It’s a place Eric Bogle has returned to time and time again, but he will never forget the first time he visited the Western Front battlefields that inspired his anti-war classic, No Man’s Land, more than 40 years ago.
“It just struck me how young they all were,” the singer-songwriter said from his home in Adelaide.
“In contemporary photographs of World War One, especially when they’ve just come back from the front line or are in the front line … they are all unshaven, and dirty and unkempt, and they all look like old men … [but] the average age of the combatant … was about 19 … so they were very young men, and that was the thing that made the deepest impression of me, and that’s what really engendered the song.”
It was 1975, and Bogle was just 31 at the time.
“I felt like an ancient grandfather walking among some of the gravestones,” he said. “And I came across a small French cemetery just outside the battle zone: two French drummer boys, 15 years old, killed on the same day, probably by the same shell, and buried in the same cemetery. Terrible.”
Deeply moved by the experience, Bogle returned to his hometown in Scotland to write. The result was No Man’s Land with its poignant tale of Private Willie McBride and the tragedy of war. It has been recorded numerous times since and has now inspired a documentary film, Eric Bogle: Return to No Man’s Land, which will premiere at the Australian War Memorial on Friday, 2 February 2018.
Shot by Dan Frodsham and Liam Tully in France in July 2016 during the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, the film captures the moment Bogle revisited the grave of Willie McBride in Authuille Cemetery and recited the lyrics of No Man’s Land.