Cootamundra. There were regular sightings. The man became a well-known rabbit-trapper and would sell the pelts every few months for tobacco and other necessities. He eventually was driven by hunger and cold to approach the station owned by the (Phillip) Ashton family, one of the wealthiest graziers in NSW. The Ashton’s took him in and immediately notified the police who took the poor man away to a detention centre.

From John Dengate, interview March 2005 NLA


A digger was a soldier that sailed across the sea, in the good ship ‘Margarine’
A digger was a soldier as brave as he could be, 
And a grand old man he made, in the landing at Gallipoli,
When the war clouds filled the skies, 
He wandered round the Continent as a tourist in disguise,
And after years of battle-ing and three parts filled with lead.
The medical officer said, ‘we’ll send you back’
It was then the digger said –

I’m going back to Yarrawonga, in Yarrawonga, I’ll linger longer,
I’m going again to Yarrawonga, where the skies are always blue,
And when back again in Yarrawonga, I’ll soon be stronger than Old Mahonga
You can have all your Tennessee’s and Caroline’s, France and Belgium thrown in
You can have the lot for mine. I’m going back again to Yarrawonga,
In the land of the kangaroo.


Mrs Lorna Corbett. Cherrywood Nursing Home Turramurra Feb. 1985.

There’s been a lot of arguments going on they say,
And as far as ‘Dear Old England’, must not be in the fray
For England’s home and beauty, has no cause to fear
Should old acquaintance be forgot?
No. no. no. no. no
Australia will be there.
Ere, ere, ere, ere.
Australia will be there.
SOURCE: Lorna Corbett. ibid.

The Cooees & The Anzac Coves – Army showband entertainments

When Britain sounded the first bugle call for the Great War, Australian patriotism turned 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. They made up for what they lacked in preparation with gumption and determination that eventually identified the Aussie Diggers as the ‘fighting kangaroos’, a force to be reckoned with.

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. There was alsoa 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.

Australia appeared to recognise the importance of wartime entertainment before Britain. This could have something to do with the fact that 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. 

Australians were extremely clever in creating and circulating parodies, especially bawdy songs. 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 for addressing topics that popular song typically avoids. The popularity of songs like ‘Little Grey Home in the West’ and ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’ (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.

The Australian War Memorial archives 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 in the AWM archives. 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. Or sit in on one of the theatrical show bands like The Flying Kangaroos, 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.)

Remembering – here is a film I created for the Australian War Graves section at Rookwood necropolis.

“The year was 1915 and I was 12 years old. Everybody was in some way making some war effort. A little man came to our front door 9in Melbourne), he stood about 5ft high. He raised his hat and said to my mother “they won’t take me in the army because I’m too small, but this is my war effort.” He stood back and sang this song, after he’d sung it he told us he had written it and hand produced lyric and music sheets on a double sheet. He sold them for half a crown and all he collected went to the Red Cross. We bought a copy and sung it a wherever we went. A couple of school mates teamed up, one on violin and the other on a little organ, and they busked for the war effort. They became known as Kelly & Duffy. Modern people will miss something here – no mention of air force but this was too early. Point Cook air base was just beginning.” 


Soldiers in khaki, sailors in blue
Fighting on land and sea
Fighting for England’s dear old flag
Our home and liberty
Plenty of pluck but jolly bad luck
Landing at the Dardanelle
But playing the game
They made such a name
Which all the world has learned how to spell

They’re the boys who always lead the way
All the nations say
Hip hip hooray
The kangaroo’s a soldier and a sailor
When they hear the bugle give the call
Day and night we’re going to fight
‘Till the enemy’s out of sight
and we’re going to blazon ON the name

BERNARD HILLMAN, Kempsey. Jan 1985. Fahey Collection