The Singing Soldiers [poem by C. J. Dennis]

[Editor: This poem by C. J. Dennis was published in The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916). The later part of the poem mentions the troopship Southland, which was carrying Australian soldiers from Alexandria (Egypt) to Gallipoli (Turkey) when it was torpedoed and sunk in the Aegean Sea on 2 September 1915.]

The Singing Soldiers

When I’m sittin’ in me dug-out wiv me rifle on me knees,
An’ a yowlin’, ’owlin’ chorus comes a-floatin’ up the breeze —
Jist a bit o’ ‘Bonnie Mary’ or ‘Long Way to Tipperary’ —
Then I know I’m in Australia, took an’ planted overseas.
They’ve bin up agin it solid since we crossed the flamin’ foam;
But they’re singin’ — alwiz singin’ — since we left the wharf at ’ome.

“O, its ‘On the Mississippi’ or ‘Me Grey ’Ome in the West.’
If it’s death an’ ’ell nex’ minute they must git it orf their chest.
’Ere’s a snatch o’ ‘When yer Roamin’ — When yer Roamin’ in the Gloamin’.’
’Struth! The first time that I ’eard it, wiv me ’ead on Rosie’s breast,
We wus comin’ frum a picnic in a Ferntree Gully train . . .
But the shrapnel made the music when I ’eard it sung again.”

So I gits it straight frum Ginger in ’is letter ’ome to me,
On a dirty scrap o’ paper wiv the writin’ ’ard to see.
“Strike!” sez ’e. “It sounds like skitin’; but they’re singin’ while they’re fightin’;
An’ they socks it into Abdul to the toon o’ ‘Nancy Lee.’
An’ I seen a bloke this mornin’ wiv ’is arm blown to a rag,
’Ummin’ ‘Break the Noos to Mother,’ w’ile ’e sucked a soothin’ fag.

“Now, the British Tommy curses, an’ the French does fancy stunts,
An’ the Turk ’e ’owls to Aller, an’ the Gurkha grins an’ grunts;
But our boys is singin’, singin’, while the blinded shells is flingin’
Mud an’ death inter the trenches in them ’eavens called the Fronts.
An’ I guess their souls keep singin’ when they gits the tip to go . . .”
So I gits it, straight frum Ginger; an’ Gawstruth! ’e ort to know.

An’ ’is letter gits me thinkin’ when I read sich tales as these,
An’ I takes a look around me at the paddicks an’ the trees;
When I ’ears the thrushes trillin’, when I ’ear the magpies fillin’
All the air frum earth to ’eaven wiv their careless melerdies —
It’s the sunshine uv the country, caught an’ turned to bonzer notes;
It’s the sunbeams changed to music pourin’ frum a thousand throats.

Can a soljer ’elp ’is singin’ when ’e’s born in sich a land?
Wiv the sunshine an’ the music pourin’ out on ev’ry ’and,
Where the very air is singin’, an’ each breeze that blows is bringin’
’Armony an’ mirth an’ music fit to beat the blazin’ band.
On the march, an’ in the trenches, when a swingin’ chorus starts,
They are pourin’ bottled sunshine of their ’Omeland frum their ’earts.

O I’ve ’eard it, Lord, I’ve ’eard it since the days when I wus young,
On the beach an’ in the bar-room, in the bush I’ve ’eard it sung;
“Belle Mahone” an’ “Annie Laurie,” “Sweet Marie” to “Tobermory,”
Common toons and common voices, but I’ve ’eard ’em when they rung
Wiv full, ’appy ’earts be’ind ’em, careless as a thrush’s song —
Wiv me arm around me cliner, an’ me notions fur from wrong.

So they growed wiv ’earts a-singin’ since the days uv careless kids;
Beefin’ out an ’appy chorus jist when Mother Nacher bids;
Singin’, wiv their notes a-quiver, “Down upon the Swanee River,”
Them’s sich times I’d not be sellin’ fer a stack uv golden quids.
An’ they’re singin’, still they’re singin’, to the sound uv guns an’ drums,
As they sung one golden Springtime underneath the wavin’ gums.

When they socked it to the Southland wiv our sunny boys aboard —
Them that stopped a dam torpeder, an’ a knock-out punch wus scored;
Tho’ their ’ope o’ life grew murky, wiv the ship ’ead over turkey,
Dread o’ death an’ fear o’ drownin’ wus jist trifles they ignored.
They spat out the blarsted ocean, an’ they filled ’emselves wiv air,
An’ they passed along the chorus of “Australia will be There.”

Yes, they sung it in the water; an’ a bloke aboard a ship
Sez ’e knoo they wus Australians be the way they give it lip —
Sung it to the soothin’ motion of the dam devourin’ ocean
Like a crowd o’ seaside trippers in to ’ave a little dip.
When I ’eard that tale, I tell yeh, straight, I sort o’ felt a choke;
Fer I seemed to ’ear ’em singin’, an’ I know that sort o’ bloke.

Yes, I know ’im; so I seen ’im, barrackin’ Eternity.
An’ the land that ’e wus born in is the land that mothered me.
Strike! I ain’t no sniv’lin’ blighter; but I own me eyes git brighter
When I see ’em pokin’ mullock at the everlastin’ sea:
When I ’ear ’em mockin’ terror wiv a merry slab o’ mirth,
’Ell! I’m proud I bin to gaol in sich a land as give ’em birth!

* * * * * *

“When I’m sittin’ in me dug-out wiv the bullets droppin’ near,”
Writes ole Ginger; “an’ a chorus smacks me in the flamin’ ear:
P’raps a song that Rickards billed, er p’raps a line o’ ‘Waltz Matilder’,
Then I feel I’m in Australia, took an’ shifted over ’ere.
Till the music sort o’ gits me, an’ I lets me top notes roam
While I treats the gentle foeman to a chunk uv ‘’Ome, Sweet ’Ome.’”

They wus singin’ on the troopship, they wus singin’ in the train;
When they left their land be’ind ’em they wus shoutin’ a refrain,
An’ I’ll bet they ’ave a chorus, gay an’ glad in greetin’ for us,
When their bit uv scrappin’s over, an’ they lob back ’ome again . . .
An’ the blokes that ain’t returnin’ — blokes that’s paid the biggest price,
They go singin’, singin’, singin’ to the Gates uv Paradise.

C. J. Dennis, The Moods of Ginger Mick, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1916, pages 61-65

Editor’s notes:
Abdul = a reference to an Arab or a group of Arabs (in the context of Gallipoli, a reference to the Turks)

barrack = (Australian slang) cheer, yell out in support of a person or team; to support a sports team or entity in general; possibly from the Irish term “barrack”, meaning to brag (in British usage, “barrack” means to abuse, bait, boo, criticize, jeer, scoff, or to shout out against someone)

bonzer = (Australian slang) excellent (can also be spelt as “bonza”)

cliner = (also spelt “clyner” or “kliner”) a young woman

fag = cigarette

foam = ocean; sea

Gawstruth = an oath, a contraction of “God’s truth” (also rendered as “Gorstruth”, “struth”)

gay = happy, joyous, carefree (may also mean well-decorated, bright, attractive) (in modern times it may especially refer to a homosexual, especially a male homosexual; may also refer to something which is no good, pathetic, useless)

head over turkey = head over heels, upside down

own = confess; admit or affirm that something is true

Paradise = in a religious context, or in the context of death, a reference to Heaven

poking mullock = to ridicule, make fun of someone, deride, tease (similar to “poking borack”)

quid = a pound or a dollar; originally “quid” referred to a pound, a unit of British-style currency used in Australia (until it was replaced by the dollar in 1966, when decimal currency was introduced); after the decimalisation of Australia’s currency, it referred to a dollar

Rickards = Harry Rickards (1843-1911), born Henry Leete, was an English-born singer and theatre proprietor, who owned the prominent chain of Tivoli theatres in Australia
See: 1) Martha Rutledge, “Rickards, Harry (1843–1911), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
2) Leann Richards, Harry Rickards, History of Australian Theatre

Southland = HMT Southland, which was torpedoed and sunk in the Aegean Sea on 2 September 1915, although it was later refloated and repaired, but it was torpedoed and sunk again on 4 June 1917 north of Ireland (HMT means His/Her Majesty’s Troopship/Transport)

strike = an exclamatory oath, used to express astonishment, shock, or surprise; an abbreviation of “Strike me lucky”, “Strike me pink”, “Strike a light”, or similar

’struth = an oath, a contraction of “God’s truth” (also rendered as “Gawstruth” or “Gorstruth”)

Tommy = (a shortened version of “Tommy Atkins”) a British soldier, British infantryman, British fighting man; the term was popularised by the poem “Tommy”, by British poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
agin (again)
ain’t (am not)
ain’t (aren’t; are not)
Aller (Allah)
alwiz (always)
an’ (and)
’and (hand)
’appy (happy)
’ard (hard)
’armony (harmony)
’ave (have)
be’ind (behind)
bin (been)
blarst (blast)
dam (damn)
’e (he)
’ead (head)
’ear (hear)
’eard (heard)
’eart (heart)
’eaven (heaven)
’ell (hell)
’elp (help)
’em (them)
’emselves (themselves)
er (or)
’ere (here)
ev’ry (every)
fer (for)
frum (from)
fur (far)
git (get)
growed (grew)
’im (him)
inter (into)
’is (his)
jist (just)
knoo (knew)
me (my)
melerdies (melodies)
nacher (nature)
nex’ (next)
noos (news)
o’ (of)
ole (old)
’ome (home)
’ope (hope)
orf (off)
ort (ought)
’owl (howl)
paddick (paddock)
p’raps (perhaps)
sez (says)
sich (such)
sniv’lin’ (snivelling)
soljer (soldier)
toon (tune)
torpeder (torpedo)
’ummin’ (humming)
uv (of)
w’ile (while)
wiv (with)
wus (was)
yeh (you)

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