The ANZAC experience that first touched the lives of many Australians in 1915 has continued to have a significant impact throughout the 20th century. As old diggers pass away, their children proudly wear their medals and take their place in the Anzac Day service. The number of visitors to the Australian War Memorial has steadily increased each year as young Australians remember the ANZAC experience. After that fateful day at Gallipoli on the 25th April 1915, Australia was never the same again. No longer were we an extension of Britain; we had won for ourselves the right to be acknowledged as a unique and independent nation, baptised by 'fire'. The ANZAC experience is part of what and who we are as Australians.
Prior to 1915, Australia was in every aspect a very young country. It had just become a nation in 1901, had little experience in war and still "clung" to England. Many people referred to Britain as home and idealised everything British. People were generally unsure of what Australians were meant to be. They did not know whether they were Australian-Britons or an independent nation with a culture and identity of its own. Before World War I, Australia was just a small new nation very dependent on Britain.
Following Britain's declaration of war on Germany in 1914, Australians enthusiastically enlisted to support the 'mother' country in its struggle against the forces of oppression. These new recruits became the Australian Imperial Forces (A.I.F) and were to assist Britain who was allied with France to defeat the Germans. Many men went to war looking for adventure, and of course to stand by Britain. Andrew Fisher, the leader of Labor opposition at the time, said that Australia would back Britain to its "..last man and last shilling." (cited in Bean, 1961, p23) The A.I.F joined with New Zealand to become a force that was known as ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps). These Anzacs were to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula, an area occupied by the Turks, an ally of Germany. This plan was put into action the morning of April 25th 1915. However the Turks had the advantage of higher ground and the operation of Gallipoli was a disaster. The Anzacs gained a few hundred meters on the first night but from then on, little more was gained. The various campaigns on the Gallipoli Peninsula resulted in the deaths of over " 8000 Australians " (cited in Bean, 1961 p 181), causing some to view Gallipoli as a pointless event. This was not the case however, as Gallipoli was Australia's first combat as a nation and was seen as a test. Even though many were killed and in the end the Anzacs were withdrawn from Gallipoli, Australia passed this test with flying colours and the ANZAC spirit evolved. This spirit was the result of mateship, self-sacrifice, perseverance and that sense of humour that remains unique to Australia. As summed up in the words of the war correspondent C.E.W Bean,
"Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never own defeat." (Bean, 1961, p181)
The call to go to war with Britain was met wholeheartedly and Australia gained an identity, which remained to the present day.
The reality that came with the ANZAC experience was that Australians discovered how different they were from other countries including Britain and were proud of this newfound identity. After 1915, Australia was no longer just another link in the Empire and for the first time realised this, truly becoming a nation. After the diggers' firsthand experience of British blunders and arrogance, they realised they were as competent as the British and had the right to be heard. In a letter to Prime Minister Fisher in 1915, Keith Murdoch, a reporter, stated that,
"Our men found it impossible to form a high opinion of the British K men It is stirring to see them [Australian soldiers], magnificent manhood They have noble faces of men who have endured You would find that to be an Australian is the greatest privilege the world has to offer." (cited in Tudball, 1991, p 285)
Australia's newly developed confidence was evident in politics too. In the latter part of 1916, Britain again asked Australia to show its loyalty by recruiting more soldiers. Australians voted in two referendums on conscription, one took place in October 1916 and the second in December 1917. The end results of both referendums were 'no'. Australia further demonstrated its independence when Prime Minister William Morris Hughes, demanded Australia have the right to represent itself at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, rather than being represented by Britain. Australia had won the right to this through its experience at Gallipoli.
The ANZAC experience has become an integral part of Australia's history. As Percy Spender, the minister for the Australian Army, stated during World War II
"Memories of Gallipoli have now been revived. We are proud that the Australians at Bardia are carrying on high the torch handed to them by their fathers." (cited in Tudball, 1991 p 287)
The torch continued to be carried by those Australians who fought in Korea and Vietnam to prevent the spread of communism which they believed would not give everyone a 'fair go'. More recently this has been evident in the East Timor crisis that followed the August election in 1999. Australia, under to leadership of Major General Cosgrove, initiated the InterFET force to restore order and uphold democracy. Those qualities that were first evident in the ANZAC experience of 1915 were to be called upon again.
In response to East Timor's cry for help, Australia recalled the support and mateship of the East Timorese during World War II, and joined troops from other nations to help the East Timorese become secure again. During the peacekeeping operation, Major General Cosgrove discovered that the spirit of ANZAC continues to live on in East Timor. He said
It is one that permeates all Australians and not just ones in uniform. It is
the innate Australian quality of wishing everyone could get a fair go".
(cited in http://www.anzacday.org.au/history/east_timor/overview.html)
East Timor voted to become independent but was denied the right to be free. On the eve of their departure from Australia to East Timor, Prime Minister John Howard told the Australian troops that they were going to East Timor
"as part of a great Australian military tradition which has never sought
to impose the will of this country on others but only to defend what is right".
(cited in http://www.anzacday.org.au/history/east_timor/overview.html)
This tradition began many years ago at the breaking of dawn on the far away shores of Gallipoli on April 25 1915.
Each year as Anzac Day approaches, there are new challenges that evoke the ANZAC experience and test Australia in its response to those who dare to threaten democracy. No doubt Australia will be called to arms again, but more likely in defence of its own territory. This may be the case, but wherever the Australian troops go to defend democracy, it is almost certain that the ANZAC experience will continue to inspire and provide hope for all.
Bean C.E.W. Anzac to Amiens Halstead Press Sydney
Department of Veterans' Affairs, 2000 "Gallipoli and Australian Identity: 1915 - 2000", Studies of Society and Environment, N/A pp 3 - 18
"East Timor Review"
http://www.anzacday.org.au/history/east_timor/overview.html (15 June 2000)
Tudball L (ed) 1991 Australian Perspectives Jacaranda Press Brisbane
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