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Iconic Australian unleashes the raw emotion of the world’s greatest war poetry


There is a special poignancy about war poetry, written as it is in response to the extremes of human aggression and suffering. Its words are so powerful, the emotions it evokes are so intense, and the experiences described are so inhuman that it’s hard for anyone simply to ‘enact’ a reading of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, as it were, from a distance. Rather, to understand the full meaning, one has to have been there.

Peter Cundall was.

As a machine-gunner in the Korean War, the much-loved ABC television personality experienced all the horror and brutality first-hand, the trench warfare leaving an indelible impression on his psyche and instilling in him a passionate abhorrence of war.

This extraordinary recording of Peter reading the poetry emanating from 150 years of senseless violence is not an album of war poetry per se, but more specifically of anti-war poetry. As Peter himself says in a short documentary on the making of the album (, ‘One of the things about all soldiers – anyone who’s been through active service and frontline activity – is that they are always opposed to war. And even though these poems were written up to a century ago or even more, they all reflect the horror of modern warfare.’

From Walt Whitman’s deeply moving account of his time as a wound-dresser in the American Civil War, through Owen’s and Sassoon’s masterpieces from the First World War, right down to Tasmanian poet Tim Thorne’s response to the contemporary bombing of Fallujah, these poems all embrace the same outrage at what Peter calls ‘the mealy-mouthed politicians who have sent them there’.

For those who know what it’s like, war can never be a source of triumphalism. ‘The only poems written in glorification of war,’ says Peter, ‘are by those who weren’t there.’

Poems like Wifred Owen’s Spring Offensive document experiences that were similar to those Peter himself encountered as a member of the Australian Third Battalion in the Korean War. ‘Many people don’t realise that the Korean War was trench warfare at the end, like it was in World War I. We Australians were still equipped with World War I rifles – in other words we had the same equipment as Owen – and when he described the assault on a hill and the slaughter that followed, it was exactly what I and others experienced.’

This first-hand experience of warfare also sheds new light on lines that have often confused readers. Spring Offensive describes soldiers in battle who, mysteriously, ‘lying easy, were at ease’. It seems a contradiction, but as Peter explains, ‘Very few people realise that when soldiers are about to go into action, they are in a state of controlled terror – and they go to sleep! It’s their escape.’ In archival photos from the trenches, soldiers about to be sent over the top can be seen huddled in the trenches, fast asleep.

The choice of music to accompany these magnificent poems has been carefully considered. Like Peter himself, the great English composer and pacifist Vaughan Williams was there: as an ambulance-bearer on the frontline during the First World War.

His sublime The Lark Ascending and Fifth Symphony were composed at the height of the atrocities in the First and Second World Wars respectively. Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony is perhaps modern music’s most definitive statement of horror at the abomination of war, while Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings has been used all too often to accompany the tragic homecoming of American servicemen.

Peter was insistent that not just the well-worn musical anthems be included on the recording, but that contemporary Australian music also be featured. An excerpt from Andrew Schultz’s brand-new Violin Concerto makes its first appearance on disc, accompanying Spring Offensive. Two of Ross Edwards’ most sublime ensemble works sit perfectly in the context as pleas for humanity amidst wilful destruction, and Peter Sculthorpe’s Small Town introduces the bugle call that still sends shivers down the spines of Australian servicemen and women and their families alike.

Ultimately, Peter Cundall Reads War Poetry is a soundscape reflecting not just the pity and the horror of war, but the intensely personal experience of someone who lived through it and whose dearest, and sadly still unfulfilled, wish is that it never happen again.

Watch the mini-documentary on YouTube:

(direct link)

Track listing

1 Aftermath | Siegfried Sassoon
Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending (excerpt)

2 Dulce et decorum est | Wilfred Owen
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 5: III. Romanza (excerpt)

3 Spring Offensive | Wilfred Owen
Andrew Schultz – Violin Concerto: I. Expansive (excerpt)

4 Rain | Edward Thomas

5 Lament | Wilfrid Gibson

6 Here Dead Lie We | A.E. Housman
Ross Edwards – Symphony No. 1 ‘Da pacem, Domine’ (excerpt)

7 Channel Firing | Thomas Hardy

8 Beach Burial | Kenneth Slessor
Peter Sculthorpe – Small Town (excerpt)

9 Song of the Three Soldiers | Bertolt Brecht / Eric Bentley

10 Homecoming | Bruce Dawe
Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings (excerpt)

11 In Thai Binh (Peace) Province | Denise Levertov
Samuel Barber – Adagio for Strings (excerpt)

12 Incitement to Disobedience | Tom Earley
Henryk Górecki – Symphony No. 3 ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’: II. Lento e largo (excerpt)

13 Villanelles of the New Morality (No. 3) | Tim Thorne
Henryk Górecki – Symphony No. 3 ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’: II. Lento e largo (excerpt)

14 Chalk Dust | B N Oakman
Ross Edwards – Veni creator Spiritus (Come, O Creator Spirit) – I. Puro e tranquillo (excerpt)

15 The Happy Warrior | Herbert Read
Ross Edwards – Veni creator Spiritus (Come, O Creator Spirit) – I. Puro e tranquillo (excerpt)

16 High Flight | John Gillespie Magee, Jr
Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending (excerpt)

17 The Wound-Dresser (excerpt) | Walt Whitman
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (excerpt)

18 And Death Shall Have No Dominion | Dylan Thomas
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 5: III. Romanza (excerpt)

19 Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night | Dylan Thomas
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 5: III. Romanza (excerpt)

20 Anthem for Doomed Youth | Wilfred Owen
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 5: IV. Passacaglia


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