Guest post by Matt Smith, historian at Australian War Graves Photographic Archive
For the majority of young Australian men who joined the Australian Imperial Force [AIF] during the First World War, it was their first time separated from family, a familiar world and most certainly, in battle. Many of these men would have experienced an element of compulsory military training in the Citizens Military Forces or Cadets, but almost never in wartime. Most were single men, lived with their families and knew little about the world around them, beyond a brief British-centric colonial education.
The experience of service during the First World War gave young men the opportunity for adventure, escape from the boredom of everyday life, a chance to visit the ‘Mother’ country and a chance to possibly cement a future through reputations earned. Men departed in the tens of thousands, fearful of missing the ‘big show’ and eager to prove their worth. They ultimately accepted death, as long as it was quick and painless.
Men of the first A.I.F. departed their homes carrying small comforts of a life that they knew. In their minds, the reality was that the material structure of those lives would remain in situ for the period of their service. Hindsight has proved that for many of those men, who were often on active service for four or more years, the reality was far from the truth. Life continued on in their absence.
The question of what the average Australian Anzac took with them into service provides a most interesting social insight into the nature of Australian society into the second decade of the 20th Century. What those same men brought back to Australia is equally as unique.
Aside from the ‘official kit’ that was supplied to the members of the AIF, they also carried many personal artefacts. These items represented the average soldier’s societal calling, religious affiliation, employment, love of family, desire to return to civilian life following service, or were keepsakes from the aforementioned life that they knew, having been secreted away from a loved one.
For the first Australian Anzacs, the Gallipoli Landers, their assault possessions would have been purposely kept to a minimum. Instructed to carry emergency rations and water for twenty-four hours, additional personal items were stowed in kit bags onboard transport ships for delivery later. Rations would have consisted of Bully beef (tinned corned beef), rice, jam, cocoa, tea, some bread and hard tack, or “ANZAC Wafer”; a rock hard biscuit that was often ground to make alternative meals.
The Anzacs carried varying smaller items on their person, often in the breast pockets of their often over-sized uniforms. Smoking paraphernalia such as ‘Woodbines’ Cigarettes or a bakelite pipes were commonplace overtime, even for original non-smokers. The comfort of tobacco was a small consolation in the trenches and a ready source for barter and trade. Photos of loved ones for those ‘quieter’ moments of reflection were also often carried in breast pockets for easy access around uniform webbing. Either singularly stowed or within a keepsake notebook, bible or small hold-all, such photos were a direct connection to a distant life. Commonplace with Anzac mythology, the bible kept close to the heart could on occasion offer possible divine intervention by stopping a errant or stray bullet from shortening a Digger’s service. Letters, notes, poetry, postcards, and other memory artefacts such as pocket watches, compasses and lighters were also carried on the person.
In recent years, the discovery of the bodies of 250 Australian solders in mass graves outside the small village of Fromelles in northern France, has given us greater insight into what the average Australian had on their person. Some 6,200 artefacts were removed and catalogued during the archaeological dig and recovery of the bodies for identification. These included usual pieces of military uniform such as buttons, buckles, fabric and even the occasional boot, often with Australian maker’s marks. However, many objects recovered reflected a soldier’s daily life a fountain pen, a bible, a French phrase book, and a leather pouch with coins still inside. More personal and intimate things included rings and bracelets, rosary beads, a lock of hair in a leather heart and a commemorative medallion from the local district presented to one of the Diggers prior to his departure. Ironically, a return rail ticket from Fremantle to Perth in Western Australia was found. The purchaser, then to soon be a soldier, would have intended to use the return section of the fare upon his cessation of service. A number of smoking pipes were also recovered, often in the breast pocket area of the remains discovered. In military service of the era, smoking was commonplace and for many men it assisted with the monotony of military life and the aromas of No-Man’s Land.
Often, the curious larrikin nature of the Australian Digger would result in the collection of souvenirs from the battlefield or enemy. John “Barney” Hines, a British-born Australian soldier of World War I, was particularly known for his prowess at collecting souvenirs from German soldiers. The German Pickelhaube or spiked helmet was a prized find and one such example was found in the knapsack of Private Alan James Mather, No. 1983, when his body was recovered from the Messines battlefield in Belgium almost 95 years after he disappeared. He was identified and reinterred in Prowse Point Cemetery in Fanders. His record can be found at Ancestry. Pistols, particularly German Lugers and Mausers, were prized by the Anzacs, often being reused during trench raids and silent attacks. These souvenirs were brought home after the war.
After four long years of campaigning, the Australian Diggers had procured a vast array of souvenirs, personal effects and essential non-official kit. Compiling a full inventory of the quintessential items within a returning solder’s kit would not be feasible. However, the greatest insight into the personal effects of the Anzacs that may have been brought home to Australia after the war, is to examine the service records of fallen men. Captain Leslie Russell Blake MC, No. 7306, 5th Brigade, Australian Field Artillery, of Hawthorne, Victoria was killed in October 1918. His service file indicates that following his death, three storage items were returned to his family in probate; a tin trunk, a sealed suitcase and one parcel. The contents each package was as follows:
In contrast, Lance Corporal Benjamin Lancaster, No. 3814, who enlisted at a similar time to Captain Blake, had his own personal effects returned to his family. The package consisted of one Wallet, 2 Badges and a purse.
Despite the hardships of war and throughout the service of the Australian Anzacs during WWI, there remained a willingness of the individual soldier to maintain personal effects. Whether fulfilling a link to home and past, out of necessity for survival, or through curious larrikinism, the personal nature of the Anzac’s possessions were as varied as the characters themselves.