Wreaths of red Flanders poppies are traditionally placed at memorials on Anzac Day.
On 25 April every year, Australians commemorate Anzac Day. It commemorates the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. The date, 25 April, was officially named Anzac Day in 1916.
Historically, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) was an acronym devised by Major General William Birdwood's staff in Cairo in early 1915. By 1917, the word 'Anzac' meant someone who fought at Gallipoli and later it came to mean any Australian or New Zealander who fought or served in the First World War. During the Second World War, Anzac Day became a day on which the lives of all Australians lost in war time were remembered. The spirit of Anzac recognises the qualities of courage, mateship and sacrifice which were demonstrated at the Gallipoli landing.
Commemorative services are held at dawn on 25 April, the time of the original landing, across the nation, usually at war memorials. This was initiated by returned soldiers after the First World War in the 1920s as a common form of remembrance. The first official dawn service was held at the Sydney Cenotaph in 1927, which was also the first year that all states recognised a public holiday on the day. Initially dawn services were only attended by veterans who followed the ritual of 'standing to' before two minutes of silence was observed, broken by the sound of a lone piper playing the Last Post. Later in the day, there were marches in all the major cities and many smaller towns for families and other well wishers.
Today it is a day when Australians reflect on the many different meanings of war. Gatherings are held at war memorials across the country.
Australia and New Zealand at war
Australia and New Zealand were at war from 4 August 1914 when Britain declared war on Germany. Both Australia and New Zealand, and other colonies and dominions of the British Empire, supported Britain, France and the Russian Empire (later known as the Allied Powers) against Germany, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary (later known as the Central Powers) when the Ottoman Empire entered the war on 29 October 1914.
The plan was that the Allied fleet (British and French) pass through the Dardanelles Straits to lay siege to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to help the Russians. It was intended that the navy seize the Turkish batteries on both sides of the Strait, sweep away the Turkish mines and allow the Allied fleet safe passage through the Dardanelles. The initial British war plans against the Ottoman Empire in Turkey did not involve a land invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli. The need for such a major landing in force at Gallipoli was only finally endorsed after the failure of the great naval attack on the Dardanelles defences of 18 March 1915.
The Gallipoli campaign
Ari Burnu (Anzac Cove), showing the landing boats. Image courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As part of the larger Imperial Force, the Anzacs were brought in from training in Egypt to participate in the Gallipoli landings. The Anzacs comprised the 1st Australian Division and the composite New Zealand and Australian Division. Unlike the European armies of the period, the Australian Imperial Force was formed from volunteers. Most of the volunteers came heeding duty's call. Others looked for excitement or were escaping drought conditions at home.
The Anzacs landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula at dawn on the 25th April and met fierce resistance. Instead of finding the flat beach they expected, they found they had been landed at an incorrect position and faced steep cliffs and constant barrages of enemy fire and shelling. Around 20,000 soldiers landed on the beach over the next two days. They faced a well organised, well armed, large Turkish force determined to defend their country—led by Mustafa Kemal, who later became Atatürk, the leader of modern Turkey.
Anzac with the Australian flag at Gallipoli 1915-1918. Caroline Northmore Collection. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria
Fighting on Gallipoli soon settled into a stalemate. The Anzacs and the Turks dug in—literally—digging kilometres of trenches, and pinned down each other's forces with sniper fire and shelling. Thousands of Australian and New Zealand men died in the hours and days that followed the landing at that beach. The surviving diggers, as the Australians called themselves, hung on waiting for reinforcements. The stalemate ended in retreat with the evacuation of the Anzacs on 20 December 1915. By then 8,141 had been killed or died of wounds and more than 18,000 had been wounded.
Following the Gallipoli campaign, Australian soldiers went on to France to participate in some of the major battles of the First World War, including the battles of Pozieres and the Somme. Soldiers at Gallipoli and at the other trench battles in France and Belgium suffered conditions such as typhus, lice, poor food, poor sanitary conditions and lack of fresh water as well as the all encompassing mud.
The Anzac Legend
The landing at Gallipoli was seen as a story of courage and endurance amongst death and despair, in the face of poor leadership from London, and unsuccessful strategies. War correspondents, such as Charles Bean, hailed the Australians for their dash in attack and doggedness in defence and the Anzac legend was born.
It is a legend not of sweeping military victories so much as triumphs against the odds, of courage and ingenuity in adversity. It is a legend of free and independent spirits whose discipline derived less from military formalities and customs than from the bonds of mateship and the demands of necessity.
Former Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Mr Paul Keating, at the Entombment of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial, 1993
Australians make heroes of noble failures
Australians are particularly inclined to make heroes of noble failures, such as the defeated Eureka rebels, the suicidal 'jolly swagman' in Waltzing Matilda, and Ned Kelly. Gallipoli seems to fit this pattern.
The Gallipoli campaign was the beginning of true Australian nationhood. When Australia went to war in 1914, many white Australians believed that their Commonwealth had no history, that it was not yet a true nation, that its most glorious days still lay ahead of it. In this sense the Gallipoli campaign was a defining moment for Australia as a new nation, but also a key moment in the evolution of a particular image of Australian masculinity.
The major features of an Anzac legend were discernible very early in the campaign: Australians were bold and ferocious in battle but were unwilling to bow to military discipline. An ANZAC never flinched - if he died it was with a joke, or a wry smile on his face - yet nor would he salute a superior officer....In the ANZAC legend, the Australian Imperial Force was a democratic organisation, in which there were friendly relations between officers and men, and anyone could rise from the ranks to a commission.
Dr Frank Bongiorno, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of New England
Professor Manning Clark in his opus A History of Australia, suggests a contrasting image to that of the bronzed and noble Anzac. From a range of sources he provides evidence of the Anzac's bad behaviour. As recruits, before being shipped to war, some indulged in sex orgies with an 18-year-old girl at the Broadmeadows camp, others confronted police in violent scuffles on the streets of Melbourne. Their behaviour in Egypt was no better —they burned the belongings of local people, brawled, got drunk and rioted, and spent sufficient time in the local brothels for many of them to suffer from venereal disease.
Although perhaps less than heroic, this behaviour too—brawling, drinking, fighting—is part of the Australian construction of masculinity, part of the larrikin element exemplified in the characters C. J. Dennis created during the war years – characters like Ginger Mick and Digger Smith. Dennis's The Sentimental Bloke was published in 1915 and Digger Smith in 1918. The Sentimental Bloke sold more than 60,000 copies in less than 2 years.
Like it or not, hero and larrikin, ratbag and rebel, the Anzacs, in all their complex iconography, are an inextricable part of the Australian tradition of masculinity.
At Gallipoli, men from all backgrounds and classes from the newly federated Australia created the essence of what it means to be Australian – courage under fire, grace under pressure, giving a hand to a mate.
Commemorative Area at the Australian War Memorial. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
Nearly every town or suburb in Australia has a war memorial to honour war veterans. Some list just the dead, some list those who served and returned home.
The Australian War Memorial is in the national capital and each state and territory has its own war memorial. The Australian War Memorial website has a section dedicated to the tradition of Anzac Day, which explains its cultural importance to Australians and the rituals which surround commemoration services such as wreath laying, sounding of the Last Post and the observance of one minute's silence. The Australian War Memorial and Anzac Parade were included in the National Heritage List on 25 April 2006.
An Anzac commemorative location has been built at Gallipoli in conjunction with the New Zealand government and with the approval of the Turkish government.
Anzac quick facts
- ANZAC is an abbreviation for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
- AIF is an abbreviation for Australian Imperial Force.
- April 25, Anzac Day, was the day the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915.
- The Anzacs were on the Gallipoli Peninsula for only 8 months, around 8,000 of them died there.
- The Anzacs were all volunteers.
- The Gallipoli Peninsula is very near the famous ancient city of Troy.
- The first dawn service on an Anzac Day was in 1923 and first official dawn service was held at the Sydney Cenotaph in 1927.
- The ritual of 'standing to' for soldiers is when they take up their assigned posts in readiness for inspection or battle usually before dawn, so that by the time the first dull grey light crept across the battlefield they were awake, alert and manning their weapons.
- The Last Post gave one last warning to any soldiers still at large that it was time to retire for the evening. The Last Post is incorporated into funeral and memorial services as a final farewell and symbolises that the duty of the dead is over and that they can rest in peace.
Inscribed on a memorial on the Gallipoli Peninsula
Lest we forget
Anzac Day events and commemorations
- Department of Veterans' Affairs, Anzac Day
- Australian War Memorial, Anzac Day
- Governor-General, New Zealand, ANZAC Day
- Australian War Memorials- State and Territory
Anzacs and the First World War - Reflections and articles
- Transcript of former Prime Minister John Howard's address at ANZAC Day Dawn Service, Gallipoli, 2005
- ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee, The Spirit of ANZAC
- New Zealand History online, Anzac Day
- Department of Veterans' Affairs, Teachers resources
- Australian War Memorial, First World War 1914–18 – Essays, articles, and talks
- Australian War Memorial, Diary of an Anzac
- Gallipoli and the Anzacs
- Discovering Anzacs
- Australian War Memorial, Military honours and awards to Australians
- National Archives of Australia, Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice
The word 'Anzac'
- Department of Veterans' Affairs, Protecting the word Anzac
Listen, look and play
- The Australian War memorial has released rarely seen film taken at ANZAC Cove and Suvla Bay in 1915.
Last updated: 9 June 2015