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Peaches and pineapples for Christmas in WWI

"For the men who have risked their all for the honour of their country, nothing but the best is good enough"

Tuesday December 23, 2014

Red Cross sent Christmas cards and comfort parcels to Australian troops during WWI

This year Red Cross' Christmas Appeal is raising money to support families in crisis, whether it's helping people who have lost everything in a fire, or bringing clean drinking water to a remote village so children can grow up free of water borne diseases.  

100 years ago Australian Red Cross members and volunteers spent their first Christmas raising funds for patriotic war bonds, as well as producing food, clothing and other household goods to ship overseas.  Volunteers sent comfort parcels to allied soldiers and prisoners of war, and food parcels to allied civilians in Belgium and France, where hungry women and children were in dire need.  

Australian Red Cross was founded in Melbourne on 13 August 1914, just days after the outbreak of World War One.  By December 1914 Sydney's major Red Cross produce depot in Ash Street had rapidly expanded and had to be re-located to 213 George Street, where goods in large quantities were shipped to England and later to Egypt.    

The first official Red Cross 'Souvenir of The Great War' published in Sydney, describes the mood on the home front as "an electrification of the whole womanhood of Australia into immediate energy".  It records a random list of two months worth of supplies sent to Egypt, to convey the nature of just one aspect of efforts in Sydney, the Foodstuffs Committee:    

Tinned peaches and pineapple (cases)  … 1045
Evaporated dried fruit (cases) … 831
Meat Extract (cases)  … 162
Biscuits (cases) … 36
Soap (cases) … 370
Milk food (crates) … 119 
Macintosh sheeting (yards) … 1000
Hot water bags … 250
Air beds and cushions (cases) … 2
Eau-de-Cologne (cases) … 200
Boiled sweets (cases) …. 50
Tobacco (cases) … 20  

Women across the country also produced thousands of items of clothing, pyjamas, towels, bed linen, aprons, blankets, bandages and medical supplies in the initial months after the war broke out.   

In late 1914, several long-sighted Red Cross executives began purchasing tinned foods, meat extracts and blankets, realising that if the war was prolonged, the cost of commodities would increase.  The policy of Red Cross was to "supply everything that is needed: if the goods are not on hand buy them."  They bought the best goods on offer, recognising that "for the men who have risked their all for the honour of their country, nothing but the best is good enough".     

By Christmas 1914 the Red Cross voluntary aid movement had spread across Sydney and as far north as the timber town of Casino.  Groups of women called Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) trained in first aid and home nursing, preparing to care for sick and wounded soldiers on their return from the war.  

During our Centenary we've had the privilege of hearing a century of Red Cross stories on our Centenary website, such as local heroes like Mrs Fern from Victoria, who knitted a pair of socks every week during the war because she knew a man fighting in the muddy trenches would want a new pair of socks every week to avoid trench foot.  

One family shared a touching story about their grandfather, Sapper Peter Joseph Murray, who served in the 1st Australian Tunneling Company in France during WWI.  In the European winter of 1917 he received a Red Cross comfort parcel, which included a pair of knitted socks with a little note in the toe from the Red Cross volunteer who knitted them.   

The note in the sock read:  

"To one of our brace defenders - I suppose when you receive this note you will be somewhere in France, doing your bit.  As I sit here I am wondering what you are like, where you lived before you enlisted, how long you have been over there, and particularly whether you will answer this note or not … Hoping these socks will be in time to keep your feet warm during the coming winter, and wishing you the best of luck and a safe and speedy return."  

Read the full story and the original letter here.  

As you give and receive cards, messages and gifts this Christmas, spare a thought for the hundreds and thousands of Australians who showed such tenacity and goodwill to bring comfort to our Australian troops and their families every Christmas during World War One.   Their generous spirit is our enduring legacy.  

To help families in crisis this Christmas, you can donate to the Red Cross Christmas Appeal.    

'Red Cross Work in NSW:  Souvenir of the Great War', published by Red Cross, May 1916.
'The Power of Humanity:  100 Years of Red Cross in Australia', by Melanie Oppenheimer, published by Harper Collins, 2014.