Thousands will march through the streets of Australia’s cities on Anzac Day, but the Anzac spirit was born when the men from the bush went to war.

By Frank Povah

Australia has been an urbanised country from the beginning of white settlement, but the bush dweller has always been a symbol of everything we see as good about our national character. Mateship, making the best of what is dished out, tenacity in the face of hardship: these were bush virtues extolled by our earliest writers and the rest of the country took them to heart. ‘The bush’ became the national character.
Economically, we depended on the bush in the early years. Up to the 1950s, wool, beef, wheat and timber from the hinterland and the outback were an important source of work and wealth to the city-dwelling majority. The bush and its people became the stuff of legend, and there is none more enduring than the legend of the Aussie bush soldier.
When England went to war with two Dutch South African republics in 1899, Australia – still a collection of colonies – was quick to offer men and horses to the cause of Empire. The Imperialists were at first reluctant to accept the offer, being of the opinion that the ‘Colonials’ would be far inferior to the Imperial forces. They were also unsure about the offer of mounted troopers, expressing a preference for infantry, but it was not long before they revised their opinion. Commander in chief Lord Roberts wrote, “… they had what I want my men to have, more individuality. They could find their way about the country far better than the British cavalrymen could do”.
In the first 18 months of the Boer War, nearly 3000 trained soldiers were sent to South Africa. With them went 3637 men of the Citizens’ Bushmen contingents. Equipped mostly by public subscription, they were raw recruits. Then, in the second year of the war, after an invitation from the British Government, the Imperial Bushmen were organised and the Australian Regiment, comprising companies from Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, was formed – the first combined colonial regiment.
The experience gained in South Africa was to prove invaluable just a few years later when the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was formed to fight the Great War. Most of the senior officers and instructors in the early Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) had seen service in South Africa and it was the AIF that led us into true nationhood and inspired our best-loved legend, the bush Anzac.
They had a huge impact, those boys and men from the bush who travelled to the other end of the world and died in their thousands. Though it didn’t matter much where a soldier came from in the mind-scarring muck of the trenches and on the waterless forced marches over inhospitable foreign deserts – from Gallipoli to Villers-Bretonneux, from Bullecourt to Palestine – they remained true to the national ideal: sticking by your mates, pulling your weight.
Only about 20 percent of the Australians who served overseas in World War I (WWI), dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’, were actually from the bush. There are far more accountants and wool store clerks on the rolls held at the Australian War Memorial than there are station hands and farm labourers, yet the legend persists. European war correspondents wrote of “tall, sun-bronzed Australians”, but the Anzacs were no taller on average than the men from other countries in the Empire. Perhaps they were a shade or two more tanned, but that may have been due as much to the long boat trip over and the training camps in Egypt as it was to any national propensity to tanned skin.
The bush Anzacs legend played to the propaganda of the time, designed to bolster the morale of loved ones back home and to keep the men enlisting. But there’s more to it than that. There was something about that 20pc that gained them a place in the Australian soul that they hold to this day. To my generation, born just before or during World War II, the men who served in WWI were our grandfathers and great-uncles, sometimes our bosses and schoolteachers; real people. If you were brought up in the bush, or visited grandparents who lived on a farm or in one of those once lively little settlements that flavour this country, chances are you may have sometimes caught a glimpse of granddad’s slouch hat adorned with the emu plumes of the Light Horse. Viewed fleetingly through a bedroom door left open a crack or hanging on a peg in a dusty corner of a shed, it evoked visions of dashing charges against an entrenched enemy and of long columns of riders trailing the crests of sand-dunes.
Those Light Horsemen from the bush were with the others at Gallipoli. They made the climb up from that dreadful beach, inch by bloodstained inch, in a display of courage that has resonated down the years: sheer bloody tenacity and a refusal to be looked down on by anyone, sport. If you could stick at being a free selector in a climate that laughed in your face, then you could stick at this.
We still weren’t far removed from our convict past back then and already our gallows humour had gained a reputation. We could joke about being sent to lose a battle and about glorious defeats and being simple Colonials, and take pride in the saying of it.
Many of those first posted to the Light Horse regiments were bushmen, and it must have been apparent to even the most class-conscious of the English officers that these were good men to have. Like the Citizens’ Bushmen a few years before, they could shoot and ride, having been familiar with horses and rifles since childhood. They stood out at Gallipoli, in a place where bravery was everyday behaviour and mateship was as strong as ever.
Those bushmen were also good at making do. A free selector on the Darling Downs considered the squatter’s fencing wire fair game and it was an easy transition to snaffling desperately needed bits and pieces from headquarters’ supplies. The old song says, “Stringybark and greenhide, it’ll never fail yer; Stringybark and greenhide, it’s the mainstay of Australia”, and those troopers were nothing if not stringybark and greenhide.
The ‘Snowball Marches’ (recruitment marches), most of which were staged in 1915 and 1916 and the last two in 1918, also added to the legend. Of these, the Cooee March, is probably the best known. On October 10, 1915, 26 men left Gilgandra, NSW, to march to Sydney, nearly 520 kilometres away. Led by the captain of the local rifle club, the marchers yelled loud cooees as they entered each town along the way, calling for men to attend recruitment meetings and join them in the march. Feted by large crowds everywhere, they reached Sydney on November 12 – 263 strong.
Another march, not so well known, perhaps adds a little more knowledge about the influence the bush Anzacs had on the national psyche. On January 6, 1916, 12 men left Delegate, on the high plains of the fabled Snowy Mountains, to march to the AIF Training Depot 350km away in Goulburn. Under a banner proclaiming them to be the ‘The Men from Snowy River’, they marched through the Monaro, stopping for official receptions at Bombala, Cooma, Queanbeyan and Bungendore, arriving with 144 new recruits at Goulburn at the end of January. Ernest Corey was one who joined the march. A blacksmith from Nimmitabel, NSW, Ernest served as a stretcher bearer with the 55th battalion and is the only Commonwealth soldier to have been awarded the Military Medal four times.
These marches had their darker side, of course. Many were not entirely born of a patriotic fervour to serve king and country, but were egged on by ‘the establishment’ to boost recruitment. In some of the larger towns visited by the marchers, a dummy would dramatically ‘volunteer’ to enlist to inspire more recruits. But the rollicking bushies genuinely captured the public imagination.
When you look at the list of 64 Australian Victoria Cross (VC) winners of WWI, about a quarter were from the country, from places as far apart as Recherche, Tas, Northam, WA, and Glencoe Station, Qld. It seems unfair to single out any individual from that company of extraordinary men, but Private William Jackson does stand out – he was 18 and the youngest known member of the AIF to win the VC.
Born at Gunbar, near Hay, NSW, in 1897, William lived on the family farm at Merriwa in the Upper Hunter Valley, NSW, until he enlisted. He joined the AIF in February 1915, when he was 17 years and five months old, and was posted to the 17th Battalion, landing at Gallipoli on August 20, 1915. After Gallipoli, he was sent to the Sinai Desert then posted to France on March 6, 1916.
A report of his gallantry, published in the London Gazette of September 9, 1916, states:
For conspicuous bravery. On the return from a successful raid, several members of the raiding party were seriously wounded in No Man’s Land by shell fire. Private Jackson got back safely and after handing over a prisoner he had brought in, immediately went out again under heavy shell fire and assisted in bringing in a second wounded man. He went out again with a Sergeant, bringing in another wounded man, when his arm was blown off by a shell, the Sergeant being rendered unconscious. He then returned to our trenches, obtained assistance [for his wound] and went out again, looking for his two wounded comrades. He set a splendid example of pluck and determination. His work has always been marked by the greatest coolness and bravery.
But perhaps there’s another more painful reason these bush Anzacs are so fondly remembered by a nation that is coming to grips with its painful past, and it’s mirrored by the fate of the Snowy River men. Most of the recruits from that march became the fourth reinforcements of the 55th Battalion, AIF, and all saw service on the Western Front. Of those 144 Snowy River marchers, 39 were killed in action and 75 became casualties. Regarding an action at Gallipoli, war historian C.W. Bean wrote:
The West Australians assumed that death was certain, and each in the secret places of his mind debated how he would go to it. Mate, having said goodbye to mate … went forward to meet death instantly, running as straight and swiftly as they could at the Turkish rifles. With that regiment went the flower of the youth of Western Australia …
Here lie the bones of the legend; why the bush Anzacs left such a legacy. You see it on war memorials in little towns all over this old, brown land. Places with a male population of 100 men and less eligible for service – and there were hundreds such – lost 10pc or more to ‘the mincer’ in Europe. Ten may have been killed and still others maimed in mind and body. It doesn’t sound like many now, but it was 10pc of the eligible bachelors, the labour force, the dancing partners, footballers and cricketers, the young husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, and it cut the guts out of the little towns.
One Anzac told me that going to war had nothing to do with the English king or the mother country. “Anyway, my ancestors were Celts,” he says. But it was a “bloody great adventure, a trip overseas with a bit of a stoush at the other end”. Much of the country was in drought and was not long out of a major Depression, so the trip overseas must have seemed attractive. “When we found out the bloody truth, it was too bloody late,” he continues. “So we just made the bloody best of it. What else could we bloody well do?”

This story excerpt is from Issue #52

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007