As Australian As Mascots Get: Kangaroos In WWI & WWII

 
 
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Other uniquely Australian animals and birds were smuggled by troops to the Egyptian and other First World War fronts, such as wallabies, kookaburras, koalas, and a few other species.

The First and Second World Wars saw various unusual animal mascots being brought along by a number of different units from all over the world, from bears to reindeer, and from antelopes to baboons.

For a few units from the Land Down Under, their mascot was the most quintessentially Australian of animals: the kangaroo.

Harefield, England. Taken during WWI.An Australian nurse at No 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital about to feed their pet kangaroo Jimony.
Harefield, England. Taken during WWI.An Australian nurse at No 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital about to feed their pet kangaroo Jimony.

Australia–a relatively new nation which only became an independent country in 1901–was one of the first countries to pledge military support to Britain as war seemed imminent in 1914. As soon as war was officially declared on August 4th 1914, Australia immediately began mobilizing its men for war.

Australian troops ended up fighting on three different continents during the First World War. Their presence in Egypt was particularly memorable, with many First World War photographs of Australian troops depicting them alongside a kangaroo, a somewhat unexpected sight in North Africa.

WWI Poster promoting enlistment for the AIF, 1915
WWI Poster promoting enlistment for the AIF, 1915

While many other animals are unique to Australia and are found nowhere else in the world–including koalas, platypuses, echidnas, wombats, and wallabies–the kangaroo has become the country’s unofficial animal representative.

Australia’s coat of arms features a kangaroo, while a number of Australian sports teams are named after the iconic animal.

The original drawing of the Coat of Arms of Australia, the official symbol of Australia.
The original drawing of the Coat of Arms of Australia, the official symbol of Australia.

Although many of the young Australian men who joined the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) were patriotic supporters of Britain, their love and loyalty was to Australia first and foremost.

As such, it came as no surprise that they would want to take unique symbols and emblems of their homeland with them when they departed to fight on distant battlefields on the other side of the world.

WW1 postcard showing a kangaroo mascot with Australian soldiers in Egypt.
WW1 postcard showing a kangaroo mascot with Australian soldiers in Egypt.

What could be a more quintessentially Australian symbol than a kangaroo? A number of kangaroos were smuggled on board the transport ships that carried Australian troops to the Egyptian theater.

Other uniquely Australian animals and birds were smuggled by troops to the Egyptian and other First World War fronts, such as wallabies, kookaburras, koalas, and a few other species.

Official photograph taken on the front in France – Australians moving up to the firing line. 1918
Official photograph taken on the front in France – Australians moving up to the firing line. 1918

Unfortunately, the voyage itself was enough to bring some of these animals’ lives to an end. One Australian soldier described how his unit’s pet wallaby leaped overboard into the open ocean and tried to swim away before being swallowed by the waves.

Australian Imperial Forces: A young kangaroo at Blackboy Hill Camp – WW1
Australian Imperial Forces: A young kangaroo at Blackboy Hill Camp – WW1

The animals that made it to Egypt generally lived a pampered existence and were the source of much interest for locals and colonial residents alike.

Children were especially delighted to see kangaroos and wallabies walking around the Australian camps. But many Egyptians who had never heard of, let alone seen a kangaroo were quite terrified of them until they learned that they were relatively harmless.

Lines of the 9th and 10th Battalions at Mena Camp, looking towards the Pyramids. The soldier in the foreground is playing with a kangaroo, the regimental mascot.
Lines of the 9th and 10th Battalions at Mena Camp, looking towards the Pyramids. The soldier in the foreground is playing with a kangaroo, the regimental mascot.

Food proved to be a bit of a problem for some of the kangaroos kept by Australian troops. Out in the Egyptian desert there was very little in the way of vegetation they could eat, so some troops cultivated patches of grass in the camps for the kangaroos to feed on.

They supplemented the kangaroos’ and wallabies’ diets with tibin, a mix of chaff and hay used by British forces to feed their horses in the desert.

The kangaroos and wallabies in the Australian camps served a more important purpose than as a mere form of distraction, entertainment, or a reminder of home–they also helped keep troop morale up.

HMS Hood sailors with kangaroo mascot at Vancouver.
HMS Hood sailors with kangaroo mascot at Vancouver.

In a conflict that was increasingly savage and bloody and with often horrific living conditions in the camps, maintaining high morale was a vital function, and the simple presence of a kangaroo or wallaby went a good way toward keeping Anzac troops as happy as possible under the circumstances.

Private Harry Victor Turner, 16th Infantry Battalion at Morphettville 14 Sep 1914. Wounded in action at Gallipoli in 1915. Photo: State Library of South Australia CC BY 2.0
Private Harry Victor Turner, 16th Infantry Battalion at Morphettville 14 Sep 1914. Wounded in action at Gallipoli in 1915. Photo: State Library of South Australia CC BY 2.0

Of course, the Anzac troops were not permanently stationed in Egypt, and many Australian units were transferred to other fronts of the war. This sometimes meant that the kangaroos, wallabies, and other animals that had served as these units’ pets and mascots could not be brought along.

Fortunately the animals were not simply abandoned and left to their fate in the Egyptian desert. A number of kangaroos, wallabies, and other Australian animals were donated by Australian units to the Cairo Zoological Gardens where they lived out the rest of their lives in peace.

A few, however, made it to Europe with one or two Anzac units.

Pilots and observers of No. 31 Squadron RAAF standing on and in front of a Squadron Bristol Beaufighter aircraft. Note the mascots, a Joey (young kangaroo) in front of the group and the dog.
Pilots and observers of No. 31 Squadron RAAF standing on and in front of a Squadron Bristol Beaufighter aircraft. Note the mascots, a Joey (young kangaroo) in front of the group and the dog.

There is now a population of wild wallabies in France, but while it is tempting to imagine that they are the descendants of First World War mascots that either escaped or were set loose by their Australian units after the war, these contemporary animals are actually descendants of a group of wallabies which escaped from a zoo in the 1970s.

Two members of No. 31 (Beaufighter) Squadron RAAF, holding the squadron mascots, a joey (young kangaroo) and a dog.1943
Two members of No. 31 (Beaufighter) Squadron RAAF, holding the squadron mascots, a joey (young kangaroo) and a dog.1943

Read another story from us: ANZACS: The Australians & New Zealanders at Gallipoli, 1915

During the Second World War, Australian troops again smuggled some native Australian animals with them as mascots, including by somehow coaxing a kangaroo into a medical supply box that was sent to Malaysia. Yet during the Second World War, Australia’s animal exports were not quite on the same scale as during the First World War.

Nonetheless, these uniquely Australian animals continued to inspire Australian troops and boost morale, just as they had done during the First World War.

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