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Australian troops entertaining themselves at the front-line

Australia is widely regarded, by others and ourselves, as a sport-loving nation with a larrikin sense of humour that knows how to have a good time and is not afraid to thumb its nose at authority. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the actions of our front-line troops, soldiers or nurses whether in the trenches, as prisoners of war or on leave. From our first real test as a nation in the First World War, while Australian soldiers have proven themselves on the field of battle, it is the way in which our troops have kept themselves amused, entertained and distracted from the reality of war that really shows these iconic Australian traits.

the first TK Derby carnival donkey race

Cpl Ricky Fuller, Go you good thing: Spr Tim Lee urges his mount on in the first TK Derby carnival donkey race, staged by 1 Reconstruction Task Force in Afghanistan to coincide with the Melbourne Cup. Image courtesy of Army News.

Sport, games and competition

The significance of sport for Australian soldiers, from the First World War through to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, cannot be underestimated. Whether interred in a prisoner of war camp, at a staging ground waiting for deployment or on the battlefield itself, Australian soldiers have used sporting competition to raise morale, distract themselves from the horrors of war and emphasise the bonds of mateship.

During the Gallipoli campaign, the regular artillery barrage, lack of level ground and constant threat of snipers made playing a football match seem an impossibility, yet diggers still managed to bring Australian Rules football to the beaches of Gallipoli. T J Richards, who was a member of the 1st Battalion (from New South Wales) and a former rugby player for Australia, recalled one of his sporting experiences:

one afternoon when I came over from Brown[s] Dip towards White's Gully I was surprised at seeing a football floating through the air. I set off down into the blind valley, and joined in with a number of Victorians who had brought the ball from Egypt with them.
Quoted in Journal of the Australian War Memorial, Issue 28.

In fact, sport played an important role during the evacuation of the ANZAC position at Gallipoli. As Australian soldiers were withdrawn during the night, those left behind tried to make the scene look as normal as possible to the watching Turks. In order to do this, soldiers were ordered to perform activities out in the open as a distraction and a game of cricket provided the perfect cover.

For prisoners of war, sport not only provided a means of keeping physically and mentally active, but helped relieve boredom and raise morale. Prisoners of war in European camps organised mock cricket 'test series' between British and Australian prisoners, while those in the Changi prisoner of war camp persuaded the Japanese to let them stage a six-team football competition, which ran for nine months.

Brownlow Medal

This medallion was awarded to Corporal Leslie Allan 'Peter' Chitty on 24 January 1943 in Changi Prisoner of War Camp, Singapore. The occasion was the Victoria versus 'The Rest' Australian Rules football game and the medallion represented the 'Brownlow Medal' for the Best and Fairest player in the preceding football series played in the camp. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: REL32808.

Using rubber trees as goal posts and capturing wild pigs to provide bladders for the boot-leather footballs, the competition culminated when Victoria beat the rest by 25 points in January 1943. Peter Chitty, who captained the Victorian side, was awarded the only Changi Brownlow Medal and it is said that he valued it far more than the British Empire Medal he received for carrying an ailing prisoner 100 kilometres along the deadly route of the Thai-Burma railway.

A game of cricket on Shell Green

Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. 17 December 1915. A game of cricket was played on Shell Green. Major George Macarthur Onslow of the Light Horse in batting, is being caught out. Shells were passing overhead all the time the game was in progress. This game was an attempt to distract the Turks from the imminent departure of allied troops. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: G01289.

The tradition of semi-formal cricket and football matches between units and allied forces continues today. In 2006, Ricky Ponting, captain of the Australian cricket team, sent an email to praise an Australian Army cricket team for beating an English Forces XI at Basra Air Station in Iraq to claim the Ashes in the Desert.

The annual Melbourne Cup horse race has also provided Australian soldiers stationed in conflict zones around the world a chance to let off some steam. In the First World War, the western sands served as the venue for the Arab Race, where members of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade staged their own Cup race. During the Second World War Papua New Guinea served as the venue for the Merauke Cup, in which soldiers raced on donkeys. More recently, personnel deployed with 1 Reconstruction Task Force (1RTF) in Afghanistan ran the TK Derby carnival donkey race.


There are many stories telling of the 1914 Christmas truce in Flanders (near Ypres, Messines, St Yves and Neuve Chapelle) between the British and German forces. A similar truce was later made by the ANZACs at Gallipoli on 24 May 1915.

1914 Christmas truce

Between the trenches on the Western Front was a no man's land, that separated enemy from enemy. In some places the trenches were only a few metres apart. Sound, voices and smells carried across this space. Soldiers were often close enough to see each other. On Christmas Eve 1914 Soldiers in the Allied forces saw German soldiers lining their trenches with Christmas trees and candles. The Germans started singing Christmas carols, beginning with Stille Nacht (Silent Night). Across no-man's land Allied soldiers joined in.

The singing developed into a truce, where

soldiers from both sides put aside their weapons and climbed out of their trenches, walked into no-man's land, started up tentative conversations where language differences were somehow overcome, found ways of exchanging gifts for Christmas, simple gifts, swapping buttons from their tunics or food and whisky sent from home in Christmas packages.
Ms L Thornquist, Director of International Studies, Brisbane Girls Grammar School

ANZAC truces

There are stories of other brief, mostly unofficial cease-fires at Easter 1915, in 1916 and 1917 involving the ANZACs. Associate Professor Judith Keene, of the University of Sydney's history department, suggests that it was the Christmas truce in 1915 at which a footy match took place. The Australian story In Flanders Fields by Norman Jorgenson tells of Australian and German troops, although the actual event on which the book was basedChristmas 1914only involved British and German troops.

Captain Sam Butler, holding the white truce flag

Charles Ryan, Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey. 22 May 1915. Captain Sam Butler, holding the white truce flag, leads the blindfolded Turkish envoy Major Kemal Ohri from General Sir William Riddell Birdwood's Headquarters to return to the Turkish lines. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: A05615.

At Gallipoli, a truce was requested by a Turkish soldier on 22 May 1915. Soldiers on both sides of 'no-man's land' agreed on an unofficial 8 hour truce. On 24 May 1915 the Australian and Turkish soldiers set about climbing out of the trenches, meeting each other, identifying and burying their dead and exchanging drinks, cigarettes and gifts.

Whilst this was spontaneous and not planned, the truces provided the means for bonding and friendship and a recognition of the soldiers' shared humanity. Times was spent 'making friendships with the Turks'. In 1981 the Turkish Government renamed Ari Burnu beach Anzac Cove. In the Australian War Memorial grounds in Canberra, there is a memorial to Kemal Atatrk, first President of Turkey and Gallipoli war commander. In 2006 the RSL permitted descendants of Turkish war veterans to march in the annual ANZAC Day parade.

A lifeline for prisoners of war (POWs)music, song and theatre

Soldiers on the front-line sang to raise their spirits, mock the enemy and even rail against the brass. Meanwhile, for those captured and interred by the enemy, music, song and theatre were a means of showing defiance to their captors and keeping despair at bay. In many camps throughout South East Asia and Europe, the POWs showed remarkable resourcefulness and skill in performing theatre and music pieces everything from Shakespeare to Dad 'n' Dave, and Bach to variety concerts.

Perhaps the most well-known example is the Changi Concert Party, which played a vital role in the life of the prisoners at Changi. Every Sunday, soldiers performed pantomimes, musical and serious dramas and presented a thirty-piece orchestra for fellow prisoners.

Using whatever they could find, trade or smuggle in (a full drum kit was even smuggled in under a sarong), every aspect of the performance was prepared by the prisoners, from original scripts and compositions, to costumes and scenery. They even managed to advertise and promote the concert by creating posters and placing them around the camp.

For the first twelve months of its existence, the Concert Party performed in an atap hut within Serelang Barracks. But as their reputation grew, they were soon performing in a purpose-built theatre within Changi gaol, where they remained until the final stages of the war. They even found that the Japanese officers would sometimes attend performances.

The cast and orchestra of a concert performed by Australian prisoners of war

Changi, Singapore. C. 1943. The cast and orchestra of a concert performed by Australian prisoners of war for their fellow prisoners formed up on the stage after the concert with their Japanese `guests'. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P01433.011.

Oswald Jack Boardman was a driving force within the Changi Concert Party and his contribution was officially acknowledged in 1946, when he was awarded the British Empire Medal. He recalls one concert near the end of the war where Japanese officers attended:

One of our fella's was a very good ballroom dancer and had been taught ballet as well, he was quite masculine type so we used to use him on stage every now and again and he teamed up with an Indonesian prisoner who had come from Java, he was a good little dancer and he was small and Asian looking they had the big fella tied up to a wheel and an Indonesian dancer dressed as a female danced around him, teasing him, when he broke his chains and attacked 'her' the 'Jap' General who was in charge of the prisoners was in the theatre and he started to yell and go on because he reckoned we were insulting them as they were losing the war at that point. No more shows after that, we had to go to work.

Education classes

POWs in South East Asia and Europe also entertained and distracted themselves by organising education classes. Some, such as Changi Universitywhich offered classes in agriculture, general education, languages, law, engineering, medicine and sciencewere informal and run by the prisoners. Others, however, were more formalised.

Sergeant Keith Hooper was captured on the last day of the Battle of Crete on 31 May 1941 and ended up in a camp at Hohenfels, in Germany. He remembered classes in camp:

University was set up in conjunction with the London University. London University was the mentor. We'd contacted them and they said yes, if you want to set up some faculties of various things we'll supply the type of stuff you need to study and the examination papers when it comes around to examinations.

The female POW experience Palembang and Changi

In Palembang POW camp in Indonesia, female prisoners also found strength and courage in music by forming a vocal orchestra and performing classical worksa story captured in the 1997 Bruce Beresford film, Paradise Road . Organised by Norah Chambers and Margaret Dryburgh, the women produced and arranged from memory vocal scores for more than 30 works by composers such as Handel, Beethoven and Chopin. Every Saturday night the female POWs would gather to perform their work for others in the camp. Their performances were heavily attended by their captors.

A prisoner at the camp, Betty Jeffrey, recalls the effect the orchestra had on the prisoners:

This music is quite the most wonderful thing that has happened in this camp so far. None of us have ever heard women's voices anywhere better than this orchestra. ... To sit on logs or stools or tables in the crude old attap-roofed kitchen, with only one light, and then to be lifted right out of that atmosphere with this music is sheer joy.
Australian War Memorial Journal 32.

The female inmates at Changi, however, turned to a more practical way of boosting morale and relieving boredom. Mrs Ethel Mulvaney, who was with the Red Cross before her capture, had the idea that the women could make quilts to be sent to the soldiers in the prison hospital.

After obtaining permission from the Japanese guards, she organised all the women to collect every scrap of material they could from rice bags to threads from the sarongs worn by the local people who worked in or around the camps.

Quilt made by female internees at Changi

One of three signature quilts made by some of the 400 civilian female internees in Changi Prison during the first six months of their captivity, from March 1942. This one was made for the Australian Red Cross. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: REL/14235.

Each woman then embroidered a square that would become part of the quilt and was encouraged to 'put something of herself' into the square. But while the quilt served a practical purpose, it also became an act of rebellion for the women. Prohibited from contact with the men, they inserted coded messages into their embroidery, some more obvious than others, to let them know that their wives and children were still alive.

Writing and publishing

In every conflict Australia has been involved in, soldiers have written of their experiences. From letters home and diaries through to blogs and video posts, these serve to give us an insight into the everyday life of the soldier. Yet writing was also a form of entertainment for the troops, especially during the first World War.

Writing in the trenches

ANZAC soldiers sit in their shelters in a trench and write letters home. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an23297142.

The First World War (1914–18) was a defining war for Australia. The way soldiers equipped themselves in battle gave birth to the legend of the ANZAC and announced to the world our identity as a people and established our country as a nation in its own right. This newly forged spirit of Australia was proclaimed and celebrated in song, art, poetry, print and even propaganda.

Trench newspapers

While many of the 'official' publications of the time were serious in tone, using formal language to express largely patriotic and sentimental themes, it is in the unofficial publications that we see the iconic image of the larrikin, irreverent Digger emerging.

The trench papers of the time, so called because they were usually published by the diggers themselves and circulated among ANZAC 'dugouts' and 'possies', give a unique insight into the life and mind of the everyday soldier. The newspapers became outlets for rumour-mongering, complaints (suitably expressed in humorous verse, anecdote or, in the more sophisticated journals, the reader's letter), and various expressions and explorations of 'Australian-ness'.

Many of these publications were extremely crudely produced, sometimes being created with a pencil, old pieces of notepaper and some sheets of carbon. Others were more sophisticated and produced in the relative calm of a headquarters using reprographic equipment. But however they were produced, they were a vital part of keeping spirits high and gave soldiers a forum for dissent and grumbling.

The Bran Mash, for example, was produced by the 4th Light Horse at Gallipoli. It was written in pencil on two leaves of official typing paper, apparently duplicated with carbon paper and seems only to have lasted for one issue. With the dateline of' 'Anzac Cove, Gallipoli June 15, 1915' the Bran Mash began its first and last editorial with 'Whirr-Whiz--BANG!'

POW writing

Front cover of

The original copy of David Griffin The Happiness Box. A Fairy Tale, recovered from Changi prison. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Writing also played a vital role in the life of the POW. As well as recording the experience and acting as a final letter home to loved ones, writing helped alleviate boredom and add a sense of normality to camp life. In addition to the personal writings of prisoners, various newsletters and other publications were produced. But perhaps the most enduring and memorable is the illustrated book for children The Happiness Box .

To try to boost morale, some Australian POWs facing their first Christmas in captivity decided to make presents for the imprisoned British and Australian women and children. Unfortunately, before the illustrated book could find its way to the children in Changi, the Japanese General running the prison suspected it contained coded messages and ordered its destruction.

Before this could be done, soldiers buried it and there it remained until it was retrieved after the war. The book was eventually published and even today it is still put under Christmas trees around the world.

Once upon a time there was a Chi Chak, a Monkey and a Frog, who all lived together in a little house deep in the middle of the jungle. The Chi Chak's name was Winston and he was very clever If a North Wind was blowing, Winston would first of all catch it in his trap; then he would tie the wind up in a banana leaf and carry it home for lunch. But if a South Wind was blowing they would eat it for dinner, because the South Wind tasted better.
From The Happiness Box by David Griffin

'R and R'

In every conflict, soldiers are given what is generally known as R and R (rest and recuperation) or leave. This gives them the opportunity to get away from the boredom, fatigue and harsh living conditions of the front line and sample some of the cultural differences and unique attractions on offer.

For soldiers in the First World War, Egypt was one of the main destinations for soldiers on R and R, particularly the Empire Soldiers Club. The UK and Australia the preferred destinations in the Second World War; and the Korean War saw most soldiers taking leave in Japan.

Miss Verania (Rania) McPhillamyAustralian War Memorial: B00867.

But even while on leave, Australian soldiers have found some unique and typically Australian ways to amuse themselves.

For soldiers in the Vietnam war, R and R usually meant a couple of days leave in either Saigon or the beach 'resort' of Vung Tau, which was on the coast near Saigon. During this time, soldiers mostly went to bars, had liaisons with local women or even did some shopping. Alcohol, drugs, sex and brawls, however, figured highly in most soldiers' experience of R and R:

Vung Tau was originally a very attractive French Riviera-style resort area and it was a great place in which to relax. As Infantry soldiers, we didn't get there too often and when we did the Viet Cong were often also there in the same bars and shops. There was a sort of unofficial truce because, 'business is business', and it was a good intelligence gathering spot for the VC. Even so, incidents still often happened, shootings, grenading of bars, stabbings and brawls.

Corporal Robert Johannes Rosier waxes his surfboard down.

Vung Tau, South Vietnam. 1968-11. 43645 Corporal Robert Johannes Rosier of Inala, Queensland, waxes his surfboard down in off-duty hours before taking to the surf at Vung Tau. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: ERR/68/0998/VN.

One of the more unusual aspects of R and R in Vietnam was the Australia Beach at Vung Tau on the South China Sea. The Australian Army took over a section of the beach and ran its own fortified recreation centre, complete with surfboards, sailing boats, water skiing and go-carts. There were also bars, a swimming pool, a concert stage and mini-golf beside the beachfront clubhouse.

Soldiers on leave had the opportunity to surf a wave (even though the sea in the area is relatively calm), have a swim and lie on the beach and forget about the war for a short while at least. In fact, the only indication that a war was actually going on was in the barbed wire and machine gun emplacements surrounding the beach and clubhouse area.

So whether surfing in a military zone, performing for their captors, or playing cricket as the bullets fly, the ways Australian soldiers have found to entertain themselves serve to affirm our identity as a nation who prefers to look at, and live, life with a sense of humour.

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Last updated: 13th November 2009
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