Robert Holden is undoubtedly one of our finest social and cultural historians, and this recent book is a timely examination of how Australians thrown onto the front lines in the First World War used music, poetry and storytelling to stay sane and keep their spirits up. “Ultimately, although the linguistic and emotional offerings that soldiers found in song, poetry and reading could never annihilate the horror of war, they could at least help to alleviate it and to reaffirm civilised values. They could also take a homesick soldier back to happier times and to memories of a distant country.” A lovely book full of extraordinary stories, and a testament to the transcendent power of the arts.
You can listen to a selection of these nostalgic songs here in the Library on these lovely discs put out by the ABC (And the band played on : music from the First World War: ABC Classics) or take yourself back in time via the online Naxos Music Library with this terrific compilation (Songs of the Great War – Keep the Home Fires Burning), which is also available at home to our registered Victorian members.
I suppose it must seem somewhat counter-intuitive to many that in the age of the photograph the less “mechanical” visual arts such as painting and drawing continue to be seen as intrinsic to the documentation of war and conflict. The official war-artist programme here in Australia has been responsible for a staggering amount of remarkable art relating to the operations of Australia’s military forces, and it follows a long established British tradition which continues to this day. This fascinating book explores the work of England’s burgeoning modernist art movement at a time of social crisis, and demonstrates how the war work of many of these cutting-edge artists was not only peculiarly apt for such confronting subject matter, but also laid down the artistic foundations for so much that was to follow in the ensuing decades.
Edward Elgar looked on with dismay as the horrors of the war rolled on just over the English Channel, and he composed a number of pieces specifically relating to it, some of them overtly patriotic and others of a more reflective nature. The little known but marvellous theatrical song cycle, Fringes of the Fleet, is based on poems by Rudyard Kipling celebrating the traditions of the British navy, and was clearly aimed at bolstering morale in the grim days of 1917. It was only a short time later however that the composer wrote his Cello Concerto, a work so full of reflection and sadness that it’s hard not to see it as his truest and most profound statement on the tragedy of war and the passing of the era he had come to epitomise.
Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli remains one of the most powerful cinematic evocations of one of the nation’s most traumatising and defining moments. He was drawn to making the film after visiting the Gallipoli Peninsula following the successful premiere of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and together with playwright David Williamson created the story of two young, idealistic Australians who embark on a journey which leads inexorably to the grim reality behind so much idealism and jingoism.
Some Australian lads a long way from home