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Christmas at war: how our Diggers celebrated the day

How Christmas was done on the front line in Gallipoli.

How Christmas was done on the front line in Gallipoli.

Christmas is a time to celebrate and reunite with family and friends, sharing food and drink.

But for thousands of soldiers serving overseas in appalling conditions during World War I, the opportunities to celebrate were limited.

Yet somehow they did, and their exploits were captured on film.

One hundred years on, thanks to the Australian War Memorial’s image collections, we are able to take a glimpse at what Christmas was like for troops.

1. With cake

There is plenty of Christmas cake for the patients and staff at the No 15 British General Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. Staff nurse Kathleen Blanche Gawler took the photo on December 25, 1915.

A sepia photo of patients with large cake and bunting
This huge Christmas cake would have been welcome at the No 15 British General Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt.

2. With fur coats

These allied prisoners of war at Schneidemuhl POW Camp in Posen include Private Robert Montgomery of Auburn, NSW (centre). He was captured in France in July 1916 and spent time in several POW camps. He wrote about his sore back and about the concerts for both Christmas and New Year, which he said “relieve the general monotony of camp life”.

Three allied Prisoners of War (POW) at a camp in Germany
PHOTO: Private Robert Montgomery of the 55th Battalion is standing between two other POWs.

3. With cats and music

Those soldiers captured by the enemy and held in POW camps were also able to celebrate Christmas in some way, as shown in his postcard photograph. It was sent to the Australian Red Cross in London by Private Herbert Ernest Murphy from Wellington, NSW. Private Murphy, who is probably standing in the back row to the right of the Christmas tree, was captured at Reincourt, France, on April 11, 1917. He was eventually released and returned to Australia in June 1919.

WWI portrait of group of soldiers with a Christmas tree
PHOTO: Cats and piano accordions gave these POWs gathered around a Christmas tree at a German POW camp some comfort.

4. With too much to drink

This soldier was photographed on Christmas Day in 1915 clutching a bottle, with another in his pocket. According to the caption on this photo, this soldier returned from Cairo with balloons tied all around the mail wagon he was teetering on.

WWI soldier standing on a cart with balloons and a bottle
PHOTO: This soldier had a little too much to drink.

5. With a biscuit

Fittingly, it was Sergeant Cecil Robert Christmas of the 5th Field Ambulance who used this hard tack biscuit as a postcard home. In barely discernible writing in graphite pencil or black ink, are the words “M[erry] Christ[mas] … Prosperous New Y[ear] from old friends Anzac Gallipoli 1915”.

Army biscuit Christmas card from Private Cecil Robert Christmas 5 Field Ambulance, AIF
PHOTO: Sgt Christmas’ “postcard” home.

6. By sending postcards

Embroidered silk postcards were extremely popular with soldiers during World War I and thousands were sent home to mothers, wives, children and sweethearts. The cards carried a range of motifs or patriotic themes and were hand-embroidered by French and Belgian women.

Embroidered silk postcard with Santa and little cottage
PHOTO: Embroidered silk postcards were handmade in France during WWI and were popular souvenirs sent home by the troops. This card features Santa Claus carrying a Christmas tree and a bag of toys7. By being very neat and orderly

This ward at the No 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Middlesex, England, was decorated with a Santa Claus and a large map of Australia on the rear wall and the word “HOME” on it in large letters. However, it does not look as though the festivities have yet started.

Soldiers lined up beside their beds in military hospital
PHOTO: These patients at the No 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Middlesex, England, are ready for their 1918 Christmas celebrations.

8. With packages from home

These gift boxes were issued by the Australian Red Cross Society. This one was collected by John Patrick Kelly, a labourer from Murphy’s Creek in Victoria. During the evacuation of Gallipoli in December 1915, Kelly was one of 16 men chosen to remain behind to hold the right flank of Lone Pine.

Australian Red Cross Christmas box 1918 for Private J P Kelly, 24 Battalion, AIF
PHOTO: This gift box was received by John Kelly.

9. With an outdoor picnic

The negative for this photo of a group of soldiers with their Christmas lunch was one of 89 found in a “Welcome Nugget” tobacco tin on the body of Gunner Maurice Charles Thompson, who served in Egypt, Belgium and France. He took his photographs using a Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic camera but died in France on April 29, 1918.

A group of WWI soldiers at an outdoor table with food on it
PHOTO: A group of Australian soldiers with the Christmas lunch laid out on a makeshift table in 1915. The photo was taken by Gunner Maurice Charles Thompson from a collection taken in Egypt, Belgium and France.

10. With a gift from a princess

This gift tin was given to all British, Commonwealth and Empire soldiers serving on Christmas Day, 1914. Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, was behind a public appeal to ensure “every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front” received a Christmas present. The box would have contained a greeting card, a small pencil shaped like a .303 bullet and some cigarettes.

A gift tin sent to all military personnel for Christmas 1914 from Princess Mary
PHOTO: This Princess Mary’s gift tin belonged to Private Charles Henry Livingstone, a tram conductor in Sydney who enlisted in October 1914.

11. With lots of tea

The Alexandra Club, a private club for women based in Melbourne, instigated a program providing billies to private citizens in Australia to fill with gifts for soldiers at Gallipoli. By September 1915, almost 20,000 had been distributed, according to The Argus newspaper.

A billy with a picture of a kangaroo at Gallipoli.
PHOTO: This Alexandra Club billy was one of thousands distributed to troops by The Alexandra Club in Melbourne. This photo was taken by Thomas Sydney Harrison in 1915.
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