© Ron Stevens

Winner, 2010 ‘Coo-ee March Festival ─ Coo-ee March Section’ Gilgandra, NSW.

The pre-march ball had been a grand event,

yet the torchlight march failed to supplement

recruited numbers.  All the speeches made,

now ‘Hitchen’s Own’ were mustered on parade.

There would be other speeches down the track,

of course, for politicians didn’t lack

a fighting word or stance to back a cause

as popular as British Empire wars.

     So left, left, left right left round from Bridge Street

     into Miller, behind the drummer’s beat,

     while left, left, left right left with coo-ees, cheers

     and heartbeats swept aside intruding fears.

On that nineteen-fifteen October day,

Gilgandra’s twenty-six had shown the way

to inspire the nation by pushing on

to a blistering foot-sore marathon.

For three hundred and twenty miles ahead

was Sydney, goal to which each footstep led.

And from each township spaced along the route,

the Coo-ees hoped for many a recruit.

     It was left, left, left right left to Dripstone

     and Millthorpe, through rose-petals proudly thrown.

     It was left, left, left right left at Lithgow,

     as leaders watched recruiting numbers grow.

Two hundred and sixty-three reached the arch

of blood-red roses that ended the march

in Sydney, after forty-three tough days.

Warm welcomes, crowds and speeches, more displays

of patriotism, then Liverpool

which introduced recruits to Army rule

and routine, to being just ‘marmalades’.

Depressed by food complaints, the glamour fades.

     Four months of left, left, left right left around

     the district and the dusty parade ground.

     Four months of left, left, left right left before

     welcome orders to leave their Aussie shore.

The band on the wharf at Woolloomooloo

played rousing tunes of glory, while the crew

of Star of England helped our troops aboard.

Bound for Egypt, the Coo-ees’ sprits soared.

They knew that Egypt was the stepping-stone

towards the great adventure’s battle-zone.

Yet our would-be warriors quickly found

Tel el Kebir another training ground.

     More left, left, left right left in sight of Sphinx

     and Pyramids, more gripes at food that stinks,

     more left, left, left right left in sand and heat,

     being bored, contemplating blistered feet.

Before the shift to France, the tightly-knit

Coo-ee contingent had been forced to split —

the thirteenth and forty-fifth battalion

or artillery; each was shortly gone

to France to take their place against the Hun.

The great adventure had at last begun.

It shone at Villers Bret’, with guts and flair,

at Albert, Moquet Farm and Poziers.

     No left, left, left right left would ever sound

     when zig-zag-charging over shell-holed ground.

     No polished left, left, left right left held back

     the fear engendered by a gas-attack.

Then it was over, time to drift back home;

except for heroes left in foreign loam —

MacDonald, Hunter, Finn and Maguire;

also in England, not slain by gunfire

but disease, Hitchen, Coo-ee activist.

But for him, the legend might not exist.

Back home the welcoming was limited,

for now the Great Depression loomed ahead.

     No left, left, left right left from Sydney back

     to Gil’, just lonely miles by railway track.

     No left, left, left right left up Miller Street;

     for some just seeking jobs on weary feet.

Why does the Coo-ees’ story still appeal?

October long week-ends why do we feel

a surge of pride when cheers and coo-ees sound

where the recruits had formed-up and then wound

their way from Gil’ and into history?

Perhaps the outback spirit is the key,

displayed at bush poetry’s Friday night

where Coo-ee tales are savoured with delight.

     A phantom left, left, left right left will beat

     within your heart and move your restless feet;

     left, left, left right left as poets recite ─

     you’re marching with the the right.