Digger mascots: kangaroo gives morale to WWI troops

By Liz Ginis April 23, 2015
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Roos traveled all over the world with young soldiers as they were sent to fight in far flung wars.

EGYPT, 14 DECEMBER 1914. 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. According to Peter Stanley, principal historian at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, members of the 9th and 10th Battalions smuggled mascots from home aboard transport ships.

Aussie diggers brought mascots reminders of home

“The first Australian troops to arrive in Egypt were proud to be serving Australia and the Empire, and at least one of them smuggled aboard a kangaroo,” Peter says. “Others took wallabies, koalas, possums but what’s a koala going to eat? Biscuits and bread? Chances are it got sick and died.

“You have to look at who these men were. They’d just signed up, voluntarily, for war. They were young, with not a lot of thought for the future.” The above photo, snapped by Chaplain Ernest Merrington, shows the regard with which this soldier treated the marsupial expat. It’s believed it ate the same food as the British force’s horses and donkeys a hay and chaff mix called tibin.

“We don’t know if the ‘roo had a name, or if it was free-ranging,” Peter says. “We’d love to learn more.” In March 1915, after roughly three months of what Peter describes as “learning to be soldiers they were mostly citizen soldiers, who’d never been to war” the men left Mena bound for Gallipoli, bequeathing their mascot to the care of the Cairo Zoological Garden.

Kangaroos in South African war

Established in 1872 by the British appointed Khedive (lord or governor) of Egypt, Ismael Pasha, the rambling grounds are now part of the Giza Zoo. While speculation abounds that the numerous kangaroo and wallaby mascots left at the zoo bred, creating a new hybrid species, there’s no proof of this. In fact, the zoo has no Australian marsupial population at all it died along with its WWI ‘roos.

Our macropod mate wasn’t the first to accompany Australian troops in foreign lands. “We’ve got photographs from the Boer War [South Africa, 1899—1902] showing soldiers with a kangaroo,” Peter says. “And during World War II, lots of them were smuggled into Europe and Malaysia one of the latter in a box labelled ‘Medical Supplies’.”

Wild wallabies in southern France?

Given the movement of troops and the attrition of war, their fate is largely unknown. Mark Williams of Taronga Zoo says stories surface regularly of wild wallabies in the UK and Europe, in particular the highlands of France. “The stories are much like the alleged sightings of a giant black cat in the Southern Highlands [NSW],” he says.

Telling proof of the wide-ranging fondness for this iconic Australian mascot is evident in a photograph taken on the Serbian front in Salonica, Greece, during WW I. In it, a nurse from the Scottish Women’s Hospital kneels in the stone-riddled dirt to paint the words “KANGAROOS ONLY” on a water can. Here’s cheers, Skip.

Visit the Australian War Memorial site to view more fascinating snapshots of our wartime past.