All Australians know the legend of Gallipoli. Collectively, our awareness of the Anzac experience is a continuous history of eighty-seven years. The beginning of this tradition, part myth and part reality; was April 25, 1915, the infamous but celebrated dawn landing by Allied forces on an isolated Turkish peninsular. Anzac has since become an Australian creed, lasting through a century of abrupt and often devastating change, a vague definition of our lives and selves. Anzac is a name for memories renewed by identity, memorials, services and pilgrimage.
The Anzac campaign has often been called the foundation of Australia. Phrases like ‘the bloody baptism of fire at Gallipoli’ and ‘birth of the consciousness of nationhood’ are thrown about each April; Anzac is cliché when talking about our character. The supposed digger – larrikin, mate, tough and heroic – is certainly stereotyped. Nevertheless, the legend is central to our identity. Its original promoters, official war correspondent Charles Bean and British reporter C. Ashmead-Bartlett, have been criticised as ‘myth-makers’ who have ‘narrowed the range of our understanding of Anzac’ and ‘excluded or marginalised individual experiences that do not fit the homogenous national legend’. Others believe this view, ‘fashionable among a younger generation of historians’, to be itself narrow, focusing too much on these two men: "Eliminate Bean’s writing from the story, and the same picture emerges . . . The creators of the Anzac legend were, of course, the men themselves." Whatever the case, it is obvious Anzac is an Australian ideal. Since its beginning, the title has been used to indicate admiration and awe, being applied to the finest people in all fields: military, politics, sport, science and art. Just as prevalent is how ordinary Australians use Anzac – whatever their own personal definition – as a yard stick for their own development.
The Australian War Memorial is a distinctive symbol of Anzac. It stands in the heart of our national capital, faced by both old and new Parliament House, bound to these seats of Commonwealth by a sacred avenue named for Anzac’s honour. Charles Bean conceived the memorial in 1916 while on the Western Front. His early vision was of "some hill-top – still, beautiful, gleaming white and silent." He believed such a place fitting to honour the horror of soldiers’ lives, which he expressed in his personal diary from the River Somme: "The men were simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine." Bean envisaged an immense Roll of Honour which would immortalise the Australian dead in photographs, and list each by their town of origin. Visitors to the memorial, who came to learn our military tradition, could then mourn the sons of their own area.
Come the people did. They were apathetic at first, too tired from the war and then depression, but Bean’s movement steadily gained media support and public enthusiasm. The memorial existed temporarily as the Australian War Museum, first in Melbourne from 1923 to 1925 then Sydney for another ten years. The exhibition, attracting large crowds in both cities, housed war records and relics collected by soldiers. Meanwhile, construction was taking place in Canberra. The Australian War Memorial opened in 1941. For practicality, the bronze-paneled Roll of Honour arranges its 102 000 names in alphabetical order within units, chronologically from Sudan in 1885 to Timor. Still, thousands of families take time to mark their sacrifice with red plastic poppies. Originally, aging Gallipoli widows and grown children would have done so. Now, it is sons and daughters prefixed by some number of ‘greats’ – an official art activity for primary schoolers (a poppy made of red crepe paper, black cardboard and green pipe cleaner) urges them, "Do you know someone who served and died during war? The next time you visit the Memorial, place your poppy alongside their name." Often it is strangers who leave the poppies, honoured to have found their own name amongst a list of heroes: Anzac is a poignant part of our history we wish to feel personal involvement with.
Far less grand than the national memorial, but certainly no less important, are honour rolls, parks and public buildings erected and named by individual communities. Most were built on donated funds immediately after the First World War. They were grieving points, the only graves for too many brittle bodies blown apart by Maxims and Howitzers. From 1916 until the present, such places have provided the core of annual Anzac Day services. In my own town of Gulgong, a dawn and morning service is held from the Anzac Park rotunda, whose columns spell the letters ‘ANZAC’. Rosemary-pinned school children sit fidgeting on blue tarpaulin, knowing these hymns and speeches are somehow important, but not quite understanding yet. At my Sydney boarding school students host returned Old Boys, give speeches, play the bugle calls, and present poems and songs in our Memorial Forest. At both services, the dignified and reflective mood is sourced from the thinning rank of veterans. They’ll only let their hair down afterwards at the R.S.L., reminiscing over V.B.’s, community two-up and calls of ‘Come in spinner!’ The ceremony at Dunedoo (population 654), an hour’s drive from home, is very similar. "We have a cenotaph, right opposite the hotel. They’ve scrubbed and polished it all up. Because of the drought, someone waters the trees," a resident says. "On Anzac Day we play a tape for the bugler and have no drums or bag-pipes, but the diggers go off just the same, with straight backs and broad shoulders. They hardly miss a step."
Significant is the strength of Anzac commemoration after so long. Unlike the United States, where sixty minutes of class time must be set aside for education during the week before Veterans Day, Anzac is not compulsory in Australian curriculums. Yet at every service and march, from Sydney’s Martin Place to Dunedoo, the vast attendance of coming generations shows how Anzac is continually understood and embraced. Then there are the annual pilgrimages to Gallipoli. At least seven thousand tourists cram into Anzac Cove for the dawn service, most of them young Australian backpackers. While writing his book Gallipoli, Les Carlyon observed, "Around 3 am the mood is like a sport’s stadium before the teams run out: whistles . . . half-hearted Mexican waves, a turmoil of emotions looking for an outlet. The Australians murder a few slabs of beer and the New Zealanders murder a few vowels. Just before dawn the mood becomes serene, just the odd murmur behind the flames from hundreds of candles." Pilgrim Hugh Williams asked one young woman if she was related to a digger. "No, nobody," she answered. "I’m just very proud to be an Australian."
Australians have commemorated the Anzac experience since it began on April 25, 1915. Sometimes our observance consists of indescribable emotions; at others, visible symbols of our respect. Carlyon, still roaming the Dardanelles, writes, "Gallipoli . . . is a country of the mind. Everyone who comes here sees the story the way they want to see it." The Anzac experience defies definition. Rather, it is a common beginning from which we can emerge into our future.
Anderson, Mark and Paul Ashton. Australian History and Citizenship. Macmillan Education Australia Pty Limited, 2000.
Carlyon, Les. Gallipoli. Australia: Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Limited, 2001.
Seymour, Alan. The One Day of the Year. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1962.
‘Andrew Back on Parade.’ The Advertiser 25 April 2001, p. 7.
ANZAC spirit commemorated throughout Indonesia. Air Force News (June 2001). November 16, 2002: http://www.defence.gov.au/news/raafnews/editions/2001/4305/story13.htm.
Commemoration Service for ANZAC Day. Anzac Day Commemoration Committee (Qld) Incorporated. November 3, 2002:
Education Activities for Students. Australian War Memorial. November 16, 2002: http://www.awm.gov.au/education/activities.htm.
Origins of the Australian War Memorial. Australian War Memorial. November 16, 2002: http://www.awm.gov.au/aboutus/origins.htm.
Memorial Box. Australian War Memorial. November 16, 2002: http://www.awm.gov.au/education/box.htm.
Review of Anzac Day Laws, Discussion Paper: June 2002. Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee, Parliament of Victoria. November 16, 2002: http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au.sarc/Anzac/Anzac%20Discussion.htm.
Welcome from the Director. Australian War Memorial. November 16, 2002: http://www.awm.gov.au/aboutus/welcome.htm.
Williams, Hugh. ‘Dedication to my father.’ November 16, 2002: http://www.nashos.org.au/anzac.htm.
Sawyers, Peter. Telephone interview. November 23, 2002.
Scoble, Kaye. Telephone interview. November 23, 2002.
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