an Australian ambulance driver during the Boer War

Driver Smith by Banjo Paterson

Unique Brand of Battlefield Heroism

This narrative poem tells the humorous story of an Australian ambulance driver who single-handedly captures the enemy commander and ends the war. Paterson employs his signature folk ballad style and bush vernacular to bring the exaggerated tale to life.

The poem opens by introducing the bored Driver Smith, who dreams of combat glory and joins the ambulance corps hoping to see action. Paterson uses irony to depict Smith ferrying away injured soldiers from danger rather than rushing into battle.

When Smith hears artillery passing, he impulsively abandons his post to follow and insert himself into combat. Paterson revels in the absurdity of an ambulance man chasing battle.

The comedic climax comes when Smith spots the enemy leader, caricatured as Paul Kruger, and hilariously loads him alone into the ambulance as a “patient.” He speeds away, claiming victory and single-handedly finishing the war by kidnapping the commander.

Paterson masterfully uses humor and hyperbole to turn war into entertaining adventure. Smith represents the mischievous Australian larrikin spirit, seeking fun over discipline. Underneath the farce, Paterson also seems to gently satirize the propaganda surrounding war heroes.

A Personal Experience

Paterson’s personal experience in non-combat roles during World War I seems to have inspired both the subject matter and wry tone of “Driver Smith” as it highlights the gap between myth and reality in wartime.

  • Like the speaker Driver Smith, Paterson served as an ambulance driver during wartime. This firsthand experience likely inspired the poem’s focus on an ambulance driver wanting to see combat.
  • Paterson witnessed the horrors of war while attached to a volunteer hospital in France. This gives context for the poem’s lightheartedness – using humor as a way to process the trauma of war.
  • Having worked with ambulance crews and wounded soldiers, Paterson understood the disconnect between idealistic visions of war and its grim reality. His poem reflects this through Smith’s naivete and thirst for “adventure”.
  • As someone seeking a war correspondent role, Paterson was familiar with the propaganda and myth-making around war heroes. His poem satirizes this by showing Smith elevated to fame through slapstick luck rather than real valor.
  • Paterson’s promotion to Major by the war’s end aligns with the poem’s exaggerated celebration of Smith as a conqueror. It playfully skewers how veterans were venerated after the war, regardless of their actual contribution.

The poem’s brisk pacing, simple rhyme scheme, and Australian slang give it an energetic bush ballad rhythm. Paterson skillfully employs comedy and exaggeration to offer a uniquely Australian take on battlefield heroism.

Driver Smith

’Twas Driver Smith of Battery A was anxious to see a fight;
He thought of the Transvaal all the day, he thought of it all the night—
“Well, if the battery’s left behind, I’ll go to the war,” says he,
“I’ll go a-driving an ambulance in the ranks of the A.M.C.

“I’m fairly sick of these here parades,—it’s want of a change that kills—
A-charging the Randwick Rifle Range and aiming at Surry Hills.
And I think if I go with the ambulance I’m certain to find a show,
For they have to send the Medical men wherever the troops can go.

“Wherever the rifle bullets flash and the Maxims raise a din,
It’s there you’ll find the Medical men a-raking the wounded in—
A-raking ’em in like human flies—and a driver smart like me
Will find some scope for his extra skill in the ranks of the A.M.C.’

So Driver Smith he went to the war a-cracking his driver’s whip,
From ambulance to collecting base they showed him his regular trip.
And he said to the boys that were marching past, as he gave his whip a crack,
“You’ll walk yourselves to the fight,” says he—“Lord spare me, I’ll drive you back.”

Now, the fight went on in the Transvaal hills for the half of a day or more,
And Driver Smith he worked his trip—all aboard for the seat of war!
He took his load from the stretcher men and hurried ’em homeward fast
Till he heard a sound that he knew full well—a battery rolling past.

He heard the clink of the leading chains and the roll of the guns behind—
He heard the crack of the drivers’ whips, and he says to ’em, “Strike me blind,
I’ll miss me trip with this ambulance, although I don’t care to shirk,
But I’ll take the car off the line to-day and follow the guns at work.”

Then up the Battery Colonel came a-cursing ’em black in the face.
“Sit down and shift ’em, you drivers there, and gallop ’em into place.”
So off the Battery rolled and swung, a-going a merry dance,
And holding his own with the leading gun goes Smith with his ambulance.

They opened fire on the mountain side, a-peppering by and large,
When over the hill above their flank the Boers came down at the charge;
They rushed the guns with a daring rush, a-volleying left and right,
And Driver Smith with his ambulance moved up to the edge of the fight.

The gunners stuck to their guns like men, and fought like the wild cats fight,
For a Battery man don’t leave his gun with ever a hope in sight;
But the bullets sang and the Mausers cracked and the Battery men gave way,
Till Driver Smith with his ambulance drove into the thick of the fray.

He saw the head of the Transvaal troop a-thundering to and fro,
A hard old face with a monkey beard—a face that he seemed to know;
“Now, who’s that leader,” said Driver Smith, “I’ve seen him before to-day.
Why, bless my heart, but it’s Kruger’s self,” and he jumped for him straight away.

He collared old Kruger round the waist and hustled him into the van.
It wasn’t according to stretcher drill for raising a wounded man;
But he forced him in and said, “All aboard, we’re off for a little ride,
And you’ll have the car to yourself,” says he, “I reckon we’re full inside.”

He wheeled his team on the mountain side and set ’em a merry pace,
A-galloping over the rocks and stones, and a lot of the Boers gave chase;
But Driver Smith had a fairish start, and he said to the Boers, “Good-day,
You have Buckley’s chance for to catch a man that was trained in Battery A.”

He drove his team to the hospital and said to the P.M.O.,
“Beg pardon, sir, but I missed a trip, mistaking the way to go;
And Kruger came to the ambulance and asked could we spare a bed,
So I fetched him here, and we’ll take him home to show for a bob a head.”

So the word went round to the English troops to say they need fight no more,
For Driver Smith with his ambulance had ended the blooming war:
And in London now at the music halls he’s starring it every night,
And drawing a hundred pounds a week to tell how he won the fight.

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