The experience of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) is an historical event yet it had, and continues to have, such a profound influence on Australia that we still commemorate it. We do this through memorials, services, ceremonies and in a number of informal ways, including by just pausing, wherever we are and whatever we are doing, and recognising the sacrifices that were made for us.
We commemorate it not because it was a great victory. It wasn’t. But it embodies what we value – mateship, courage, perseverance, decency, humour in adversity and selflessness. These concepts still influence how we see ourselves. It was a battle in the First World War that changed Australia.
The ANZAC experience originated at Gallipoli where, on 25 April 1915, the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) landed at dawn.
England had decided to conquer the Turks on the Gallipoli Peninsula to free the Dardanelles for the Allies and to relieve pressure on the Russians, who were being attacked by the Turks in the Caucasus. The Australians landed on a beach and had to advance up a steep slope under strong Turkish fire. Sixteen thousand troops landed and there were two thousand casualties on the first day alone. The ANZACS had to dig in, hold their ground and try to advance in desperate, heroic attempts. They endured eight months of trench warfare before being evacuated. Historian John Molony has written, "No people could have asked more, permitted more or expected more of their sons and received such a response." The response was also from the nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service at Lemnos, an island close to Gallipoli.
There are many reasons why the ANZAC experience is regarded as such a great response. The core reason is that qualities which were displayed there are valued as qualities which define Australians. C.W.Bean, whose history of the event is often quoted, wrote that the central force that drove the Australians was their sense of Australian manhood. Stories are told of the ANZACS’ sardonic humour, their decency and their courage. Stories about bravery and calmness in action by people like Simpson and his donkey. Stories about facing death with humour and courage and using ingenuity to survive. Stories about earning the respect of your men rather than gaining it through wearing a badge of rank.
It was a defining point for Australia which had been a federated nation for only fifteen years. White settlement in Australia was not very old. News of the dead and wounded at Gallipoli profoundly affected the new nation. There was pride that Australia had showed loyalty to England and also pride in being part of a new nation which had spilled blood to protect itself. Recruitment increased and the event set the tone for the way Australians behaved in battle.
On the Western Front the ANZACS fought bravely and endured many casualties. The tradition of service begun at Gallipoli continued in subsequent wars, notably the Second World War and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Most recently Australia has sent troops to East Timor. The ANZAC experience is a legend which is kept alive through commemorative events and our sense of how Australians behave.
Commemorative events have been held since the first anniversary of the ANZAC landing. The 25th of April was officially named ANZAC Day in 1916 and on that day Australian troops marched in Australia and London where there was a loud reception from the crowd. In the nineteen twenties ANZAC day became a national day to commemorate those who served and the sixty thousand people who died in the First World War. The public holiday tradition began in 1927 and by the mid thirties the rituals that are still observed were established. The first commemoration at the Australian War Memorial occurred in 1942.
Australians still commemorate the ANZAC experience in many ways, both formally and informally. Every year, at the site where the ANZACS landed Australians and others gather to remember them. It is apparently always a moving occasion and was particularly so on the seventy-fifth anniversary when ANZAC veterans attended and were embraced by hundreds of young Australian backpackers who owed them so much. This occurred at the dawn service which is an integral part of the commemoration.
The dawn service recalls the dawn landing of the troops at Gallipoli and reminds us of how the "Stand-to" wakens soldiers before dawn so they are ready for an early offensive. My family regularly attends the service in Canberra, in memory of the soldiers and, in particular, my great grandmother and great grandfather who tended wounded soldiers at Lemnos and in the United Kingdom.
We are like many Australians who attend services, ceremonies and marches in all capital cities and also in regional cities and small towns around Australia. ANZAC day is a national holiday no matter upon which day of the week it falls. It would be hard to find an Australian who doesn’t think about the meaning of the day even though they may spend it relaxing with family and friends. The fact that they have the freedom to do this is why the sacrifice was made.
It is not only Australians who commemorate the ANZAC experience. The New Zealanders and British lost thousands in the campaign and the Gallipoli Association in London have established a permanent memorial in St Paul’s cathedral. Every year on ANZAC day they hold a wreath laying ceremony, a parade and a service at Westminster Abbey. In the small village of Harefield in England, where an Australian army hospital was located, the students remember Gallipoli every ANZAC day. Continuously since 1927 the "Last Post" has been sounded by bugle at the Menin Gate in Belgium at 8 p.m. each night in memory of the soldiers, including Australians, who died on the Western Front.
We also commemorate the ANZAC experience on other days through the year. Remembrance Day on 11 November marks the end of the First World War but is an occasion for recalling other brave Australians. As we travel through Australia, in most small towns there are cenotaphs where the names of soldiers are respectfully listed. In a sense we also honour the ANZAC experience by providing serving troops to international conflict. We commemorate the tradition whenever we think about the sacrifices that were made for us and when we offer mateship in everyday life.
The ANZACS were going to almost certain death, and they did it because they believed in fighting for their country and their Empire and not letting down their mates. It was the forging of the nation. We honour them because we appreciate the sacrifice they made and their behaviour which embodies that to which we aspire. Sir William Keys has noted that the qualities of steadfastness and selflessness, compassion and comradeship "have just as much application in our daily lives as civilians as they do on the battlefield". At times like the present as we face international terrorism, a crippling drought and severe bushfires we draw on those qualities and the memory of the ANZACS gives us strength.
Adam-Smith, Patsy The Anzacs Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1979.
Brown, Bruce & Morrissey, Sylvia A Changing Destiny Edward Arnold, Melbourne 1989.
Coupe, Sheena & Andrews, Mary Was it Only Yesterday? Longman Cheshire, Melbourne 1983.
Kelly, Paul 100 Years: The Australian Story Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2001.
Laffin, John Digger: The Legend of the Australian Soldier McMillan, Melbourne 1986.
McCarthy, Dudley World War 1 Years Hooder & Stoughton, Sydney, 1986.
Mc Kernan, Michael The Australian People and the Great War Collins, Sydney, 1984.
Molony, John The Penguin History of Australia Penguin, Melbourne, 1988.
Thompson, Alistair Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1994.
Return to List of Winners 2003