If you’ve seen the photo of a very buffed kangaroo meme circling all over the internet, then you might wonder why they were not being used for military purposes, as they sure looked pretty useful and tough. The reality was that they were present during World War I but not as some form of vehicle or enemy-kicking companions. Instead, they serve a critical purpose at that time of chaos: morale boosters and mascots.
Australia Entered WWI
Australia’s involvement in World War I all began when Prime Minister Joseph Cook and Opposition Leader Andrew Fisher, both in the middle of their election campaign, pledged full support for Britain when it declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914.
At that time, Australia was just a new nation that had become independent in 1901. So when the war officially began, Australia met it with enthusiasm and did not spare a second before mobilizing the Australian men for war. More than 400,000 Australians served in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF), and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Three hundred thirty thousand served overseas at Rabaul in 1914, Gallipoli in 1915, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Western Front of Europe from 1916 to 1918. They served alongside troops from South Africa, New Zealand, Newfoundland, India, Canada, and the British Isles.
Skippy and Friends
Perhaps something that we would not do anymore, and for good reasons, was smuggling the animals into the harsh battlefields of war, but this was a common practice during World War I and II. So for a few units from Australia, it was no surprise that they brought the most Australian animal they have: kangaroos.
As mentioned, the Aussies were sent to three different continents, but in Egypt, they left a mark when they brought a kangaroo with them, something that one would not expect to see in a hundred years in the hot Egyptian desert. The kangaroo, even today, has become their country’s animal representative. Their coat of arms features a kangaroo, while many other Australian sports teams are named after the animal, like their national rugby league team.
These patriotic young Australian men wanted to bring a unique symbol of their homeland with them as they fought on the battlefield, so they brought with them several kangaroos that they managed to smuggle on board the transport ships that carried them to Egypt. It was not just kangaroos, though. For some reason, they brought what seemed like a mini zoo: birds, wallabies, kookaburras, and koalas, to name a few. Some of these animals, unfortunately, died while in transit. There was one instance when the wallaby leaped into the open sea and attempted to swim away before being engulfed by the water.
Those who made it to Egypt alive were treated with care and curiosity, as many of the locals had not seen these animals yet. Some Egyptians were cautious about the kangaroos, if not downright terrified. Soon, they’d learn that they are relatively harmless. If provoked though, a Kangaroo has formidable weapons in its clawed toes, they can rip a man open from neck to knees. The children, however, were delighted to see the smuggled animals.
The dry Egyptian desert meant vegetation was scarce, so the troops fed the kangaroos grass from patches they cultivated, supplemented by chaff and hay called tibin.
More than just distractions from the noise and chaos of the war that the soldiers had to face, the kangaroos and the other animals helped boost the morale of their human companions. This was more important than it seemed because keeping the Anzac troops happy and maintaining their positive outlook in a truly horrible war far from home.
When the soldiers had to leave Egypt as they would be stationed on other war fronts, the kangaroos and the other animals that could not be brought along anymore were donated by the Australian units to the Cairo Zoological Gardens. This is where they spent the rest of their lives, away from the conflict of war.
By World War II, only a few animals were smuggled by the Australian units as their mascots and they settled for ordinary dogs, cats and birds as mascots.