To examine the ANZAC tradition is to understand the character of the Australian identity. The digger came to stand for what was decent, honorable and essentially Australian. It was widely agreed that many of the qualities seen in the ANZACs predated the First World War and had their origins in the egalitarian nature of Australian society. However the ANZAC tradition began with the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 and galvanised these characteristics into a national identity. One man in particular, C.E.W. Bean, official Australian war correspondent and historian, promoted the Australian soldiers as superb fighting men because of their independence of mind, mateship, resourcefulness and ability to make decisions under the most adverse conditions. This is a credible opinion as so many accounts of the events at Gallipoli support this view. Subsequent conflicts have not changed the essential nature of the ANZAC tradition. Although some decades have seen controversy in relation to its interpretation and commemoration, today there is a widely held respect for the heroism and decency of those who began the ANZAC legend.
The qualities expounded by Bean probably had their origins on the goldfields. According to Molony in Eureka the heritage of the goldfields was one of mateship, egalitarianism and anti-authoritarianism. Bean emphasized these qualities and also the influence of the bush in shaping the character of the digger. Bean provided glowing reports and set off a chain reaction of public euphoria about the performance of the Australian troops. (It should be noted of course that despite the emphasis given by Australian writers, the ANZAC included New Zealanders.) Beans publication of The ANZAC Book, a compilation of poems, anecdotes and writings by soldiers at Gallipoli enjoyed enormous popularity and, as Beaumont explains in Australias War established the image of the ANZAC being:
Tough, ironic, stoical, sardonically humorous, the archetypal bushman and committed to his mates.
ANZAC spirit was epitomised by men such as John Simpson Kirkpatrick. Simpson performed hundreds of rescues of soldiers from the battlefield, taking extraordinary risks to save many of the wounded. The legend of Simpson became part of Australian folklore across the generations.
The Second World War did not change the basic meaning of the ANZAC legend however writers now represented the digger as more larrikin as experiences in the different war zones created subtle changes. Alistair Thompson in ANZAC Memories notes that the grizzly jungle warfare of the Pacific led to writers emphasising the ANZAC qualities of humour and resourcefulness. George Johnston, a reporter during the Second World War, previously critical of the ANZAC spirit, said that his experiences had opened his eyes to:
The remarkable new breed of men cynical, carefree and masculine, and with their own codes of loyalty, patriotism and comradeship.
In the years shortly after the war there was a rise in the ANZAC attendances. However there would soon be a decline in the interest of Australians in the Great War. Many expressed disrespect and scornfulness towards the military. People opposed to Australias involvement in the Vietnam War resisted attempts to create a New ANZAC Legend.
It is fortunate that writers like George Johnston argued that the ANZAC tradition still offered valuable lessons about the universal truths of the human spirit and about the legendary and undoubted qualities of Australian soldiers. Later in the 70s writers like Patsy Adam-Smith and Bill Grammage served us well be emphasising the historical experience of the ordinary person and did much to revive the flagging spirit of ANZAC. The Australian War Memorial also played a significant role in the resurgence of military history and publishing.
Today participation in ANZAC commemoration remains strong. The resurgence of interest in the ANZAC legend has relied heavily on Beans official history. However, more recent histories have put greater emphasis on the personal tragedy of the war. During the 1980s and 90s a number of writers have been at pains to distinguish between the ANZACs as individuals and the cause for which they fought. Yet in the final analysis historians largely come to the same conclusion as Bean, that through their endurance of terrible circumstances the ANZACs were truly heroic. Historians today emphasise that it was the positive national characteristic of the ANZACs which made them such stoic and effective soldiers.
One of the enduring memories of my primary school years was the experience of watching the movie Gallipoli with my classmates. Although a Hollywood recreation, nonetheless the impact on us as a group was profound. Following the end scene the class sat in stunned silence. The strength of this reaction disturbed and puzzled me greatly then and, with growing maturity, and a knowledge of our history, I feel I have come to understand it. The depth of our disquiet arose from the fact that we were a group of young Australian males who had already absorbed the essence of the ANZAC spirit. We valued our mateship and our resourcefulness. These qualities were subtly but strongly reinforced in our homes and school, but now the human tragedy of war had been thrown in our faces. We wondered whether we would be capable of performing the heroic feats of our forebears or in fact whether we should ever want to. At the same time we had strong feelings of sympathy for the ANZACs. We identified with their Australian characteristics and felt enormous pride in their courage.
A striking feature of the ANZAC commemoration today is the diversity of groups represented. The young march along side the old, sometimes wearing the medals of veteran relatives. The idealised heroic qualities of the original digger have subtly changed with the passage of time however the essence of the ANZAC spirit lies at the core of our national identity. I asked my friend Victor from Hong Kong what he thought of ANZAC day. He said:
In Australia I have come to understand the essence of the Australian and ANZAC spirit, like sticking by your mates.
The essence of the ANZAC legend has been incorporated into our vision, culture and our daily life.