During the First World War an ‘army’ of Australian women—with the support of some men—provided comfort parcels to Australia’s soldiers, sailors and nurses. The parcels contained food, clothing, letters and reading materials, tobacco and other luxuries such as sporting materials, Kodak film and Christmas gifts.
In the early stages of the war comfort parcels were managed by state based volunteer groups but on this day in 1916 the Australian Comforts Fund was officially inaugurated.
The Lady Mayoress of the Victorian Division of the Patriotic League, Mrs Eliza Stapley, described how the one aim and object of the Fund was to keep a continual stream of comforts of every kind, material and otherwise, flowing to the Australian troops at the front.
“Keep the Fit Man Fit” was the Australian Comforts Fund motto. It was a remarkable fund-raising and logistics organisation, run mainly by women in a voluntary capacity, directed by Commissioners in London, France, Flanders, Egypt and elsewhere.
Mrs Stapley described the work of her own League:
The league has its depot in Melbourne Town Hall, where voluntary workers are busy all day and every day with the work of preparing goods for despatch to the front and a thousand other activities.
The effect of the Fund at the Front was described by an officer of the 13th Battalion:
You are increasing our comforts here, and, at the same time, increasing our efficiency tremendously.
One of the items provided to soldiers were socks. Mrs Stapley said:
The liberal supply of warm woollen socks has enabled the men to fight successfully the terrible menace of “trench feet”. It is no exaggeration to say that many a soldier owed his life to the socks provided by the Fund.
During her speech Mrs Stapley also spoke about fund-raising activities and expressed the critical importance of the Lady Mayoress’s Patriotic League securing at least £100,000 in its 4 July Appeal:
It must be borne in mind that no soldier is called on to pay one farthing for all these comforts. The Comfort Fund does not hoard up its money, but spends it as soon as the need arises; sometimes, indeed, it spends it before it receives it in its anxiety to see that the fighting men are looked after.
As well as comfort parcels, the Fund also ran small canteens near the front lines. These ‘coffee stalls’ served millions of warm drinks and other creature comforts to the men going into or returning from the battle line. An extract from The History of the 22nd Battalion describes the importance of this food relief to the soldiers:
We desire to acknowledge our debt to the Australian Comforts Fund. Their soup kitchen was the goal to which even the weariest man persevered during the dreadful outward journeys from the line.
The Fund was dissolved in April 1920. However its success in First World War saw it revived 20 years later following the outbreak of the Second World War.
The driving motivation behind the work of these thousands of Australian women is best summed up in Mrs Stapley’s closing remarks:
The utmost that any of us can do for our men at the front is the least that we should do.