Women distributing Christmas billies


Perhaps you’ve packed, compiled or received a Christmas hamper full of goodies in the last few days.

About this time 99 years ago, the Anzacs who had evacuated from Gallipoli were eagerly awaiting their Christmas hampers.

Our lead photograph shows women distributing Christmas billies to men in Cairo, Egypt, December 1915.

Driver Jack (John) O. McKenzie, from the 20th Australian Army Service Corps (AASC), recalls: `Everyone was delighted to get one. The one I received was from two Melbourne girls. They distributed over five thousand in our camp & as far as I know every soldier in Egypt got one.’

The Christmas goodies were packed in billies, and many came with a cartoon on the front, which were printed and prepared before the Anzacs quietly retreated from Gallipoli.

Cartoon on a Christmas billy distributed by the Alexandra Club in Melbourne. The Alexandra Club had a program whereby they provided these billies to interested citizens to fill with gifts for soldiers at Gallipoli. According to an article in The Argus newspaper on 22 September 1915, 20 000 billies had been distributed up to that date.

The hampers/billies contained an assortment of items that the Anzacs considered luxuries, but which we might take for granted: tobacco/cigarettes, matches, razor blades, knitted socks, a pencil, writing paper, cake, sauces, pickles, tinned fruit, cocoa, coffee and, of course, Anzac biscuits! They were described as a “fragrant message from home” and according to the distributors were rapturously received.

A group of six Australian soldiers unpack the contents of their Christmas billies at Lemnos, December 1915.

Socks and sauces were particularly welcomed. Men fighting in cold, wet winters were susceptible to developing trench foot. One of the best methods of preventing this malady, which could turn gangrenous and lead to amputation, was keeping the feet clean, dry and warm in a dry pair of socks. By providing the men with a spare pair of well-made woollen socks, they were able to wash and dry out one pair, while wearing the other.

Miss Coll, from Melbourne, knits socks directly from fleece and the Australian Comforts Fund packs them into bales (on the left) to ship them overseas. c.1916

Sauces were coveted because they added flavour and variety to the otherwise salty, monotonous bully beef. Sometimes the men traded or bought curry powder from the Indians stationed at Gallipoli, but longed for the more familiar Worcester or tomato sauce.

Members of the 4th Australian Field Ambulance display the contents of their Christmas billies, which all included a pipe and food. They are wearing the lids on their heads! Lemnos, December, 1915.

The logistics of packing and distributing Christmas billies was handled by the Australian Comforts Fund (ACF) and the Red Cross. It is difficult to know the number that were packed in Australia or London and then transported to Egypt and the small Greek islands of Lemnos and Imbros (where many of the Anzacs from Gallipoli were evacuated to) but it would be close to 50,000.

Most of the sourcing and packing of the Anzac Christmas hampers was done by female volunteers. As Samuel Bowden, Honorary Publicity Organiser for the ACF wrote in 1922: “millions of our women-folk [throughout the British Empire] fought as effectively for such victory as if they had been actually in the firing line. [. . .] There have been thousands of essential “Anzacs” amongst our women.”

Packing Christmas parcels at the Australian Comforts Fund Headquarters in London.

So when you open your Christmas hamper or enjoy a few festive foodie treats on Christmas Day, think of the original Anzacs who pounced on their Christmas billies, hungry for some variety in their diet and flavour, and the small army of women who packed them.

(Australian War Memorial.  23 December 2014 by Alison Wishart)



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