Bringing historic documents from the Australian War Memorial’s archive to all Australians

Anzac Connections documents

Anzac Connections was originally established to mark the 2015 centenary of the Gallipoli campaign. Since then it has expanded to include collections relating to the Western Front and Sinai/Palestine. What began as a Centenary of the First World War project has now become an integral part of the Memorials work.

The private record collections of hundreds of individuals who served in the First World War are now freely available online.  The collection holds a wealth of stories: a young soldier on the Somme, freezing and up to his knees in mud, using a brief lull in the fighting to pen a letter to his parents at home; a nurse in one of the many field hospitals, exhausted and desperately trying to treat the mass of incoming wounded. From diaries to letters, postcards to photographs, souvenirs to ephemera, these collections tell the stories of ordinary men and women caught up in the extraordinary events of the war.

One hundred years on, their stories are now ours.

Daily Digger

Using personal quotes drawn from the digitised private letters and diaries of First World War soldiers and nurses, this narrative reveals the thoughts, actions, and responses of all ranks to the experience of active service during this conflict. To help share this initiative the Memorial Tweets a Daily Digger story, daily @AWMemorial

Find out more about the Daily Digger project.


Please email with any feedback on Anzac Connections.

John Croft’s pocket book was pierced by a Turkish bullet at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.

John Croft’s pocket book was pierced by a Turkish bullet on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.  PR03842

See larger version of image

The First World War Galleries are now open after a major redevelopment.


From 2014, the world will be commemorating 100 years since the start of the First World War. For Australians this is a momentous occasion. The redevelopment of the First World War galleries is the Memorial’s key contribution to the Anzac Centenary.

The current estimated cost of the project is $32.5 million (GST excl.) comprised of $28.7 million of Federal Government funding and $3.82 million allocated from Memorial capital reserves and Collection Development and Acquisition Budget. BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities has also generously donated $1 million towards the new galleries.

The Joint Standing Committee on Public Works reviewed the project in February 2013 and parliamentary approval for it to proceed was given on 18 March 2013.  You can access a copy of the Memorial’s submission and the Committee’s report here.

The architect for the redevelopment is Sydney-based multi-disciplinary design practice Johnson Pilton Walker.  The exhibition designer is Melbourne-based firm Cunningham Martyn Design.

You can follow the redevelopment by visiting this page, liking us on Facebook, following us on Twitter, and reading our blog posts.

Speeches from the official opening

The Galleries were officially opened on 22 February. 

The Redevelopment

Since the opening of the Memorial in 1941, the First World War galleries have undergone several major alterations and many small iterative changes.  Originally comprising the entirety of exhibition space in the Memorial building, they now occupy the prominent west wing of the Memorial’s ground level galleries. 

Before the process began, the old First World War galleries.


Despite changes down through the years, the galleries include some of the oldest and relatively unchanged parts of the Memorial building.  Significant heritage value can be found in the form of the architectural spaces; the fabric, fixtures and fittings; and the function and character of the galleries.  A major redevelopment of the galleries presents a significant challenge in retaining and restoring these values while simultaneously acknowledging the changed concept of commemoration and presenting the story of the First World War with veracity, depth and relevance to Australians today.

Exhibition Design

The design of the First World War galleries has been undertaken by Cunningham Martyn Design.  The exhibition will be staged to suit the restored gallery spaces and the story of the First World War will be returned to a chronological presentation commencing in 1914 and concluding with the immediate and enduring legacies of the conflict. 


Artist’s impression of the entrance to the new First World War galleries.

The spatial treatment provides open vistas to the length of each of the galleries and a clear separation between the interior fit-out and the c.1940s building allowing the volume of the original gallery spaces to be experienced.  The colour and texture of the exhibition will reference the period to reflect the time and place of the story. 

Exhibition Content

The Memorial holds one of the world’s great collections of material related to the First World War, and the redevelopment of the galleries presents a unique opportunity. Historic items which have been unseen for many years will be returning, together with significant newly-acquired items such as a 4.5” Howitzer and relics from the 2010 excavations at the Pheasant Wood mass grave site.


The iconic dioramas will remain an integral part of the galleries.  Some of the Memorial’s original dioramas no longer exist, having been damaged or removed during earlier building renovations when they were considered to be merely exhibition displays rather than works of art.  Today, 13 First World War dioramas are held in the National Collection.  Ten of these dioramas are planned for display in the new exhibition, including two desert campaign dioramas - Semakh and Desert Patrol - which have not been publically displayed since the 1980s.  Desert Patrol depicts a light horse patrol in the Sinai desert and will replace the Romani diorama.  Semakh depicts the events of 25 September 1918 when the 11th Light Horse Regiment attacked the village of Semakh, in Palestine.  Its inclusion in the galleries is of particular importance as recent research into indigenous service has revealed that the 11th Light Horse Regiment had the largest known group of indigenous Australians in one AIF unit. You can read all about the conservation of the dioramas on our blog.


Famous Australian leaders such as Sir John Monash and Sir Harry Chauvel will feature prominently in the story, along with lesser known – but no less important – soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses. The new galleries will tell the story of Australia’s First World War in a coherent chronological fashion, allowing visitors to understand the progress of events as they occurred.  While the strong focus will be upon the battlefield exploits of the AIF, whose men contributed the vast majority of the nation’s 62,000 dead, other important aspects such as the war on the home front and at sea will not be neglected, and the enduring impacts on the nation is examined.

Construction timeline

The project is being undertaken in accordance with the Memorial’s specific delivery strategy for major gallery redevelopments which involves the staging of works in three phases:


Phase 1:  permanent construction to the base of the building to prepare it for the exhibition commenced in June 2013 and is scheduled for completion in February 2014


Phase 2: the second phase of work comprising exhibition-specific infrastructure commenced in November 2013 and is scheduled for completion in August 2014


Phase 3: the third phase of work comprising all items to be installed in the exhibition, such as collection material, has been undertaken concurrently with the first two phases of work and is scheduled to be completed in late 2014


It is planned to open the new galleries to the public in late 2014, prior to an official launch in February 2015.


Dr Brendan Nelson discusses the changes to the galleries

Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, discusses the changes to the Memorial's First World War galleries in the lead up to the Centenary.


Check out how the gallery redevelopment progressed on Flickr



This is the opinion piece I wrote for the Canberra Times; it appears in the 14 March 2013 edition of the paper.

Success in life requires three things - show humanity toward others, nurture the inner integrity of your intellect and keep an open mind – open to new ideas and people.

When recently in Afghanistan, an Australian soldier remarked, “Sir, when I take my son to the War Memorial, I can show him what his great-grandfather did. I can show him what his grandfather did. But I can’t show him what I’m doing.”

He’s right. Australian men and women have been serving our nation in our name, our uniform and under our flag for over a decade. Their story needs to be told through their eyes and voices - now.

It should encompass the entire Middle East Area of Operations and three services. It should show Australians not only the danger and valour of sharp end operations, but also the heroism of those who train Afghans, counter the threat of explosive devices, build bridges and schools, maintain aircraft and patrol the Persian Gulf among many others. It should also reveal the remarkable sacrifices made by families in support of them.

This exhibition will be in the Memorial this year and remain in place until the permanent display. The Afghanistan story needs to be told now to educate Australians about the conflict and the extraordinary efforts made on our behalf.

There is also a significant and growing “therapeutic” need of what is now a small army of veterans, many of whom are still serving. They must know their story is being told through their eyes and voices. They should be able to visit the Memorial to see, hear and feel something of their service.

If we had been able to present the Vietnam War a little sooner, perhaps those men might not have suffered quite as much.

Having examined all viable options, the only space for the Afghanistan exhibition is that currently occupied by the online gallery.

Established in the late nineties, this gallery has provided a greatly appreciated service to Australians researching their family’s military history, guided by volunteers on computers. Long before the ubiquitous availability of laptops, tablets and smartphones, it has helped thousands of visitors. While the search can be undertaken anywhere from any computer outside the Memorial, having a person help is a comfort.

However, it occupies the Memorial’s most precious commodity beyond its staff and volunteers – space.

We are looking at alternative delivery models for the service – fewer computer terminals in another area, tablets and online advice amongst them. But whatever the outcome, Afghanistan is an urgent priority going to the very core of the Memorial’s mission.

On another front, others have criticised me being photographed with Ben Roberts Smith VC in front of the Memorial with a Bushmaster promoting Anzac Day. The fact is we should be concerned that Australia’s young veterans from contemporary conflicts are not joining RSL marches around the nation on Anzac Day.

Many attend the Dawn Service but think marches are for an earlier generation of veterans. I asked Ben to consider coming to Anzac Day at the War Memorial in Canberra and to march. That he agreed to do so reflects deep leadership qualities and sense of service.

Young veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and the Solomon Islands should know it is for them as much as their forebears, that we are proud of them.

Some 25,000 people attended the Dawn Service at the Memorial last year. That is likely to grow. Some begin arriving around midnight to get a spot where they can see. One father told me he had stopped bringing his kids because they couldn’t see anything.

From midnight we will project in light onto each side of the Memorial the names of the iconic battle sites over a century, from Gallipoli to the Chora Valley across land, sea and air. As one name fades, another will appear. So too on the inner pillars we plan to project images of Australian service and sacrifice from the Memorial’s rich pictorial archive.

From 4.30 am there will be readings to the crowd – Charles Bean’s description of the Gallipoli landing, soldiers’ diary entries and letters, and Kokoda as examples. At 5 am, Ben Roberts Smith will similarly read evocative descriptions from Afghanistan. All will be quiet and dark at 5.15 am with the Dawn Service commencing at 5.30 am.

Two large screens will be placed either side at the roadside edge of the parade ground, well in front of the Memorial so that people may actually see the service. The only musical addition will be the Defence wives choir and other groups singing hymns during the service itself.

Far from detracting from its ambience, surely this can only enhance the experience.

Change for its own sake is dangerous. Change can also be very painful. But in facing new and distant horizons, the stories told within the Memorial and the experiences it provides on Anzac Day, are paradoxically more about our nation’s future than its past.

c March 1915. Sergeant Douglas Bernard Matthew Adams, D Company, 10 Battalion, AIF. Photograph taken just prior to embarkation for service abroad. H06022

c March 1915. Sergeant Douglas Bernard Matthew Adams, D Company, 10 Battalion, AIF. Photograph taken just prior to embarkation for service abroad.

During my first visit to Gallipoli in May 1996, in Beach Cemetery I chanced upon a grave of a 10th Battalion digger who had been a sergeant when he died of wounds at the age of 18 in early July 1915. The epitaph on the grave, “A bright young life sacrificed on the altar of duty. So dearly loved”, struck a chord with me, as I was only a few years older than he had been. I promised myself then never to forget him and to visit again when I could. The opportunity to return arose in May 2012, when I travelled to Gallipoli as part of a joint Australian War Memorial and Imperial War Museums study tour. The afternoon we arrived on Gallipoli, sixteen years to the day after my last visit, I was determined to find him and again pay my respects. Initially we stopped at Ari Burnu and visited the cemetery there before making our way south along the beach, then up into Beach Cemetery. It didn’t take long to find his resting place underneath the outstretched branches of the Judas tree at the bottom left of the cemetery as you look out to sea. The young man in question was Douglas Bernard Matthew Adams, born in 1897 at Alberton, Port Adelaide, South Australia, to Harry and Elsie Adams. Records reveal that he was educated at Port Adelaide primary school and then won a scholarship to Prince Alfred College. He was noted for his fine athletic ability, and as a cadet soldier reached the rank of second lieutenant. After his schooling Adams took up a position as a clerk with the South Australian Harbours Board, working from Outer Harbour, Port Adelaide. (At this point, I wondered if he had spent part of his weekends at Alberton or other grounds around Adelaide, watching the Port Adelaide Magpies terrorise the rest of the competition in the South Australian Football League. The Port Adelaide team were undefeated Premiers in 1914.) He enlisted for service in the AIF at Morphettville Racecourse on 10 December 1914, aged 18, and was posted with the rank of private to 4th Reinforcements, 10th Battalion. Promoted to sergeant in March, he embarked from Adelaide on 1 April aboard HMAT A17 Port Lincoln and reached Gallipoli on 5 June, where he was taken on strength of the battalion. At the time he arrived, the Battalion was holding the line on the southern end of the Anzac line around Silt Spur and he would have been involved in manning front line positions as well as taking part in carrying parties and other duties undertaken by the battalion both in the line and in support trenches. On 7 July, the 10th Battalion were resting behind the lines near Tasmania Post, when they came under Turkish artillery fire. Adams was struck in the head by shrapnel, suffering a compound fracture of the skull. He was transferred to 1 Australian Casualty Clearing Station, where he died a little while later, and was laid to rest in Beach Cemetery.


Corporal Reuben Weatherall, in a moving letter to his mother tells of the terrible pain he felt at the death of his mate and how he couldn’t face writing to Adams’s parents to let them know how their boy had died. Weatherall survived the war and returned to Australia in May 1919. The Roll of Honour circular filled out by Adams’s father, Harry, provides a glimpse of the pain the family were feeling at the loss of their boy, as well as their pride in what he had achieved in his all too brief life. This is especially evident in the circular’s biographical section, in which Harry stated that his son was “only an upright, sterling character”. In the aftermath of the First World War, the South Australian Harbours Board erected a memorial at Birkenhead to honour their fallen workers.

South Australian Harbors Board WWI Memorial

South Australian Harbors Board WWI Memorial

(Image used with kind permission of Jenny Scott) Like so many companies and organisations who had lost their workers and colleagues, this was one of the ways in which a working community could remember their fallen and also give the families a lasting place to commemorate their loved ones. For my own part, I do not know when next I’ll have the opportunity to return to Gallipoli, but when I do, I will be sure to visit Sergeant Douglas Adams. If I can, I will lay a sprig of wattle on his grave to fulfil a part of his great mate Reuben Weatherall’s wish.


This footage is an edited down version of a recent donation to the Australian War Memorial - F11790 - entitled 'The Great Arrival.' The footage shows Arthur John Carmody, who served in the RAAF, greeting his English war bride Mary Carmody (nee Oldroyd). According to the story passed down through the family, Mary arrived on Australia Day 1946 at Station pier in Melbourne and was on the first ship of war brides coming from Europe. Travelling with her (and seen in the film) was Mary's daughter from a previous relationship with Canadian airman (and  Arthur's best friend), Albert Ritchie. Legend has it that Albert was missing in action and/or believed dead at the time Arthur and Mary were married.

The audio comes from a lacquer disc - S03038 - which was donated to the sound collection by Nancy Hollaway (nee Allen). Seventeen year old Nancy Allen had herself recorded singing "My Hero" and "I'll see you again" to send to a friend, Roland Hollaway, who was a RAAF wireless operator stationed in Darwin during the Second World War.

In the letter accompanying her donation, Nancy describes how she and Roland first met. It has been transcribed below.

A Wartime Love Story

March 1944, three 17 year olds, who had attended High School together met, with one girl inviting the other two to tea the following Saturday. Her two brothers were home on leave, Jack the eldest in the Army, and Roland in the  Air Force. It was a fun night, and after a beautiful roast dinner, we played cards. However, Roland made arrangements to meet  a friend and left.

The next morning Nancy received a phone call from Roland who said I had left my identity card behind and he would ride his bike to my office, in the suburbs and return it. We spent a short time talking and that was that.

June 18, Nancy received a letter at the office, from Roland, who said he wondered if I would write to him. Already writing to 3 other service men, students of my father, I thought “why not.”

At the time I was a member of the Women’s Air Training Corp, with the intention of joining the W.A.A.A.F. when I turned 18 in the November. I was also a member of an official Red Cross Concert Party “The Regimentals” and was involved in singing at various camps round Victoria. I would go to work with a small case with an evening dress, some make up and songs catch a bus to Melbourne at 5:30 to join the others at 6. Sometimes we did not get home till 1 or 2 o’clock, but still be at work at 9 o’clock. After the war, some of the concert party decided to keep together, and we gave concerts at Mont Park Mental Home, Coburg Pentridge Gaol and Heidelberg Military Hospital. My social life revolved round the Youth Group at the local Presbyterian Church.

Over the following months I told Roland all about these things, and he seemed more than interested. (When he came home he told me he only wrote to me as a joke with his friend Bill, but his thinking changed as time went by.) About November his letter asked if I would be his girlfriend, when he came home. My reply was that I think we should wait until we met and spent some time together.

For a Christmas present, I made a record, at a local recording studio of My Hero and I’ll see you again. He had never heard me sing.

He was a wireless operator, in Darwin, and decided to play it one night, forgetting that a main switch to the camp was on, fortunately only a couple of phrases came over the speaker.

For me, peace was declared, so there was no way I was to be called up. Roland came home in March 1945 and we followed our letter romance to day to day romance, and in September 1948 we were married. His deferred pay paid a deposit on a weather board home and with the help of a War Service Home Loan, we moved into our home, and started a very happy life together. Sadly he died in 1976, but I have 3 happily married children and eight grandchildren.

-         Nancy Hollaway, June 2003.

‘It is unlikely that ‘Australia Day’ will ever be wholly forgotten by any who were privileged to take part in that magnificent outburst of giving. […] It seemed as if the whole community had abandoned itself to giving and spending all it had for the sake of the men on service.’

Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume XI: Australia during the War, pp. 729-730.

Fundraising ribbon for Australia Day, 30 July 1916.

While most of us associate Australia Day with 26 January, in 1915 that date was celebrated as Foundation Day and only in New South Wales, as each of the colonies had their own commemorations for their founding. During the First World War, the concept of a national ‘Australia Day’ was instead part of a wider fundraising plan where money was raised by declaring a special ‘day’ on which events such as auctions, stalls, performances and street collections were held to encourage the community to contribute to the war effort. Belgian Day, for example, held on 14 May 1915, was one of the first of these occasions.

Identification tag for authorised vendor.

It may have been the enlistment of her four sons that inspired Mrs Ellen Wharton-Kirke of Manly, New South Wales, to suggest an ‘Australia Day’ to the New South Wales Premier, Sir Charles Wade. Her eldest, Captain Errol Wharton-Kirke, having previously served with the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force in New Guinea, enlisted with the AIF on 16 April 1915 and served with 18 Battalion in France. He was killed in action on 4 August 1916. Private Basil Everal Wharton-Kirke, enlisted on 19 February 1915 and was posted to the 2nd Australian General Hospital. Wounded at Gallipoli in October, Basil was invalided home and discharged on 21 February 1916. Lieutenant Hunter Wharton-Kirke enlisted on 13 April 1915 and served with 17 Battalion. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions on 5 June 1918 and returned to Australia in June 1919. Clement Wharton-Kirke appears to have served with British forces.

Patriotic fundraising matchbox

Mrs Wharton-Kirke had seen the generosity of the Australian people during other fundraising days and saw an ‘Australia Day’ as a way of drawing on the pride of Australians in their soldiers’ recent achievements at Gallipoli. 30 July 1915 was the date agreed upon, and events were held across all of Australia. Ribbons, badges, handkerchiefs, buttons and other items, like this matchbox, were sold to raise funds, with phrases such as ‘For Australia’s Heroes’, ‘Help Our Wounded Heroes’ and ‘The Turks Struck their Match in the Australians’ which appealed to people’s sense of pride and patriotism. From a population of just under 5 million people, the day raised over 311,500 pounds in Victoria and more than 839,500 pounds in New South Wales. In today’s figures that would be close to $623,000 and $1.7 million respectively.

In recognition of her efforts, the NSW Premier arranged for a gold medalet to be presented to Mrs Wharton-Kirke. It is one of only four commemorative Gallipoli medalets that were struck in solid gold. Thousands of medalets were produced in gilded or silvered bronze to commemorate the landing on 25 April 1915. Mrs Wharton-Kirke’s was specially engraved with ‘Pres to ELLIE WHARTON-KIRKE BY SYDNEY CITIZENS 25.7.1915’.

Mrs Wharton-Kirke's gold Australia Day commemorative medalet.

Supporting the troops through patriotic fundraising was also a way that those unable to fight could contribute to the war effort. Edward Davison purchased this handkerchief on the first nominated Australia Day, 30 July 1915. Davison had been unable to enlist at the outbreak of war because, at only five foot two and three quarter inches, he did not meet the minimum height requirement for the AIF. When the minimum height was lowered at the beginning of 1916, Davison enlisted on 11 January. After basic training he was assigned as a private to B Company, 34 Battalion, service number 404, and sailed for service on the Western Front aboard the HMAT A20 Hororata in May 1916. During the Battle of Messines in June 1917, Davison was wounded in the arm and spent six weeks recovering in hospital. He returned to Australian in May 1919.

The success of ‘Australia Day’ in 1915 saw a repeat of similar events the following year, this time on 28 July, and in the subsequent years of the war.

Fundraising ribbon: Australia Day Anniversary, Adelaide, 28 July 1916.

The Memorial holds a variety of material associated with fundraising in Australia during the First World War, including many heraldry items and ephemera, which acknowledge the important role these fundraising days, such as ‘Australia Day’ in July 1915, played in the war effort.

January 16, 2013 marks the 5th anniversary of the Commons on Flickr. The pool of images has grown to more than 250,000 from 56 different libraries, archives, and museums around the world.

To celebrate the occasion, we have put together a set of photos from our collection showing celebrations at the end of the two World Wars. While most were taken in the streets of Sydney or Melbourne, one was taken in New Guinea and one in Borneo. The joy and jubilation of the people in many of the images is almost palpable.

Have a look; maybe you will recognise someone, or know the place the photo was taken.

The Memorial joined the Commons on 11 November 2008; you can see the images we have added to the site in our photostream on Flickr Commons.  

But wait, there's more to see in this celebration:

My name is Thomas Mittwollen. I’m 16 years old and I am in year 10 at Bulli High School on the South Coast. I am currently doing work experience at the Australian War Memorial. In December I was put in Military Heraldry and Technology for one day and was asked to write a biography for Carl Renner.

Carl, son of Harry and Anna Renner, was a farm labourer from Manly, Brisbane. He enlisted in the AIF on 1 June 1915 at the age of 19 years and 5 months. Carl also had an older brother, Otto who served with the multiple infantry battalions from 1915 to 1918. Otto spent the majority of the war in hospital and being in trouble until he was gassed in 1918. He was returned to his unit when the war ended and was eventually discharged, returning home relatively intact.

25 Battalion colour patch

Carl was assigned to ‘’D’’ company of the 25thInfantry Battalion and was sent to Gallipoli. After about a month, Carl was admitted to hospital with rheumatism. He was discharged about 5 months later during March 1916. By this time the Gallipoli campaign was over and the 25thBattalion had being integrated into the BEF and was being sent to France. About 3 months after arriving in France he was wounded in action with gunshot wounds to the left arm and right thigh during the first battle at Pozières. He was admitted to hospital on 31 July 1916.


Carl was discharged from hospital during September, 1916. He was restricted from going into combat for a few months to help with recovery and as a result remained in England until 1918. During his time in England he faced two disciplinary charges. His first offence was allowing a prisoner under his care to go into a pub and get a drink. His punishment was forfeiting his pay for 3 days.  The second was for not wearing a belt on the parade ground, for which he forfeited one day of pay. Nevertheless he returned to duty during April of 1918 and re-joined the 25thBattalion in France on 11 May. Carl Renner at the age of 22 was killed in action in France at Villers-Bretonneux on 17 July1918 by a shell whilst on a ration party. A witness, Private Tillyard, was about 3 yards away from him when he was hit and later was a part of the original burial team. Carl had been involved in an attack on German lines at the time of his death. He is buried at Crucifix Corner Cemetery, Villers-Bretonneux, France. He was later memorialised in his home town. His name is also located on panel 106 on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.

Not much remains of Carl’s military career except for a few service medals and badges such as his Australian rising sun badge, Carl’s 25th infantry shoulder badges, a 1914-15 star, a British War medal, a Victory medal and a mothers and widows badge which his mother received after his death. Unfortunately there are no known photos of Carl-not even the family knows what he looked like.


Things are starting to heat up in the Capital which can only mean that summer is well underway and the New Year is approaching fast. The Memorial has some exciting activities planned for the summer holidays for visitors. You can find details about these programs in our new Summer Brochure.

Highlights include special tours of the Remember me: the lost diggers of Vignacourt exhibition throughout January, a variety of hands-on activities for children, and the unique opportunity to watch five classic films in a series of screenings in the BAE Systems Theatre throughout January and February.

On Christmas Eve 1914, soldiers of the British, French and German armies were hunkered down in trenches on the Western Front, their thoughts on their loved ones at home. As night fell, the sound of German soldiers singing carols drifted across no man’s land, and small fir trees and lanterns appeared on the tops of their trenches. Messages were shouted between the two sides, and some soldiers ventured out to meet and exchange gifts. The momentum for goodwill gained pace, and on Christmas Day more men met to talk, take photographs, and even play football.

Christmas and war are not compatible, but too often they are thrust together. The Christmas truce of 1914 ­– a series of unofficial ceasefires – was a statement of peace and humanity amid one of history’s most brutal wars. These ceasefires were permitted by some officers to allow the men a chance to improve living conditions in the trenches. But not all troops took part: in some areas, time was given only to recover and bury the dead; in other sectors, there were casualties as fighting continued. The following year, strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides were issued in the lead-up to Christmas warning against further fraternisation. A small number of ceasefires were declared, but they were not nearly as widespread as in 1914.

By the time Australians experienced Christmas on the Western Front, the British command saw the date as an opportunity to wreak even more havoc on the enemy. Australian official historian Charles Bean records that on 25 December 1916, “at the hour when it was thought probable that the Germans would be sitting down to their midday feast, every gun of the [British] Fourth and Fifth Armies fired two rounds at the points where the enemy’s troops and staffs might be foregathering”. Bean notes that the order was considered “ruthless” and “repugnant” by many of the British troops, who were “by no means opposed to ‘disgracing’ Christmas by exhibitions of brotherliness and good humour”.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians have spent Christmas at war: freezing in First World War trenches, as prisoners of war of the Japanese, or on reconnaissance and ambush operations in Vietnam. Even today Australian soldiers find themselves spending Christmas far from home, on operations in Afghanistan.

Soldiers are not forgotten at this time of year, and efforts have always been made to bring a little joy – and a decent meal – to those serving, or those recovering from wounds. For Christmas 1915, the Australian Comforts Fund Committee distributed 20,000 boxes containing handkerchiefs, cigars, cigarettes and matches to men in camp in Egypt. Many had just returned from Gallipoli. In a letter home in early January 1916, Sister Lettitia Moreton of the Australian Army Nursing Service described the efforts that had been made for wounded men recovering at the 2nd Australian General Hospital in Egypt:

We gave our patients out at Ma’adi Hospital a very nice little Xmas. A very nice dinner, roast turkey, chicken, ham, plenty vegetables, plum pudding, claret cup, beer, soft drinks, sweets, etc. They did enjoy it, poor things. The Drs helped us with it too, one carved the turkey and ham while the other gave out the drinks. The place was rather nicely decorated and everyone enjoyed the day.

Sadly, that was Sister Moreton’s last Christmas: the following year she was posted to India for service, and died there of enteric fever in November.

Staff and patients at No. 14 Australian General Hospital, Egypt, decorated for Christmas.

Christmas is often a marker of time for a soldier at war. They count their service by each one that comes and goes, and are optimistic that it will be the last spent away from home. In 1918, Private William Lewis of the 17th Battalion sent a pretty Christmas card from Belgium to his mother and younger brother Charlie, wishing all the best and “hoping to be with you all for the next, 1919”. Fortunately, he was.

The freezing cold Christmases of the Western Front gave way to tropical heat and humidity during the Second World War, as most Australian servicemen spent at least one festive season in the Pacific. But that did not necessarily mean an end to the traditional hot Christmas lunch: in his book The hard slog, Karl James writes that on Bougainville for Christmas 1944, the senior command of the Australian II Corps sat down to “turkey, ham, fresh potatoes peas and onions, followed by plum pudding and sauce”. The 26th Battalion held a Christmas Eve concert party that included a jazz performance, and went swimming on Christmas Day; and the 27th Battalion ate fresh fish and roast pork from wild pigs.

Troops of the 9th Infantry Battalion enjoy a traditional Christmas lunch on the island of Bougainville, 1944.

Some prisoners of war even managed to rustle up a decent meal for Christmas. Jock Mathieson was interred at a camp on Banka Island for Christmas 1943. On 24 December he wrote to a friend, Captain Wilma Oram of the 2/13th Australian General Hospital, who was interred at the nearby women’s camp:

Great preparations are being made for tomorrow’s food. I believe we will be eating throughout the day. Three pigs have been slaughtered – they are being prepared just now for the cooking pot. The local authorities have contributed a great deal towards tomorrow’s food. There will be Church services and carol singing.

Other prisoners of war were grateful to the Red Cross for providing food parcels that made Christmas a little bit special – but they would have much preferred their freedom. WJ Wood was a British pilot who was captured after the Fall of Singapore and was sent to Japan. In 1944, he wrote this poem:

This is but a memory

Of a Christmas one of three

I’m trusting God I don’t see four

As a Prisoner-of-War.


It was no doubt the best of three

Thanks to Red Cross Society

But let us hope in Him above

We spend the next with those we love.

Christmas for those who served in the Vietnam War may have featured festive concerts by Australian entertainers, and parcels provided by the Australian Forces Overseas Fund. In Fighting to the finish, the final volume of the official history of the Vietnam war, Ashley Ekins records the diary entry of Captain David Wilkins of C Company, 5RAR, who wrote that his company’s officers and sergeants began Christmas Day 1969 by “serving coffee royale [coffee laced with rum] to the diggers IN BED. Later we continued our duties and served the diggers Xmas dinner, much to their delight. Will have to knock ’em back to size tomorrow.” They had earned it, having spent the previous ten days on reconnaissance and ambush operations in rugged, jungle-covered territory west of Binh Ba.

However, Ekins writes that the soldiers of 8RAR were not so lucky, and found themselves continuing to fight in spite of a so-called Christmas Day truce. Second Lieutenant Neil Smith of 8RAR, who was stationed at a remote fire support base, wrote: “Christmas Day was just another day to us. The battalion had four contacts on Christmas Day and killed two VC [Viet Cong].”

Across the world, and through the ages, diggers have always yearned to “be home by Christmas”.

Troopers Ian Johnston (left) and Graham "Shorty" Maycock of B Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, open Christmas parcels from the Australian Forces Overseas Fund at Nui Dat, South Vietnam, 1969.

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