BY THE RIGHT
© 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 Coo-ees...by the right.