The Snowy River Men

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

I do not, as a rule, post the lyrics of songs I have recorded. If they are not comprehensible on listening then there is no point in printing them. It’s a bit like having to explain a joke after the punch-line. But I will make an exception in this case- and here are the reasons why: first, this is one of the finest songs ever written about the Great War and Australia’s involvement in it from the point of view of the soldiers actually doing the fighting. Second, my great-uncle, Private John Joseph Mitchell (5141) of the 22nd Battalion, Australian Infantry, A.I.F., died on 18 September, 1917, near Polygon Wood. This was the day before Hal Archer, the subject of the song, was killed (also by an artillery round). This killing ground was where one of the Snowy River Men, Private Ernest Albert Corey, a decorated Military Medal and three bars recipient, was a stretcher bearer during that horrific period of time. Third, Kevin Baker, the writer of this fine song has been a long-time friend of mine. And, finally, it is a much longer song than those I generally present in these posts. It is AAB in form, with ten separate verse quatrains and five identical chorus quatrains ( / = line divisions; // = verse divisions )

Dear Mrs Allen, I write to you today, / To say that I was with your son just before he passed away / I trained with him at Goulburn and we travelled on to France / And I was there when he got hit in the German advance.// It seems so long ago now since we marched into your town / and all the young men heard the call and signed their names straight down / and the girls and the children proudly cheered us all along / Ah, Bibbenluke that day was a feast of speech and song.

Chorus But The Snowy River Men just couldn’t march today / There’s far too many of them dead for the rest to feel that way / The cold ground of Europe has been watered with their blood /There’s a strange new crop of crosses rising in this foreign mud

From Goulburn to Sydney then a ship from Circular Quay, / A spirit of adventure stood and filled both Les and me / It was great to be with comrades true and travelling abroad / For a while the war seemed far away, and the world was to be toured // In Durban, the natives took us travelling in style / In rickshaws that they pulled along at a shilling a mile / In Cape Town we watch the black boys diving in the bay / The Snowies had a good time there and would have liked to stay Chorus

When we landed at Plymouth, we’d spent eight weeks at sea / And entrained straight way for Wilton where our camp turned out to be / They treated us well there so we really can’t complain / That the sky was grey the weather bleak and it always seemed to rain // When we set sail for France the weather had turned fine / And it wasn’t long before the call to reinforce the line / Then a shell whined above us and we were raked with stones and mud / And I turned and saw Les sitting there in a pool of his own blood  Chorus

He stared as the blood poured out of his legless thigh / And I carried him back to the aid post close nearby / His blood soaked my uniform, but he never breathed a sigh / And I had no idea then that he was going to die // When I left him he spoke of a pain inside his chest / I suppose that’s what killed him I just don’t know the rest / But I know that we all miss him and can’t help but wonder why / So many Snowy men so quickly had to die Chorus

We hear the king’s grateful for all the men who’ve died / And is sending home a photo of the graves in which they lie / Well I still think the cause is right but it’s not clear anymore / Why so many Australian men should die in Europe’s war / We hope with our hearts that time will ease the pain / Of never once to see his face or hear his voice again / But I’ve seen so much death now since that day on which he died / That I can’t now be the Snowy Man that once I was inside. Chorus

Have you ever heard of the “SNOWY RIVER MEN” Recruitment march? This was one of many recruitment drives which took place around Australia circa 1916 to boost the number of enlistments into the AIF during World War One. The march was organised by a Captain by the name of F.R. WEDD and started on the 6th of January, 1916. A small group of 14 men proceeded to walk from the small country town of Delegate in southern New South Wales. Their route would take them through many other localities within the Monaro District – to conclude at the AIF Training Depot in Goulburn. A distance of roughly 350 kilometres. It was hoped that at least 200 men would join up as a result, but to the dismay of Captain WEDD, this number fell well short.

The route took the marchers through many small towns and localities:- from Delegate through to Craigie, Mila, Bombala, Bibbenluke, Holt’s Flat, Nimmitabel, Summer Hill, Rock’s Flat, Cooma, Bunyan, Numerella, Billylingera, Bredbo, Colinton, Michelago, Williamsdale, Queanbeyan, Bungendore, Deep Creek, Tarago, Inveralochy, Tiranna and finally through to Goulburn after 23 days of marching.

They marched under a banner, made by the women of Delegate. By the time they reached Goulburn on the 29th of January, 1916 – one hundred and forty-four (144) men had joined the procession. The majority were then enlisted into the 55th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces and sadly – many would later lose their lives in the bloody battles which occurred between 1916 to 1918.

Perhaps the most famous of the marchers, was Private Ernest Albert COREY who, as a stretcher bearer – was to be awarded the Military Medal a total of 4 times. He was born and bred in the small town of Numerella but he is said to have enlisted from Nimmitabel. It was from this town, that the war would take him to the other side of the world. His first award of the M.M. was for his actions in rescuing wounded comrades at Queant near Bullecourt during the horrific fighting on the 15th of May of 1917. He would be awarded his first ‘bar’ to the Military Medal for similar actions on the 26th of September, 1917 at Polygon Wood. The second ‘bar’ would be won at Peronne roughly twelve months later, for his work as a stretcher bearer on the 1st & 2nd of September, 1918. His third ‘bar’ being awarded for his actions at the Hindenburg Line north of Bellicourt on the 30th of September 1918. One may consider it unique – that all of his awards were given as a result of “saving life” and not “taking life”.

The song by Kevin BAKER is in my opinion – one of the most moving songs to be composed with regards to the First World War. His voice is very ‘Australian’ and lends itself to the subject matter. It is hard not to feel the emotion that would have been behind the letter written by Private Hal ARCHER (2121 Private Halloran ‘Hal’ ARCHER from Tarcutta). His mate, 2124 Private Samuel Leslie ‘Les’ ALLEN of Bibbenluke had been fatally wounded by artillery fire on the 19th of May 1917. Les had been a school teacher and was 27 years of age. During the actual march; when the volunteers approached the town of Bibbenluke, Les and the school children had travelled out to meet them. When the two groups met, the children “fell in” behind the marchers and joined the procession into the village. Les later accompanied the group when he joined them at Holt’s Flat. So after his mate’s death, Hal Archer takes it upon himself to write the letter to Mrs Elizabeth ALLEN – the mother of Les. I believe that Kevin BAKER was inspired to write this song, so many years later after reading this letter – which would lead one to believe that this letter still survives. I have made numerous attempts to contact Kevin, with a negative result. If any reader may be able to assist – I would like to ascertain from Kevin his motivation and sentiment in composing this song which I believe, is exceptional. (source, from administrator, Gary Traynor)

Yes, Gary, Kevin did have the letter. (I have tried to contact Gary through the site above) Kevin had gone on a song-collecting journey to the Snowy Mountain area. It must have been after he returned to Australia from Germany and Ireland (where he stayed with us for several weeks in 1981 during the Republican Prisoners Hunger Strikes).

I first met Kevin in 1973 or 1974- I was sent to Warrawong High School by the NSW Department of Education after being recruited from Northern Ireland where I had graduated the year before from Queen’s University, Belfast. Kevin transferred to Warrawong High from Berkeley High School in the adjacent suburb in 1974, as I recall. We generally played music together on Friday nights where Kevin played a fine mouth organ, flute or piccolo (accompanied by a goblet or three of wine…) We also played in various groups until I left Wollongong to return to Northern Ireland at the end of 1978.

When I returned to Australia in 1988, I re-established contact with Kevin in Wollongong where he told me of his song- collecting in the Snowy Mountain area and the letter written to Mrs Allen by Hal Archer. In the early 1990s he toured up the east coast of Australia to play at folk venues and I met him again in Ayr, N. Queensland when he was passing through to Townsville and Cairns. We met several more times in the late 1990s and early ‘noughties at festivals such as Gulgong, a 19th-century gold rush town in the Central Tablelands and folk clubs, such as the temperance venue in the western Sydney suburb of Toongabbie (we had a drink afterwards!)

My lockdown version features Band-in-a-Box/RealBand with n-Track 9. The slow ballad combo of drums, bass, acoustic piano and dual guitars drives the song along with verse/chorus roles respectively for mandolin, accordion, fiddle and organ. The vocals are doubled in the choruses. But, search out and listen to Kevin’s classic 1982 original for the authentic take.

The Snowy River Men

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