And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Eric Bogle, illustrated by Bruce Whatley

A review by Nalini Haynes

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda is a picture book, the size and shape you’d expect for young children. Except it’s really not for young children. Allen & Unwin, the publisher, advertises this picture book for 8 to 14 year olds because of the imagery conveying a sense of the brutality of war and the possible disability-shaming.

Australians might remember the song from the 1980s, played by the Bushwackers folk band I think. And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda is like Good Morning Vietnam. Except without the comedy. And it’s Australian to its core. And it’s a song.

The picture book captures the essence of the song, illustrating it verse by verse. Including the corpses and blood.

Like I said, not really a children’s book.

In the book, the central character believes “there’s worse things than dying” because he loses his legs. “They gathered the crippled, the wounded and lame… [I] thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me to grieve to mourn and to pity…”

Back in the 1980s I was consciously ashamed of having a disability. I thought it was the appropriate way to feel about being disabled. I believed the only appropriate response was to conceal and to strive to cope without assistance if at all possible. So, back then, I thought the words of the song were tragic, poignant and appropriately shaming of the victims.

Now I’m horrified this could be a children’s picture book.

I look at this book now and I see the zombie apocalypse. Seriously. The front cover shows a soldier in a trench at Suva and the first thing I saw, even before I opened the book, was “zombie!”

I’m not even into zombies.

(And he’s not meant to be a zombie, FYI.)

But now I’m re-imagining Gallipoli as the zombie apocalypse with the Turks double-tapping in self-defense. And, when you think about the British muckety-mucks ordering Aussie Diggers to their deaths, it’s not a bad take on the situation. For a dramatic portrayal of Gallipoli, see the movie by the same name starring a very young Mel Gibson. I was force-fed that movie at least once a year as part of my high school curriculum.

Australians lost that battle. The cavalier attitude of British officers ordering Aussie Diggers to their deaths may have helped turn Australia away from Britain as the Mother Country, increasing Australia’s independence as she slowly untied the apron strings.

Eric Bogle’s author’s note is poignant, talking about Vietnam, wanting to protest the futility of war but choosing Gallipoli because it’s so ingrained into our culture. And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda is far more effective because it focuses on Gallipoli; if it had been another Vietnam song it would have been lost in the noise.

I’d recommend And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda to high school students, especially those aspiring to join the military cadet corps. Read this instead of seeing Gallipoli for the 4th time in 4 years. This book could be helpful in explaining the Anzac march to children or explaining post-traumatic stress disorder in a relative returned from fighting in the Middle East.

Be careful to balance the negative messages about disability, though. What And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda says about disability shocked me because I’d forgotten. I felt like someone grabbed my heart and SQUEEZED. I gasped for breath.

Don’t shame the victims. Shame those who, in this case, send them to be cannon fodder.

ISBN: 9781743317051
Format: hardcover
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 

2 Comments

  1. Hi Nalini,
    Thank you for reviewing Waltzing Matilda. I am so sorry you were hurt by this book. Text and imagery are always open to multiple interpretations. How and where it is read or viewed and by whom. The reader’s experiences will obviously impact greatly on this. I’m writing because I am concerned that I may have caused offence to you and those with disabilities. Coming from a family of disability (and amputation) that was certainly not my intention. I always understood the lyrics to say not to pity. When working on this I was very conscious of the old men who march every year. That’s how we see them. We don’t see them as 19 year old children watching their mates getting blown to bits. But that’s who they are. We send our children to war.
    I agree 8 is too young for this book. It’s up to parents and teachers to decide I guess. I’ll leave that to others who know better than me.
    As for the ‘Zombie’ images. All these illustrations are based on actual photos from the time. It was the apocalypse!
    Kids are exposed to all kinds of graphic ‘comic’ violence through film and gaming – this is a whole other debate of course. But I didn’t want to dramatise or glorify I wanted to show the reality of what happened – but again I guess that’s just my interpretation.
    All the best. Bruce

    1. Dear Bruce
      Thank you so much for your comment.
      As I said in my review, I loved the song ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ in the 1980s. As much as anything I was shocked at the words when I read the book after so many years and so much personal growth, including trying to take on Stella Young’s mantra of “proud by practice”.
      And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, the song and now the book, has been and will remain a potent response to the glorification of war.
      I meant no disrespect with regards to my comments about the zombie apocalypse — one of Dark Matter’s reviewers and many of Dark Matter’s readers/followers are zombie fans. And I agree: World War I in general and Gallipoli in particular were the apocalypse.
      Having been forced to watch Gallipoli the movie year after year during high school for social studies, I remain firm in my comments about And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda being a suitable alternative or addition to the curriculum and more appropriate for the high school age group although a picture book for high school seems out of place. If I was a social studies teacher, I’d get everyone to read it, look at the pictures and have a class discussion or even a few discussions. Maybe even write an essay.
      My review expressed my personal conflict: I am anti-war; I am concerned about disability discrimination; I fear history repeating itself so the message must get out there. I love Billy Joel’s song where he talks about locking all the politicians in a room so they can fight it out together without additional casualties. But that’s a different song. And we need as many songs, as much pop culture as we can create, in order to mobilise public sentiment against war to pressure politicians to find alternative solutions. Like spending money on health and education instead of wasting billions on poor-quality high-maintenance aircraft; like spending money on humanitarian efforts instead of invading other countries; like…
      [eh hem]
      I’ll get off my soap box.

      Thanks again for your letter.
      Nalini

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