Let’s recall what Bert really wrote in “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels (and other verses)”: Stuart Inder


Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels
Dedicated to Sapper Victor Cooke, 2/22nd Field Coy, R.A.E.

Many a mother in Australia,
  When the busy day is done,
Sends a prayer to the Almighty
  For the keeping of her son,
Asking that an angel guide him
  And bring him safely back—
Now we see those prayers are answered
  On the Owen Stanley Track.
For they haven’t any halos,
  Only holes slashed in their ears,
And their faces worked by tattoos,
  With scratch pins in their hair.
Bringing back the badly wounded
  Just as steady as a hearse,
Using leaves to keep the rain off
  And as gentle as a nurse.
Slow and careful in bad places
  On the awful mountain track,
The look upon their faces
  Would make you think that Christ was black.
Not a move to hurt the wounded,
  As they treat him like a saint;
It’s a picture worth recording,
  That an artist’s yet to paint.
Many a lad will see his mother,
  And husbands wee’uns and wives,
Just because the fuzzy wuzzies
  Carried them to save their lives
From mortar bombs, machine-gun fire,
  Or a chance surprise attack,
To safety and the care of doctors
  At the bottom of the track.
May the mothers of Australia,
  When they offer up a prayer,
Mention those impromptu angels,
  With their fuzzy wuzzy hair.

Written 14 October 1942, at Dump 66, the first Range of the Owen Stanley.
Sapper H.E. “Bert” Beros, NX6925  7 Div., R.A.E., AIF.

When, in 1965, the celebrated foreign correspondent Osmar White published Parliament of a Thousand Tribes, a first-hand look at the emerging Papua New Guinea that he knew only too well during the war, he gave a rundown on the life of the carriers who had arbitrarily been recruited by ANGAU during the war. There had been, he wrote, such maximum wartime mobilisation of native labour that “in some villages every able-bodied male over the approximate age of sixteen was rounded up, transported to the clearing centres and drafted to whatever type of work that had priority in the immediate emergency.”

He said that, during the Owen Stanley campaign, war correspondents had given great publicity to the part played by carriers and stretcher-bearers on the Kokoda Trail, emphasising their endurance, gallantry and loyalty and the consideration with which they treated wounded Australian soldier–and, he added: “While it is true that some natives did show the qualities for which they were praised, it is equally true that the majority did their work only because the white men in command bullied them into it. Few if any were serving voluntarily and most would have deserted if possible.” At the time, of course, such unromantic realities could not have been either reported or discussed.

“The Australian public was in a highly emotional state, alarmed and humiliated by the ease with which the Japanese had swept through the Pacific and threatened the continent with invasion. It was in desperate need of some reassurance that it was fighting on the side of the angels—an alignment which is presumed to ensure eventual victory. Failing the apparition of celestial angels in the New Guinea storm clouds to match the reported phenomenon at Mons, when the Germans were carrying all before them in the First World War, terrestrial angels would have to suffice. A sentimental soldier with a bent for versification wrote some lines of doggerel which described native stretcher-bearers as ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’. The praise caught on.

“Almost overnight the most sullen, reluctant New Guinean employed on the military supply routes became in the minds of a large section of Australians a heroically faithful underdog offering proof by gallantry and devotion that he was not only a Christian gentleman at heart but he was also profoundly grateful for the benevolence of Australian policy and performance in the past.

“The speed with which the public image of a New Guinean was transmogrified from that of bloodthirsty cannibal with a bone through his nose to that of a dusky-skinned, mop-headed, sexless Florence Nightingale must forever remain an inspiration to political propagandists. The new image did not quickly fade. It endured through the war long into the peace, and together with the work of ANGAU even before the Japanese were cleared out of the islands, it laid the foundations for a new deal for PNG from 1949 onwards.”

As Osmar lived until 1991, he certainly learned that indeed “the new image did not quickly fade”, but he might have been surprised to hear that 66 years after Bert Beros wrote Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels it is appearing in print more than ever.

You’ll find thousands of references to Bert and his Fuzzy Angels, and the poem itself, on the web. Most RSL clubs display it somewhere; it is read out or displayed at war memorial events, there is probably not one of the many Australia-based companies now touting for Kokoda Track trekkers that doesn’t print it. And, of course, approaching Anzac Day, everybody quotes lines of it in their local newspapers and newsletters. Regrettably though, most of what is now out there is reverting to mere ”versification” and “doggerel”—that is, crude or trivial in Osmar’s putdown of Bert’s poetic ability. I invite fellow Una Voce readers to test this for themselves.

But before we get to that, it should be recorded that Canadian-born Bert, who had served in World War 1, wrote his poem on the 14 October 1942, in the Owen Stanleys. It appeared in the Brisbane Courier Mail of 31 October, submitted not by Bert but by the mother of a soldier who had sent her a copy. Bert’s name didn’t appear in the paper. It was next published in the Australian Women’s Weekly of 9 January 1943, with the author named.

Later that year Bert published Fuzzy Wuzzys and 53 more of his poems in a 103-page booklet, The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels and other Verses, in Sydney through the F.H. Johnston Publishing Company, of 34 Jamieson Street. It sold for two-and-sixpence and is “dedicated to my two sons, Pte Laurie Beros (a Prisoner of War in Italy) and A.C.1. Cecil Beros (of the RAAF).” He wrote that he was “indebted to Chaplain T.R. Burt, who advised me to put these poems into book form; also for his criticism.”

On the basis of this booklet, my copy of which I picked up many years ago for a few shillings, Bert was certainly a poet. Some of his verses are very moving. Many of his themes refer to mothers, or nurses, and many are dedicated to this Army mate or that. His verses were written in the Middle East, on troopships and other places as well as New Guinea. He says he dedicated Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels to his mate Sapper Victor Cooke because while they were helping the carriers get out the wounded from Iorabaiwa ridge, Vic had said: “There’ll be a lot of black angels in heaven after this!” Bert wrote the poem next morning.

Look at any version of The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels you can turn up now and compare it with what Bert published in his 1943 booklet, at the top of this page. You’ll find that unlike the original, the punctuation will come in every shape and in every position. Dashes, semi-colons, commas, full stops, exclamation marks (lots of these), initial capitals, all added or excised with no thought. And the text will often be in over-imaginative stanzas, when Bert had none.

Some of the same major errors appear frequently in the various versions. Such as Bringing back the wounded, Just as steady as a horse. Bert wrote hearse, which rhymes with nurse, as Bert meant it to.

Another is, Now we see those prayers are answered, Up on the Kokoda Track. Nowhere in his poem does Bert refer to the Kokoda Track. Those prayers were answered On the Owen Stanley Track.

And Bert’s hope that Many a lad will see his mother, And husbands wee’uns and wives, is apparently just too difficult for many to grasp in their revised versions.

Bert and his famous poem deserve better than this. And Bert, the blown-away Canadian who became a Digger, and led an interesting life, has surely earned a serious biography by now. If there is already one out there, I can find no reference to it.                     


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