07 July 2018

The kangaroo in WW1 - nationalist pride and homesickness

As shown in the photo below,  a toy kangaroo, made of brown velvet and with movable legs, was dated between 1914 and 1918. Pinned to it was a coll­ection of World War I fundraising badges made of mat­er­ials such as brass, enamel and glass. Some of the badges were first issued when the Australian Government wanted to identify and thank the nearest female relatives of members of the Aust­ral­ian forces on active service. Separate badges were issued to signify relatives serving in the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Imperial Force.

Funds went to the repatriation and rehabilitation of sold­iers, the erection of war memorials, and to children and fam­ilies affected by the war in France & Belgium. At school, children learned about Empire, citizenship, national pride and duty. The war rein­forced their lessons and inspired them to contribute.

Australian diggers (soldiers) and a kangaroo, 
Mena Camp in Cairo, Dec 1914
Photo credit: Australian Geographic

Visitors can see this velvet kangaroo at the National Museum of Australia’s Terence Lane Collection, amassed by the former Senior Curator of Australian Art. With 180 objects of Australiana, pred­om­in­antly featuring the kangaroo, this is considered the best collection of kangaroo theme items in Australia and is therefore of important cultural value.

The kangaroo has long been a patriotic symbol, and one used widely in wartime. But not only toy kangaroo were popular. In the shadows of the great pyramids and amid kitbags and Lee-Enfield rifles, an Aust­ralian Imperial Force infantryman encounters a kangaroo. Skippy was on permanent shore leave at Mena Camp, the British Empire's training ground in Egypt. Members of the 9th and 10th Battalions smuggled these "mas­cots" from home aboard transport ships. The first Australian troops to arrive in Egypt in 1914 were proud to be serving the British Empire, and some men took kangaroos and wallabies aboard ship when they left home. Apparently they were a common sight in the Australian camps at Mena, Heliopolis and Ma'adi in 1914-15. There were at least a dozen, and they were mentioned frequently in soldiers' letters home.

These men had just signed up, voluntarily, for war. They were young, with not a lot of thought for the future. The soldier in the photo treat­ed the marsupial expat with tenderness and homesickness. It is be­lieved it ate the same food as the British force's horses and don­keys, a hay and chaff mix. In March 1915, after three months of milit­ary training, the men left Mena bound for Gal­lip­oli, bequeathing their mascot to the care of the Cairo Zoological Garden.

Velvet kangaroo and war badges 1914-8
National Museum of Australia

In 1915 recruiting committees were formed in nearly every sizeable town in Australia. In the central west of New South Wales a movement began under the leadership of Captain Bill Hitchen; 20 rural men enlisted and started to march to Syd­ney on the Kangaroo or Coo-ee March. Gath­ering other recruits along the way, they numbered about 300 by the time they reached the capital city. Their example was soon followed by other marches from around New South Wales and Queensland, includ­ing the Waratahs, Kangaroos, Wallabies, Men from Snowy Riv­er, Kook­aburras and Boomerangs.

The total number of  recruiters was only 1,500 but the marchers relied on the support of the towns they passed through, which was often enthusiastic. They attracted wide publicity, encouraging fund-raising and enlistment. The longest was the Kangaroo March in Dec 1915, going to Wagga Wagga, Junee, Cootamundra, Yass, Goulburn, Moss Vale, Campbelltown and ending at The Domain, Sydney.

Posters were used for various government propaganda campaigns over the course of WWI, most significantly to encourage enlistment, but also to raise money for war charities, to encourage saving and frugality and to rally the home front.

"Australia has promised Britain 50,000 more men. Will YOU help us keep that promise"
1916, lithograph, recruitment poster.
Australian War Memorial


World War One Love & Sorrow was an exhibition in the Melbourne Museum in Carlton back in 2014. It explored the enormous impact of the war on Australians. A shared experience in towns and cities across Australia was the worry of having loved ones serving overseas. Newspapers were searched for announcements of deaths and injuries. The sight of a minister or telegraph messenger approaching a family's front door could fill the family with dread. Many of the objects in this exhibition relate to WW1 in one street: Normanby Ave Caulfield, a typical street where almost everyone was touched by war.

Millions of letters were posted around the world during WWI; letters and cards were the only ways most people kept in touch.

Australian Christmas card 1916
posted home by servicemen and women. 
World War One Love & Sorrow exhibition


Joseph said...

Hel, most 18 and 19 year old city boys would never have seen a kangaroo at home. So its powerful symbolism must have reminded the soldiers of their beloved parents, as well as their homeland.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Australia is lucky to have a mascot that is so lovable and easy to identify with, and which I am sure provided a real support for the armed services. America's eagle has been imbued with noble sentiments that have served a similar purpose, but we all know that Australia is cute wildlife capital of the world.

There was some kind of Australian television show called Skippy the Kangaroo. I saw an episode on Youtube, and the little kid who was supposed to love Skippy seemed terrified to get too close to the powerful animal.

Andrew said...

I am amazed that they took live kangaroos and wallabies to Egypt. What were they thinking? I hope they were well treated by the Cairo zoo. I wonder if there was any breeding and there are still kangas in Cairo. I like the Christmas card image.

Liz Ginis said...

Fondness for the iconic Australian mascot is evident in a photograph taken on the Serbian front in Salonica Greece during WW1. A nurse from the Scottish Women's Hospital kneels in the stone-riddled dirt to paint the words Kangaroos Only on a water can.

Liz Ginis
Australian Geographic
April 2015

Hels said...


that was so true. Most young men would have been so lonely and homesick when they lived in foreign countries, they truly valued any relic from home. A photo of the parents, for example, would have been treasured. And we know that soldiers camps had kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, possums and even cats delighted lonely Australians.

Hels said...


Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was the Australian television equivalent of the Mickey Mouse Club or Lassie. Until it finished in 1970, I assume every family across the nation encouraged their children to see this delightful tv programme. It was filmed in a distant National Park, so even children who never visited the countryside... would grow to love Skippy.

Hels said...


none of the animals and birds that arrived from Australia during the 1914-18 war could survive in the long term. There are kangaroos, koalas etc in Egyptian zoos now, but they were gifted by the Australian zoos relatively recently and can breed in happy conditions.

Hels said...


Many thanks. I didn't even realise Australian soldiers were living in camps on the Serbian front in Salonica. I spent some time in Salonica and loved it, but noone talked about the Australian contribution in WW1 (as they still talk about Australians in Jerusalem and Villers-Bretonneux, for example).

CherryPie said...

Fascinating, thank you for sharing the history.

I live in England, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was one of the programmes that was aired frequently when I was a child. It was one of my favourite TV programmes :-)

Jenny Woolf said...

I participated in a schools project about WW1 based around a family hand-down, a paperknife made from a bullet. I came across quite a few souvenirs of the war in my research, and still occasionally see those little fabric postcards with flags, etc. in antique shops. Anyhow in my research I didn't come across kangaroos, probably because I am not in Australia and there must be very few here. So I was very interested to read your post.

I once saw wallabies in fields here in Britain, and it seems they don't mind it here climate wise. And I would guess that most sorts of kangaroo are used to very hot temperatures so wouldn't mind Egypt. A bigger risk might be leaving the poor thing in the care of the local zoo. Our family has tales of Mena, but it has changed a lot from those days. I wrote a post about a visit if you are interested - go to my blog and search for "Cairo" .

Hels said...


I lived overseas for 5 years, relying on aerogrammes because there were no computers, emails or mobile phones in the 1960s and 70s. Not war time of course, but I still missed my family, friends, uni and country badly. Australian TV programmes and films became essential!

Hels said...


I wish I had known more about Mena Camp in Egypt. After all it had been an important AIF Training Base before the landings that made Gallipoli so famous or infamous.

Because my grandfather was a Russian who also spoke German, Hebrew, French, Polish and English, he played an important role in both Egypt and Ottoman Palestine as a translator. It all ended when the Revolution made the Russians withdraw in 1917.

Thank you for the link. I will add your blog address to my list.

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

That was really interesting - and a perspective not often seen over here, so very welcome.

Hels said...


For the younger generations, WW1 history is like the Tudors and Stuarts - they did things differently back then. So I sincerely hope that ANZAC Day and Armistice Day are commemorated not just with football matches and picnics, but with lectures and museum exhibitions.