Puddings on the Veld and kangaroos in the Gulf: Christmas in the Memorial’s collection
Miniature pink underwear, artistic biscuits, autographed handkerchiefs – these may seem like odd Christmas gifts, yet these are just a few of the objects that Australian soldiers have sent home while serving overseas and which are now held in the Memorial’s collection. They include items from the South African War (1899–1902) and the two world wars, as well as from more recent operations, such as the Persian Gulf, and they range from the traditional to the humorous and sentimental.
One of the earliest examples is a plum pudding from South Africa. At Christmas the soldiers’ rations were supplemented by plum pudding; but while his fellow troopers enjoyed their Christmas treat, Trooper Thomas Ashford of the 2nd New South Wales Mounted Rifles carefully preserved his. Ashford brought it with him on his return to Australia, and in the 1950s it was donated to the Memorial, still in its tin and
covered with the manufacturer’s wrapper. The pudding was placed on display and proved a source of great interest to thousands of visitors, including the Royal family.
During the First World War thousands of Australian servicemen found themselves in Egypt and France, far from home and their families but with opportunities to send home gifts with a difference. This beautiful
embroidered scarf (pictured) is an excellent example of the souvenirs available to Australian soldiers in Egypt. Scarves such as these were not intended to be worn but instead became treasured reminders of family members or friends fighting overseas. This particular one was donated anonymously to the Memorial and so, unfortunately, the identities of both “Bert” and “Gertie” are unknown.
As specially made souvenirs were not always available, troops often turned to their own belongings to find presents for those at home. One such example is the army-issue handkerchief signed and decorated by members of 9th Reinforcements, Siege Artillery Brigade. Gunner Phil Clarke from New South Wales sent the handkerchief home to his sister “Bub” when he arrived in England in January 1917. His convoy had set out from Sydney late in the previous November and Christmas Day was spent at sea. Clarke got 27 of his comrades to sign the handkerchief, then decorated it with a life buoy and the words “Troopship Beltana A72 Christmas 1916”. The handkerchief was also decorated with rubbings made from Royal Australian Artillery badges and an “Australia” shoulder title. Only one of the soldiers who signed the handkerchief, Gunner Gus Peterson, failed to have another Christmas in Australia. The manner of Peterson’s death remains a mystery, as no official record can be traced.
Just as in earlier conflicts, Second World War Christmas souvenirs also showed ingenuity and varied in origin. One of the commercially manufactured items available was a pair of miniature pink underpants bearing the printed message, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – Don’t get caught with your pants down.” The pair in the Memorial’s collection was sent by Leading Aircraftman Raymond Rooke to his sister
Maria. The significance of the motto – and just what Maria made of her brother’s gift – has not been recorded. The little souvenir remained among her most treasured possessions until they were donated to the Memorial in the 1970s.
Many other servicemen were not in a position to buy novelties for their families. Christmas 1944 in the Keijo prisoner-of-war camp in Korea was instead enlivened by some hand-coloured Christmas decorations. The cardboard figures of Santa Claus and a plump elf with an enormous roast turkey were used to add some festive cheer to an otherwise grim imprisonment. When the war ended the decorations were carefully preserved and carried home by Lieutenant Gilbert Hamilton of 3rd Reserve Motor Transport Company.
By the following Christmas, Hamilton was at home with his family, but others, such as the men of 1st War Graves Unit, were still overseas. This unit, stationed at Tol plantation in New Britain, was involved in locating the remains of (and creating a cemetery for) the approximately 160 Australians massacred by the Japanese at the site in February 1942. In the midst of this cheerless task, Corporal Victor John Robertson,
a signwriter from Western Australia, approached Captain David Keith Hanson with the idea of creating Christmas cards from the hard tack biscuits in their rations. Hanson readily agreed and Robertson created
a biscuit card for each his nine unit members. Hanson sent his “card” to his fiancée; to his amazement, it arrived in one piece. The biscuit was donated to the Memorial in 1995, still in its original
Over fifty years later, more Australian service personnel were serving overseas. The crew of HMAS Kanimbla spent Christmas 2001 stationed in the Persian Gulf as part of the Maritime Interception Force. They decorated the ship’s quarters and held a concert, for which this banner formed the backdrop. The banner, with colourful images of the ship and kangaroos with Santa hats, was designed and painted by Leading Seaman Kyra Puttifoot, Able Seaman Carl Linkenbagh, and Able Seaman Stephen Montgomery. It was donated to the Australian War Memorial in 2002 – yet another example of the often unique Christmas treasures in the Memorial's collection.