Teacup In A Storm

For the Australian troops in the front line, the Australian Comforts Fund coffee stall became a treasured refuge from the misery of the trenches. Chaplain W.E. Dexter established the first stall behind the lines at Pozieres in August 1916 and under the auspices of the ACF many more were set up and staffed by soldiers and clergy. Throughout the bitterly cold nights, in tents, dugouts and hastily assembled huts at the corner of every Australian battlefield, the stalls dispensed mugs of tea, coffee and cocoa to the exhausted troops trudging in and out of the line. According to the ACF’s meticulously recorded statistics, more than 12 million such mugs of coffee and tea were served during the First World War.

The ACF did not just brew up coffee for the troops. Local women’s groups in Australia sprang up early in the war to provide tobacco, cakes, puddings, condensed milk, sugar,, biscuits newspapers and other ‘luxury’ items to supplement the Australian soldier’s army rations and personal kit. These fund-raising bodies were amalgamated in 1916 to form a national body which undertook to provide ‘comforts’ to all Australians abroad. The ACF grew into an enormous fundraising, collecting, sorting and distribution machine which rivalled the scope of the Red Cross. Although men took some executive positions on national and state committees, the bulk of the administrative and manual work fell on a huge ‘army’ of unpaid women.

A phenomenal 1,354,328 pairs of woollen socks, knitted by volunteers and shipped to Europe by the ACF, represented an estimated 10 million hour’s work. Nearly two million Christmas boxes containing writing wallets, chewing gum, handkerchiefs, tobacco, and sausages were sent to England and France during the war as well as thousands of shirts, vests, pyjamas and kangaroo-skin fleece-lined jackets.

The ACF was a source of solace and encouragement for the troops abroad; it was also a means for the women at home to contribute to the war effort and identify with their young men in the trenches. The vast amount of organisational work involved in running the ACF developed new managerial skills among the women themselves. They raised thousands of pounds, through door-knock appeals, fetes and button days to cover the costs of materials and shipping.

The ACF was dissolved at the end of the war, but had proved such a success as a vital link between home and the battlefield that it was revived in 1940 to supply ‘comforts’ for a new generation of Australian soldiers.

© Time-Life Australia Pty Ltd 1998
(from the series Australians at War)