Australians on the Western Front: Words of war echoing across the decades

POIGNANT: Soldier-poet Wilfred Owen returned to the front after suffering shell shock and was killed on November 4, 1918. Picture: Argus Collection, Fairfax Photographic

POIGNANT: Soldier-poet Wilfred Owen returned to the front after suffering shell shock and was killed on November 4, 1918. Picture: Argus Collection, Fairfax Photographic

From soldier-poets Wilfred Owen and John McCrae to latter-day songwriter Eric Bogle, inspiration came from the unrelenting horrors and sacrifice of the Western Front.

Lieutenant Owen, 25, had one prolific year of writing poetry that expressed revulsion of war before he was killed in action at Sambre-Oise Canal exactly one week before Armistice.

In Anthem for Doomed Youth, the British officer wrote 'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns'.

In Dulce et Decorum Est, Owen addressed the nightmare effects of a poison gas attack 'If you could hear… the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs' to those who told the young 'The old Lie' that it was sweet and proper to die for one’s country.  

Major McCrae, a Canadian surgeon who died of pneumonia in January 1918, wrote the immortal In Flanders Fields (where) 'The poppies blow between the crosses row on row'.

In 15 evocative lines, dead soldiers 'throw the torch' to others to take up the fight.

The poem was used in recruiting and its influence lives on in the red poppies of Australian commemoration of war dead.

This is the bitterest wrong the world wide That young men on the battlefield should rot ...

Nina Murdoch

Two Australian poets expressed the pain and anger of mothers, wives, sisters and sweethearts.

In Warbrides, Nina Murdoch wrote 'This is the bitterest wrong the world wide That young men on the battlefield should rot And I be widowed who was scarce a bride While prattling old men sit at ease and plot'.

Zora Cross wrote Elegy On An Australian Schoolboy in memory of her brother John who died of illness aged 19 at Passchendaele.

'I only know you, brother of my blood, Have gone; and many a friend, Trampled and broken in the Flanders mud, Found Youth’s most bitter end'.

PAIN LIVES ON: Eric Bogle, whose best compositions include songs about the impact of the First World War, in concert in 2018

PAIN LIVES ON: Eric Bogle, whose best compositions include songs about the impact of the First World War, in concert in 2018

Eric Bogle, the Scot who made Australia home in the 1970s, has written a swag of songs that he says “illustrate the utter waste of war while paying tribute to the brave young men who fought.”

They range from And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda and No Man’s Land to Lost Soul, a more recent tribute to an underage Indigenous soldier.

Professor Michael J.K. Walsh, author of the recent book Eric Bogle, Music and the Great War, says Bogle’s observations about war are universal and do not age.

“He has adopted the style of some of the conflict's greatest poets to burn the closing lines of his key compositions into our memories.

“Where Owen said 'But the old man would not so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one', Bogle says 'The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain For Willie McBride it’s all happened again'.”