Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand and certain other Australasian countries. It is held on April 25th and it began as a commemoration to honor the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign of the First World War.
As well as being observed in Australia and New Zealand, Anzac Day is held in the Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga and Pitcairn Islands. It is no longer a national holiday in Samoa or Papua New Guinea.
So let’s look at Anzac Day in more detail.
What Is Anzac Day?
As we have seen, Anzac Day commemorates the first campaign that led to major casualties for Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War. It is held on the anniversary of the first day of that campaign.
The word ANZAC is an acronym whose initials stand for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. These soldiers were popularly known as Anzacs.
Anzac Day is still one of the most important national holidays in both Australia and New Zealand. It is rare for two countries to share the same remembrance day, especially while making reference to both countries in its name. It stems from the parallel histories of Australia and New Zealand which were both dominions of the British Empire at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The populations of the two countries were small enough to make it practical to have one joint military force.
The Gallipoli Campaign
Soldiers from Australasia traveled to Europe by sea to support the British and other Allied forces in the war against Germany. In 1915 they made up a large part of the force which was sent to the Gallipoli Peninsula (also known as the Dardanelles) in modern Turkey. The plan, formed by Winston Churchill who was then First Lord of the Admiralty of Britain, was that the Allied troops would capture Constantinople (modern Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire which supported German in the war. This would enable them to occupy the peninsula and open up a route to the Black Sea for naval vessels.
The ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 and met with fierce resistance from Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk) at the head of Ottoman army. Churchill had expected an easy victory that would knock the Ottomans out of the war, but this was not at all the case. The campaign lasted for 8 months of stalemate with heavy casualties on both sides. Churchill resigned from the Cabinet in November, and in late December 1915 the Allied forces were evacuated from the peninsula.
The casualties among the Allied forces were by no means limited to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. They included 21,255 from the United Kingdom, an estimated 10,000 from France and 1,358 from British India as well as 8,709 from Australia and 2,721 from New Zealand. However, for Australia and New Zealand this was a significant percentage of their total armed forces, and indeed their population: the population of Australia in 1914 was less than 5 million people, while France had around 40 million inhabitants and Britain 46 million.
Because of this, when the first news of the landing at Gallipoli reached Australia and New Zealand (which was not until April 30th, because all news had to travel by sea) it made a profound impact. By 1916 both countries had agreed that April 25th would be the day on which they remembered the sacrifice of all of those who had died in the war – at Gallipoli and everywhere else.
Despite the failure of the Gallipoli campaign to achieve its military objectives, the courage and actions of the troops from Australia and New Zealand made such an impact that they created what was known as the “Anzac legend”, profoundly affecting the national identity of Australians and New Zealanders as well as creating a strong and positive perception of them in Britain and many other countries of the world.
When Is Anzac Day Held?
In 1915, news of the huge losses in the Gallipoli landings reached the southern hemisphere several days after the event. New Zealand declared a national half day of remembrance immediately, on April 30th, while South Australia renamed their October remembrance day ‘Anzac Day’.
By 1916 the two countries had agreed that the name Anzac Day would be adopted for the anniversary of the actual landings on 25th April, and this date has persisted.
In 1916, of course, the war was still going on, but all Australian troops tried to mark the occasion in some way, even if they were fighting at the front line. In many cases both a dawn Mass and a mid-morning requiem service were held. The serving ANZAC troops who were in Britain held a commemorative march through London, and of course remembrance services were held in Australian and New Zealand towns and cities.
Until 1939 Anzac Day remained a commemoration of the losses of the First World War, but from the beginning of the Second World War it was broadened to include those who were killed in that war. It now commemorates those citizens who have died while serving in any military operation.
Anzac Day Traditions
Following the end of the First World War the tradition of holding a dawn service or dawn parade at or to war memorials was slowly established out of the services held by the serving troops in 1916 and later. It began in Albany, Western Australia on Anzac Day 1923 and is now a common feature of Anzac Day in both countries. Dawn services are also held in in the UK, Ireland, Canada, USA, Belgium, France, Germany, Thailand, Hong Kong and many islands of Polynesia and Australasia.
At most Anzac Day commemorations, the Last Post is played on the bugle and someone will be appointed to recite the fourth verse of Laurence Binyon‘s poem ‘For The Fallen’ (popularly known as the Ode of Remembrance or just The Ode):
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.