A Tribute To The Old Campaigners
This poem ‘The Last Parade‘ by Banjo Paterson offers a poignant tribute to the Australian horses who served during wartime. Through vivid imagery and emotional appeals, Paterson gives a voice to the forgotten equine veterans.
Adopting the horse’s perspective, Paterson depicts the scenes of their sacrifice – marching hungry and exhausted, constantly being ridden into battle, and bravely enduring wounds and hardship. Details like “warm blood run down” capture the horrors endured.
Paterson personifies the horses powerfully – having one speak out at the end on behalf of all the “old campaigners.” The horse pleads for the simple reward of returning home after their loyal service. This anthropomorphism adds emotive power to the anti-war message.
The rhyme scheme changes halfway through, mirroring the shift from descriptive verse to the horse’s dramatic monologue. This dialogue format allows Paterson to directly voice the horses’ petition and underscores their loyalty being repaid with disregard.
The poem is a strong critique of the terrible costs of war, revealing them through equine eyes. While honoring their obedient courage, Paterson also condemned the ruthless overuse of horses in battle. He avoids glorifying war by focusing on its impact on innocents – the horses compelled to sacrifice themselves.
A Very Personal Experience
Paterson’s intimate experience of the war horses’ plight inspired sympathy and critiques of their misuse, channeled through poems giving them voice.
- Over 130,000 Australian horses served in World War I, shipped overseas to support cavalry and transport units. Many died from disease, exhaustion, or wounds sustained in battle.
- Horses were subjected to terrible conditions – facing shortages of food and water, long hours of hauling artillery, and constant danger on the frontlines. They were seen as expendable and frequently pushed to their limits.
- Paterson witnessed first-hand the massive toll on horses while serving as a Remount officer responsible for providing replacement horses. He saw how cavalry charges led to injury and death for many horses.
- After the war, the surviving Australian horses were either auctioned off locally or sold for meat rather than being brought back home – a betrayal of their loyalty.
- Paterson, being a lifelong horseman himself, likely felt great anguish seeing these noble animals treated as mere tools of war. His poem captures the injustice done to horses compelled to serve and sacrifice without choice.
- As someone who grew up honoring the horse’s role in Australian culture and frontier life, Paterson clearly mourned the exploitation of horses by war tactics. His personification of them was likely meant to highlight their innocence.
- Paterson’s time in the Remount Unit would have given him first-hand experience of the bonds between soldiers and their equine partners, making their suffering during battle all the more painful.
By adopting the voice of a war horse, Paterson could criticize the horrors of war while circumventing censorship. Ultimately it is a haunting tribute to the forgotten four-legged veterans of Australia’s wars.
The Last Parade
With never a sound of trumpet,
With never a flag displayed,
The last of the old campaigners
Lined up for the last parade.
Weary they were and battered,
Shoeless, and knocked about;
From under their ragged forelocks
Their hungry eyes looked out.
And they watched as the old commander
Read out, to the cheering men,
The Nation’s thanks and the orders
To carry them home again.
And the last of the old campaigners,
Sinewy, lean, and spare—
He spoke for his hungry comrades:
“Have we not done our share?
“Starving and tired and thirsty
We limped on the blazing plain;
And after a long night’s picket
You saddled us up again.
“We froze on the wind-swept kopjes
When the frost lay snowy-white.
Never a halt in the daytime,
Never a rest at night!
“We knew when the rifles rattled
From the hillside bare and brown,
And over our weary shoulders
We felt warm blood run down,
“As we turned for the stretching gallop,
Crushed to the earth with weight;
But we carried our riders through it—
Carried them perhaps too late.
“Steel! We were steel to stand it—
We that have lasted through,
We that are old campaigners
Pitiful, poor, and few.
“Over the sea you brought us,
Over the leagues of foam:
Now we have served you fairly
Will you not take us home?
“Home to the Hunter River,
To the flats where the lucerne grows;
Home where the Murrumbidgee
Runs white with the melted snows.
“This is a small thing surely!
Will not you give command
That the last of the old campaigners
Go back to their native land?’
They looked at the grim commander,
But never a sign he made.
“Dismiss!” and the old campaigners
Moved off from their last parade.