Strong and sweet for me. ANZAC's in the trenches

Kate Punshon - Thursday, May 21, 2020

A homeward bound letter:  Somewhere on the front line near Dardanelles

30th April 1915

Dear Mum and Dad,

It’s getting harder for a fella to keep his mind straight lying in a muddy trench for days on end. It seems to go for bloody miles, and nobody knows just how long. Jock, Corporal Douglas, reckons he walked about 2 miles on Sunday to find a Medic before he gave up and turned round. Most of us have really bad tinea and we’ve heard the squirts is moving down the line. Unless the Medic shows up real soon, don’t reckon we’ll be escaping it. There’s no pride in being brought down by the enemy when you’re out in no-man’s land with the trouser belt down there talking to your ankles.

      The trenches are shallow, not much deeper than the makeshift channel we scraped together to shift water between the 2 dams during the Federation drought. First time in my life I’m thankful I’m not a tall streak like Macca the Attacker. He’s over 6-foot-tall and real wispy, like the She Oaks down by old Charlie D’s crossing. Got his nickname cause he went mad one night, stood up with his chest proud and shot 8. Single shots, stone dead. He said it was just like the spotlighting game, spotty-off, he used to play with his brother Jake. They’d turn off the light and lying in the Autumn damp they’d take bets on who could pop-off the most rabbits as they came out the burrows. We all reckon his sharp ears, cats-eyes and sixth sense saved our lives that night.

      When we’re not fighting for our life, we’re thinking about home and sharing it as shelter from the madness of war and our inner demons. Up close you get to read a fella’s eyes. Too much war, too much madness, too much to bear, they stare into an emptiness that holds no light, love, or life. A steely desperation to escape takes hold. Johnny had that look before he laid down his helmet and rifle, crawled 100 yards out of the trench and then stood up screaming, “TAKE ME NOW YOU BASTARDS”. His dreams shattered. His body scattered by a solitary rattling gun. Then days of rain, the kind that wants to cut your face. All jammed up like an opened tin of sardines in our landing gear drench with fear, foreign soil, shrapnel and our mate’s pain. But, as you always say dad, you’ve gotta stay strong until the turnaround comes.

      Well today the sun broke through. As the afternoon rays fell on my face, they took me home. To the times I’d be riding Jarrah back from the outer paddocks full pelt, Bandit and Bella falling behind as they circle around feral scents, my back warmed by the fading day. Homeward bound, tired and hungry after a full day working the stock. Knowing the warmth of the open hearth, the first smell of roast mutton and molasses pudding at the house gate and your bright-eyed faces are waiting for me. Dad, we’d talk over the weather while mum fussed in the kitchen and then set out tomorrows plan over a strong cup of Robur Tea. Mum’s favourite. Strong and sweet she’d say. Just like the right kind of marrying girl. I sure look forward to that and hope Josie isn’t married by the time I get back. Never told you mum, but she let me kiss her on the cheek at the Pinaroo Show. It was just one kiss, but enough to set my mind that she’s the strong and sweet one for me.

      Birthday wishes for 16th March. I was thinking of you all day. Celebrated it with the last of your rolled Oatie biscuits and a strong cuppa. No milk and the last of my sugar rations had ran out a few days back. But the Oatie was sweet enough. Took me back to Sunday afternoons. Seeing the kitchen table laden with batches of them baked for the war fundraisers and a tin put aside for sending to Henry. First born. First to go. Me pinching warm bikkies and you chasing me with the wooden spoon and shooing me out to go clean-up for dinner. Some days when I’m feeling low, to keep the madness away, I open my Oatie tin, close my eyes and breathe in the rich buttery toasty sweetness until I’m full and whole again.

     Our water comes in old petrol cans and the city fellas are always complaining about the taste. I tell them to stop it and make their tea stronger. They were surprised to hear how country folk put kero in their water tanks to stop the mozzies from breeding and keep the wrigglers out. Strong and sweet is the way to go here as well.
The house must feel real empty with me, Jimmy and Henry running off to war and leaving just you and dad to work the farm. Guess you’ll have more time for your tapestry and reckon there are 3 tins of Oaties on the table now. 

I can hear the shooting starting up again. Time to get back to this bloodied war. Will write again soon

Your loving son

Epilogue: The evolution of the ANZAC biscuit

After Britain declared war against Germany in August 1914, an Australian and New Zealand unit was formed to storm the Gallipoli peninsula and open up the Dardanelles to capture the Ottoman Empires capital, Constantinople – now Istanbul. Planned to swiftly knock Turkey (Germany’s ally) out of the war, underestimating the Turks numbers, their ferocity and the terrain, a fateful landing and a bloody campaign raged for 8 months before our troops were evacuated. The courage, determination and mateship displayed during the Gallipoli and other WW1 campaigns, that lasted until 11 November 1918, shaped the identity of Australia and New Zealand. It’s commonly referred to as the ANZAC spirit. Over 8700 Australian and 2779 New Zealand soldiers lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign. Today the ANZAC Day service is a national day of remembrance for those that fought bravely in all our conflicts and peace keeping missions. We enjoy the legacy of their unselfish service. Australia is a safe, strong and free country.

Lest We Forget.

Receiving food parcels from home provided great comfort and temporary relief from the loneliness and brutality of war. Soldiers letters reveal the women in their lives sending tins of oat-based biscuits. Containing no eggs and snuggled tightly in their metal containers meant they were good “keepers” and would stand-up well to months of travel to get to the frontline. They were also baked in the thousands as part of the war fundraising effort. They weren’t called Anzac biscuits then. Perhaps something like rolled oat or surprise biscuits or crispies, as the acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was not established and in common use until well later. I have chosen to refer what we now revere as the Anzac biscuit our ANZAC’s ate in the trenches as Oaties in Jack’s letter. Whether they are home baked or off a supermarket shelf, the Anzac biscuit is deeply entrenched in our lives. 

The basic ingredients are rolled oats, sugar, plain flour, coconut, butter, golden syrup or treacle, bicarbonate of soda, and boiling water . However, debate over its origin and ingredients emerges around Anzac Day. There’s always much conjecture and sifting through material to ascertain authenticity can be confusing and fruitless. Allison Reynolds, South Australian Culinary Historian, spent two years painstakingly researching original soldiers’ letters and personal and published cookery books of the time. This is her snapshot.

Circa 1823:   First version of a rolled oat-based egg-free biscuit, Surprise Biscuits and Crispies, appears in Australian cookery books

Early WW1:  Name changes to Red Cross Biscuits or Soldiers Biscuits in recognition of their frontline role
1917:            Anzac biscuits appear in The War Chest Cookery Book, published by the Sydney War Chest Fund. (The ingredients, method and presentation are very different. When cold, biscuits are sandwiched together with jam and iced. This is not what we what we recognise as AB’s today).
Circa 1924: Coconut appears in the recipes 

Food is the embodiment of our culture and identity. It draws us together just as it highlights our differentness. How, what and when we share our food, or how we abstain from it, contributes to our rich narrative of who we are as a nation, our religious beliefs and our familial relationships. The Anzac biscuit, along with damper, vegemite and lamingtons defines us.

Advance Australia Fair

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