"Over by Christmas"


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Over the past 100 years, sadly many Australians have spent Christmas at war: freezing in First World War trenches, as prisoners of war in the Second World War, fighting in operations in Vietnam or on deployment in the Middle East. For many soldiers at war throughout the last century, Christmas was a time of hardship and sadness.

“The war will be over by Christmas” is often cited as an early romantic battle cry of the First World War and gave hope to many soldiers in 1914. But as the grim reality of total war set in, this idea was quickly quashed as troops suffered through a horrific winter in the trenches.

More than one hundred years later as we prepare for the festive season in the heat of our Australian summer, it’s very hard to imagine the conditions faced by soldiers at war in the First World War.

By Christmas 1917 the Western Front was a great scar on the European landscape stretching almost 700 kilometres. Soldiers suffered through unimaginable conditions including mud so deep it drowned wounded soldiers; some of the coldest winters ever recorded; vermin and creatures that would infest food, clothes and even torment soldiers as they slept; food rations that were often far from appetising and ceaseless noise and artillery fire which was as a constant reminder of the enemy and the everyday threat to their lives.

A group of soldiers resting and having a smoke

For many, the connection to family and home was a distant memory with no indication as to when, or if, they would see their loved ones again.

Since the First World War, many things have changed for soldiers at war, but support and packages from home as an incredible support of morale has not.

Soldiers in the First World War received hampers packed in Billies by the Australian Comforts Fund and the Red Cross and sometimes had a cartoon on the front. The hampers contained an assortment of items including: tobacco/cigarettes, matches, toothbrushes, razor blades, knitted socks, a pencil, writing paper, cake, sauces, pickles, tinned fruit, cocoa, coffee and Anzac biscuits.

A woman knitting, sitting on a chair with knitting materials surrounding her

If soldiers were lucky they would be treated to a freshly cooked Christmas meal. In many wars these were limited to the senior command and even as the freezing cold of the First World War gave way to the humid, tropical heat of the Pacific for most Australians, they still craved a hot Christmas meal.

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”.

Just four months after the battle of Long Tan, the Delta Company, 6RAR celebrated Christmas at Nui Dat, South Vietnam on Boxing Day 1966. The soldiers ate like kings with a menu of turkey, ham, fresh vegetables, fruit and cream, nuts and Christmas cake. In the Army tradition, Diggers were waited on by their officers throughout the day, waking up to a hot mug of coffee, laced with rum by the officers.

Australian soldiers deployed overseas more recently in operation bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, the broader Middle East Region and South Sudan have celebrated Christmas in several ways including through cricket and soccer games, concerts, skyping and sending Christmas messages to their families and continuing the tradition of a Christmas dinner served to the troops by their officers.

At Christmas we remember all those who have served our country in all wars and peacekeeping operations and those who were not or who will never be ‘home by Christmas’.