Christmas, considered by many to be a time of ‘peace and goodwill to all men’, prompted a truce on the Western Front, but only once, in 1914.
For the remaining years of the First World War, soldiers on both sides were banned from fraternising and, after devastating casualties and the introduction of poison gas, were unwilling to down arms.
The optimistic catchphrase, ‘this will all be over by Christmas’, was fading away and Australian troops spent three Christmases confined to the freezing trenches.
For many Australians, it was their first white Christmas, as reported by The Daily Telegraph: ‘For some days [in France] the weather had been bitterly cold, a hoar frost had covered every house, every tree and bush with a coating of intense white, and the hedges and twigs resembled white coral and glistened when the sun shone.’
Some soldiers enjoyed a special dinner, while others ate their usual rations, bolstered by care parcels and comforts from the Red Cross, the Australian Comforts Fund, or families back home.
The fund planned that ‘every Australian soldier in France should have a special Christmas greeting in the way of a Christmas gift and extra comforts’.
Wearing gas masks and combat helmets, passing towns in ruin, its workers ran towards the trenches in the dark of night and distributed gifts, hot coffee, cocoa and milk, biscuits and cigarettes.
Wearing gas masks and combat helmets, workers ran towards the trenches in the dark of night and distributed gifts.
One of the most popular gifts from Australians on the home front was a Christmas billy, with a plum pudding and a letter or message inside, and luxuries such as lollies, cigarettes, chocolates, pastries, tinned food, soap, playing cards and keepsakes.
This public campaign was led by the Alexandra Club, a women’s organisation in Melbourne, which by 1915 alone, had distributed nearly 20,000 billies.
Families sent their own parcels as well. The Sydney Morning Herald reported a ‘Christmas rush’ on the front line in France in 1916:
‘The Australian [effort] was a record [delivery] being over 1200 bags [of gifts] in one day. The authorities expect to handle … 30,000 letters. Battalions in the front line received their presents by hand delivery through the winding communication trenches. The final sorting was done by candlelight in dugouts. Puddings are plentiful, and everything promises a merry Christmas.’
Apart from home comforts, soldiers found their own cheer with beer and wine, communion and carols, and reminiscing about fun times.
By Christmas 1918, many Australian troops were about to return home and were looking forward to a hot dinner with loved ones, happy to have peace.