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Billets: A touch of home life

A soldier in a farm setting with his French billets, a woman and a man
AWM E00048


Posted on 30 December 2017

Much of the history of the First World War focusses on the battles, but how did Australian soldiers spend the rest of their time?

Soldiers served half their time fighting on the front, while the rest was devoted to manual labour, training or R&R, which could include visiting places of interest, writing diaries or letters, or enjoying local hospitality.

Rest was formally recognised by the British Army as important to peak performance, so battalions were rotated between the front line and farms, barns and villages.

Some accommodation was cold and rudimentary, consisting of nothing more than straw, while other lodgings were comfortable, with an obliging host.

Billeting was one of the main forms of interaction between soldiers and civilians, and many close relationships were formed, particularly in Villers-Bretonneux, where the townspeople credited the Australians with their survival.

Historian Scott Bennett wrote that Amiens seemed unaffected by the fighting but beneath the façade were the sinister ‘signs of war’.

‘There were no young men, only old men and women and children and many widows and orphans,’ wrote soldier, Albert Coates.

This brief return to cleanliness, to normalcy, may have reminded soldiers of the lives they once lived. – Jessica Bretherton, ‘Life in the Rear’

The absence of young men was reinforced when the Australians sought billets from French civilians: ‘Room, monsieur – yes, there is the room of my son who was killed at Argonne – or my husband who was killed at Verdun.’

The youngsters lacked father figures, while the Australian soldiers missed their families, so playtime was regarded as a welcome escape from the traumas of war.

Australian troops appreciated simple pleasures, such as relaxing in an estaminet (a licensed café), attending a movie or variety show, playing a game of football, or enjoying a hot bath and change of uniform.

Educator Jessica Bretherton, who researched soldiers’ letters and diaries at the Australian War Memorial, found that bathing featured in correspondence.

‘[B]asic hygiene seem[ed] to rate very highly in most soldiers’ opinions. … The process of washing the mud and grime away can be seen to represent … washing away … the horrors of battle. This brief return to cleanliness, to normalcy, may have reminded soldiers of the lives they once lived.’

  • Scott Bennett. Pozières: The Anzac Story. Carlton North: Scribe, 2011.
  • Jessica Bretherton. “Life in the rear: Estaminets, billets, and the AIF on the Western Front, 1916-18.” Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2013.
  • Robert Stevenson. To Win the Battle: The 1st Australian Division in the Great War, 1914-1918. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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