‘Banjo’ Paterson, the Light Horse and Yass

by Honor Auchinleck

Until we parked in Meehan Street in Yass I’d never heard of the Banjo Paterson Park and its replica of the dignified bust of the renowned poet and local son – the original bust is in the Yass Information Centre.  Better still are the brass plaques with verses of Paterson’s most famous poems including ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ (1889), The Man from Snowy River (1890), ‘The Man from Ironbark’ (1892) and other poems.  These plaques give an aesthetic and poetic richness to Yass’s commemoration of the town’s famous son. Perhaps more than any other poet in Australia’s history, Paterson captured and preserved the characters and spirit of the Australian bush.  More specifically ‘The Man from Snowy River’ is a rollicking portrait of the Australian High Country, the mountains from which many Light Horsemen and their Walers came.  During the twentieth century’s two world wars, these verses reminded and brought some comfort to those serving on active service abroad.

Paterson had an association with the Yass district from the age of seven.  His parents lived at Illalong near Binalong in the Yass Valley and his father is buried in the Binalong Cemetery.  Between his service as a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age covering the Boer War and enlisting to serve in First World War, Paterson farmed at Coodravale near Wee Jasper, some 60km from Yass.  Paterson was a skilled and experienced horseman who loved the bush life, its people and their pursuits.  Having been a journalist and having practised as a solicitor in Sydney, he was possibly a most unusual Light Horseman.  Yet, Light Horsemen were often most unusual in their combination of resourceful talents, independence and other abilities.

It was people like Paterson who were the backbone of the Light Horse.  He was commissioned into the 2nd Remount Unit (Queensland and New South Wales) on 18 October 1915 and together with the Unit embarked on the Orsova in Sydney on 10 November 1915.  As the maximum age for enlistment was 50, at 49 years and seven months, Paterson only qualified by five months. The Remounts were formed in September 1915 to care for and train the horses while the 1st Light Horse Brigade was serving on Gallipoli.

The Remount Depot continued in its role from Moascar – Ismailia in Egypt.  In the contemporary servicemen’s paper The Kia Ora Coo-ee, ‘Caliban’ in his article ‘Moascar News’ wrote, ‘Apart from the object of our presence here, and the importance of the camp to the powers that be, Moascar occupies a unique position regarding sport – and sport to the soldier means much.’  Undoubtedly Paterson played his part in March 1918 in the ‘mounted events’ which included tent pegging and wrestling on horseback.[1]

The full Paterson memorial

Paterson’s outback Australia of the 1890s and the early decades of the 20th century was a mobile and restless one.  It was a harsh, often drought-ridden world.  Men ‘humped their blueys’ and took to the roads and bush tracks, often walking from station to station in search of work, shearing, building fences and/or droving stock in search of fodder.  Paterson’s poem ‘A Bushman’s Song’ captures the mobility of his era:

 

‘I’m travellin’ down the Castlereagh

and I’m a station hand

I’m handy with the ropin’ pole,

I’m handy with the brand

And I can ride a rowdy colt,

Or swing the axe all day,

But there’s no demand for a

Station hand along the Castlereagh

 

So it’s shift, boys, shift,

For there isn’t the slightest doubt

That we’ve got to make a shift

To the stations further out

With the packhorse runnin’ after

For he follows like a dog,

We must strike across the country

At the old jig-jog.’

 

On 22 July 1939, Paterson wrote to my father Tom Mitchell explaining, ‘I never could write anything to order, as I have proved on numerous unfortunate occasions.’  Perhaps over two decades earlier in contrast to the war poets from the Western Front, Perhaps Paterson had found in 1915, ‘16 and ‘17 that he was unable to draw on the immediate environment and events for his inspiration, unlike those war poets on the Western Front. In quiet moments with his pen, he preferred to take comfort in his memories of country Australia – the land he knew and loved so well.  Paterson wouldn’t have been unusual in finding succour in his memories.  Understandably‘ The Mountain Squatter’ (1915) reflects some homesickness for his old home at Coodravale:

 

‘Here in my mountain home,

On rugged hills and steep,

I sit and watch you come,

O Riverina Sheep’

 

Banjo Paterson embarked for Australia on 2 April 1919, having spent three and a half years on active service in France and in Egypt. Perhaps presciently he was already preparing himself emotionally in the writing of ‘Moving On’ (1918)[2] :

 

‘In this war we’re always moving,

                                         Moving on;

When we make a friend another friend

              has gone;

Should a woman’s kindly face

Make us welcome for a space,

Then its boot and saddles, Boys, we’re

Moving on

 

In the hospitals they’re moving,

                                         Moving on;

They’re here today, tomorrow they

              are gone

When the bravest and the best

Of the Boys you know “Go West”

Then you’re choking down your tears and

                                         Moving on.’

 

 

Moving on comes at an emotional price as Paterson and almost every returned serviceperson knows.  In 1902 towards the end of he Boer War, Paterson wrote his poem ‘Last Parade’ and in 1919, it must have resonated yet again.

 

The Memorial and the poems on the plaques in Banjo Paterson Park seem to suggest the visitor seeks out some of Paterson’s other poems inspired by the local, district and the era.  As Conroy’s Gap is only just over 20km from Yass, Paterson’s poem of the same name written in 1890

is a good place to begin.  ‘The Reveille’ (1900) must have warmed the hearts of those who served with the New South Wales Lancers and their descendants, while ‘With French to Kimberley’ contains wider references to ‘the world-wide Empire’s sons’ from across Australia and beyond who served British interests. Resonating particularly with local people from  ‘The Last Parade’ are the lines:

 

‘Home to the flats where lucerne grows;

Home to where the Murrumbigee

Runs white with melted snow‘

 

Paterson’s Boer War poetry inevitably leads to his other writing for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, in particular in Happy Dispatches his peppery, egalitarian remarks about Chauvel jump from the pages.  Paterson described speculation before Chauvel’s appointment as Commander of the Desert Mounted Corps:

 

They’ll never give it (the Desert Mounted Corps) to Chauvel,” said one brass bound brigadier. “Fancy giving the command of the biggest mounted force in the world’s history to an Australian.  Chauvel’s sound, but he’s such a sticky old frog.”

Chauvel was given a try-out on a sideshow and, if the brass hats were to be believed, he did not cover himself with glory.[3]

 

Paterson never passed an opportunity to poke a bit of soldierly fun and of course, Chauvel more than held his own in his role in the Allied success at Beersheba. 

 

As the Light Horse embodied a combination of bush and military traditions, I don’t think it was ever very far from his heart.  About the Queensland Mounted Infantry, a Regiment which was eventually going to become a part of the Light Horse, Paterson wrote:

 

‘There’s a very well-built fellow, with a swinging sort of stride,

About as handy sort as I have ever seen

A rough and tumble fellow that is born to fight and ride

And he’s over here a-fighting for the Queen.

 

He’s Queensland Mounted Infantry compounded ‘orse and foot.

He’ll climb a cliff or gallop down a flat.

He’s a cavalry to travel but he’s infantry to shoot.

And you’ll know him by the feather in his hat!’

 

Paterson and the memorial in Yass could take you travelling through poetry, history and far and wide through Australia and the wider world.  If a memorial inspires a journey, then it could not have served its purpose more effectively.

 

Notes

[1] ‘Caliban’, ‘Moascar News’ Kia-Ora Coo-ee (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, Cornstalk Publishing, 1981) p.10

[2] ‘Moving On’ was published in Kia-Ora Coo-ee (March 1918) p.13

[3] Paterson, A. B. (“Banjo”)  Happy Dispatches (Sydney: Angus and Robertson,1934) p.202 Paterson use of ‘frog’ alludes to Chauvel’s Huguenot ancestry.