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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 it they had been actually in the firing line. [. . .] There have been thousands of essential “Anzacs” amongst our women.”
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.