ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. It was formed in 1915 during World War I to try and take the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey and open up the Black Sea to the Allied navies. The troops became known as Anzacs. The biscuits (cookies) they ate were called ANZAC biscuits, or more commonly Anzac biscuits.
There is some uncertainty and controversy as to the origins of these biscuits. One theory is that they were initially made by the troops in their trenches from the contents of their battle rations, to make the food a bit more interesting. This is thought to be an unlikely explanation as soldiers would not have had the ingredients, the time or the cooking facilities. The First Australian Field Bakery, near Gallipoli, did have cooking facilities, but it is thought that only bread was made there.
A more likely explanation of their origins was that the biscuits were first made by the wives and mothers of the Anzacs to send to their menfolk on the front. As part of their rations, the troops were issued with army biscuits, called Anzac wafers or tiles, but these were a hardtack biscuit of flour, water and salt. These biscuits were very hard and not particularly appetising. The women back home were concerned about the quality and nutritional value of the food sent to troops and sought an alternative.
They were mindful of the fact that any food sent to the troops would go in Merchant Navy ships from Australia to Europe. These traveled at no more than 10 knots (18.5 kilometers an hour or 11.5 miles an hour), meaning that a trip took more than two months, and few ships had refrigeration in those days. Food was needed that wouldn’t perish. Some women provided the solution – a nutritious biscuit made with ingredients that would survive the long journey and not deteriorate, like bread or other biscuits. They used rolled oats, plain flour, coconut, butter, sugar, golden syrup or treacle, bicarbonate soda and boiling water. Golden syrup or treacle was used to bind the biscuits as eggs were scarce because many poultry farmers had enlisted to fight in the war.
The biscuits proved popular with the troops and were soon being made on a large scale. The Country Women’s Association, other women’s organisations, church groups and schools were busy making thousands of Anzac biscuits for the forces overseas. To keep the biscuits fresh, they were packed in airtight tins that had originally contained groceries. This kept any moisture out and the biscuits stayed crisp. Sometimes chopped nuts, raisins or other items were added if available. They became a staple at Gallipoli. Initially called soldiers’ biscuits, they were renamed Anzac biscuits after the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915.
A typical Anzac biscuit recipe made by these women included one cup each of rolled oats, plain flour, sugar and coconut, four ounces (113 grams) of butter, one tablespoon of treacle, two tablespoons of boiling water and one tablespoon of bicarbonate soda. The dry ingredients were combined, while the butter was being melted into the syrup on a wood stove. The water and bicarbonate soda were combined, and added to the butter and syrup. This was then added to the dry ingredients, before being baked for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown.
Some New Zealanders claim that Australia stole the Anzac biscuits recipe from their country. The biscuits are actually based on Scottish oatmeal cakes, and there is a large Scottish influence in Dunedin on the south island of New Zealand. Scottish soldiers as early as the 14th century would carry a sack of oatmeal and a metal plate. The plate was heated over a fire, and oatmeal and water were added to make a thin, brittle oatcake. Over the centuries, oatcakes and biscuits became popular away from the battlefield and at home, and butter, syrup and other ingredients were added. But there are plenty of Scots in Australia too. Large contingents migrated from the 1820s and 1830s onwards due to poverty, epidemics and famine in their homeland, and no doubt they brought oatmeal recipes with them.
The earliest reference to Anzac biscuit recipes in an Australian or New Zealand cookbook was in the St Andrews Cookery Book, 9th edition, published in Dunedin in 1921, although they were called “Anzac Crispies”. The word “Anzac” had appeared in the 7th edition in 1915 but it referred to a cake rather than a biscuit. The War Chest Cookery Book published in Sydney in 1917 had a recipe for “Anzac Biscuits” but it was a totally different biscuit. This volume included a recipe for “Rolled Oats Biscuits”, which was similar to that for Anzac biscuits. The biscuits were often called “Anzac crisps” in the 1920s and 1930s.
Anzac biscuits are one of the few products allowed to be sold in Australia using the word Anzac in the name as it is protected by federal law. The “Anzac” (Restriction on Trade Use of Word) Act 1916 prohibits the word “Anzac” from being used in connection with any product, trade or business, without federal approval from the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. The biscuits were first made commercially by Arnott’s Biscuits in 1935. In New Zealand, the name is similarly protected by the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981.
The biscuits were less common in World War II as virtually all ships had refrigeration by then, and a wider range of cakes and biscuits and other items could be sent overseas. Nevertheless, Anzac biscuits remain very popular today and are available in shops all year round, although peak sales occur around Anzac Day, April 25, which is a national holiday in Australia, New Zealand and a few Pacific islands, and commemorates the efforts of all servicemen and women from these countries in all wars. The biscuits have became a symbol of the war effort, of the bravery of the troops, and the hard work of the women at home baking these biscuits between other jobs, including those usually done by their menfolk.
Anzac biscuits are often regarded as Australia’s national biscuit, both within the country and overseas. They are made to raise funds for returned services organisations in Australia and New Zealand. A British version supports the British Royal Legion and can be bought at UK supermarkets. The biscuits are issued at Christmas to Canadian soldiers.