The use of the word Anzac is restricted and protected by legislation.
The history of Anzac Day
The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 gave us the date and name of Anzac Day. News of the landing saw outpourings of national pride, and it became clear that its anniversary was the appropriate day for commemoration.
Anzac Day was first observed on 25 April 1916, as people came together to honour those lost at Gallipoli. In Australia, some state governments organised events to commemorate the occasion—but the Commonwealth did not. Acting Prime Minister (and Minister for Defence) Senator George Pearce viewed Gallipoli as a failure, and believed that a later battle might prove ‘more worthy of remembering’. He clearly misjudged the importance to the people of this day.
The wartime Anzac Days were especially important for the bereaved. With so many killed, the pain was palpable. Anzac Day was a moment to recognise and acknowledge the sacrifice with services and simple acts of remembrance, such as women tying ribbons onto the gates of wharves where they last saw their sons, brothers or husbands alive.
Anzac Day was a fixture by the war’s end. Politicians (some of whom had served, or lost loved ones and friends) forged bonds with the Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Imperial League of Australia (now the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL)), which assumed responsibility for the day. Rituals such as dawn services and street marches were developed, and gradually the families of the dead became quite marginalised. While all people were encouraged to remember, the day was in many ways for ex-servicemen to honour their dead. In Melbourne during the late 1920s, women, including mothers of those killed, were banned from the dawn service because of their wailing.
By the late 1920s, Anzac Day was a public holiday in every state and territory. In the 1930s, there was rhetoric about the need to pass the ‘Anzac spirit’ down to the next generation. This was partly politically motivated, as there was a feeling that people needed steeling for another war. In the Second World War, the ‘sons of the Anzacs’ were welcomed, and the day now honoured veterans of all wars. But despite greater numbers of veterans, by the 1960s its popularity had waned, and many wondered if Anzac Day would survive.
The resurgence started in the 1980s and 1990s. The RSL had been slow to welcome ‘others’—notably those who did not serve overseas, including most ex-servicewomen, and veterans of the ‘small’ wars. With a younger leadership, it has relaxed the rules to be more inclusive. Governments have reinforced the day’s significance with commemorative programs that reach out to the community. Anzac Day has evolved into a day for Australians to honour their war dead and veterans, and show support for serving members of the Australian Defence Force.
The Australian War Memorial’s (AWM) Anzac Day electronic encyclopaedia entry contains links to material on the history and tradition of Anzac Day, details and photographs of ceremonies, sound recordings of the Last Post and the Rouse, and educational resources.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs website includes information on the origin of Anzac Day, silence, poppies, unknown soldiers, national and state ceremonies and audio versions of the Last Post, Rouse and the National Anthem.
Further information on wreaths and poppies and rosemary is also available, as is the New Zealand perspective on Anzac Day.
Is it Anzac Day or ANZAC Day?
The Anzac acronym comes from the initial letters of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, into which Australian and New Zealand troops were formed in Egypt before the landings at Gallipoli in April 1915. What was once commonly ‘Anzac Day’ is nowadays often referred to as ‘ANZAC Day’ (in homage to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). Which is the more correct?
The official historian, Charles Bean, who knew more about Australians in the Great War than anybody, wrote of a day in early 1915 when a staff officer arrived at HQ seeking a code name for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Having noticed ‘A&NZAC’ stencilled on cases and also rubber stamps bearing this mark, a clerk suggested:
‘How about ANZAC?’ Major Wagstaff proposed the word to the general, who approved of it, and ‘Anzac’ thereupon became the code name for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. (CEW Bean, The Story of ANZAC from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli Campaign, May 4, 1915 (11th edition, 1941) (Volume 1 of The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, pp.124–25.)
As a proper noun, as well as an acronym, ‘Anzac’ entered the vernacular of the Diggers and Kiwis. At Gallipoli, they called their position, simply, Anzac; and the famous cove, Anzac Cove. They started referring to each other as Anzacs too. Eventually, any Australian or New Zealander who served in the war could be called an Anzac—although to them a true Anzac was a man who served at Gallipoli (later issued a brass ‘A’ to stitch onto their unit colour patches).
On 25 April 1916, when people paused to observe the first anniversary of the landing and pay solemn tribute to those who had died at Gallipoli, by common accord it was Anzac Day, in honour of the men (not ANZAC Day, in reference to the corps.) The NZ Returned Soldiers’ Association, for example, had an ‘Anzac day sub-committee’; the King sent a message to be published ‘on Anzac Day’; and songs and poems honoured ‘Our Anzac Boys’. As many more died on the Western Front, the day evolved to honour all Australians and New Zealanders in the war (that is, not just those of the ANZAC, which actually ceased to exist after Gallipoli). These days Anzac Day encompasses all conflicts Australians and New Zealanders have fought in.
Traditions and rituals of Anzac Day
While there were no specific traditions and rituals to begin with, by the late 1920s, most of those that we now associate with Anzac Day had developed in one form or another. The manner in which Australians and New Zealanders observe this day has continued to evolve, and will continue to do so as the veteran and wider communities change further.
The first commemorative event of Anzac Day is the dawn service at 4.30 am. This is coincidentally about the time men of the ANZAC approached the Gallipoli beach. However, the origin is the traditional ‘stand-to’, in which troops would be woken so that by the first rays of dawn they were in position and alert, in case of an enemy attack in the eerie half-light. It is a ritual and a moment remembered by many veterans.
Some debate exists about the first dawn service. Nevertheless early dawn services such as that held in 1923 at Albany, Western Australia, conducted by the Reverend Arthur White, Rector of St John’s Church, and formerly a padre with the 44th Battalion on the Western Front were the forerunners of the modern tradition. The first official dawn service was held at Sydney’s Cenotaph during 1928. The simple ceremony was for veterans to assemble before dawn for ‘stand-to’ and two minutes of silence. Nowadays, all are welcome, and the dawn service has grown in popularity and in meaning for the community.
The story of the dawn service and its origins is found in the article ‘In honour of Anzac Day: Grave History of Dawn Service‘ (Air Force News, vol. 44, no. 7, 25 April 2002).
Kerry Neale, ‘In the cold light of dawn‘, discusses the significance of the dawn service continuing to grow while questions remain over its origin in Australia (Wartime, no. 38, 2007, pp. 38–39).
Many communities follow the dawn service with a ‘traditional’ gunfire breakfast.
‘Gun Fire’ is a British tradition and was
... the usual term for the early cup of tea served out to troops in the morning before going on first parade, whenever possible. In the War [WWI] recruits in training always had ‘Gun Fire’ supplied to them, the work before breakfast being found particularly trying. The morning gun in a garrison town suggested the name probably. (From Edward Fraser and John Gibbons, Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases including slang of the trenches and the air force; British and American war-words and service terms and expressions in everyday use; nicknames, sobriquets, and titles of regiments, with their origin; the battle-honours of the Great War awarded to the British Army, Routledge, London, 1925, p. 113.)
The ‘gunfire breakfast’ seems to have evolved from the above, and comprises whatever is available at the time—it could be ‘coffee and rum’ or ‘stew, sausage and bread’, or even ‘bacon and eggs’ (which is served by the War Memorial for their ‘gunfire breakfast’ on Anzac Day).
A Victorian Parliamentary Committee investigating licensing laws in that State in 2002, made the following comments, indicating that alcohol is served at the breakfast:
The existing liquor licensing regime for ANZAC Day is, in effect, one that observes the sanctity of ANZAC Day morning, but provides for discretionary exceptions. The Committee received evidence that there are special circumstances where morning liquor trading is reasonable. In particular, there are instances where liquor trading is complementary to the conduct of an ANZAC morning ceremony. A particular instance of this is the holding of a gunfire breakfast (Victoria, Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee, Parliamentary Review of ANZAC Day Laws, October 2002).
From cities to small towns, the march has long been the centrepiece of Anzac Day. Marches were held during the Great War, and became popular with veterans in the 1920s, to honour lost friends and publicly express comradeship. The RSL organises the marches. While it was traditional for veterans who saw active service, it was later relaxed to include those who served in Australia in the armed services or ‘land armies’, during the Second World War. It has been relaxed further, with some encouragement or acceptance of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren marching, to assist aged veterans or to represent those no longer with us.
Figure 1: Women’s complement, Anzac Day march, Melbourne, 25 April 1919. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial
The march may be followed by reunions and lunches put on by local establishments. This is also the one day that the traditional Australian gambling game of ‘two-up’, or ‘swy’, may be legally played at venues. Bets are placed on how two pennies thrown into the air will fall. The ‘Ringer’ (in charge) will explain rules and betting procedures. Any persons of legal gambling age are welcome to participate. The entry on ‘Two-up’ from the Australian Encyclopaedia describes the ‘game’ and its origins.
Only the person awarded or issued medals may claim those medals as his or her own. He or she wears the medals on their left breast. Others (those who did not earn the medals) may honour the service of a relative by wearing medals on the right breast. Some veterans may be seen wearing medals on both breasts—their own on the left, and a relative’s on the right.
An ANZAC Commemorative Medallion and Badge was issued in 1967 to surviving Gallipoli veterans.
Rosemary is an emblem of remembrance. It is traditional on Anzac Day to wear a sprig of rosemary pinned to a coat lapel or to the breast (it does not matter which side, but left seems most common), or held in place by medals. Rosemary has particular significance for Australians on Anzac Day as it grows wild on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
A wreath or a small bunch of flowers is traditionally laid on memorials or graves in memory of the dead. They might contain laurel, a traditional symbol of honour, and rosemary, or they may be native or other flowers. In recent years, it has also become popular to lay a wreath of red poppies—formerly associated with Remembrance Day, 11 November. Any of these wreaths or flowers are acceptable as a gesture of remembrance.
The Ode comes from the fourth stanza of the poem ‘For the Fallen’ by the English poet and writer, Laurence Binyon. It was published in London in The Winnowing Fan: Poems of the Great War in 1914. It was used in association with commemorative services in Australia by 1921.
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.
At the Anzac Day ceremony, an invited speaker often recites The Ode and upon his or her completion of the recitation, those present repeat the last words ‘We will remember them’. After a short pause this is followed by ‘Lest we forget’.
This is one of a number of bugle calls in the military tradition to mark phases of the day. Traditionally, it marked the ending of a day. The Last Post was 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. On Anzac Day, it is followed by one or two minutes of silence, then a second bugle call, Reveille (also known as The Rouse).
The story of the Anzac bugle calls is told in Valley Voice, 19 April 2002.
The original Anzac Biscuit, also known as the Anzac wafer or tile, was a hardtack biscuit or long shelf-life biscuit substitute for bread. These were not necessarily popular with soldiers at Gallipoli, but there are now recipes for more edible domestic versions.
The entries in the Oxford Companion to Australian Military History on Anzac Day and the Anzac legend provide good summaries of the importance of the day and of the legend.
In ‘Bean’s ‘Anzac’ and the making of the Anzac Legend’, the author, David Kent, argues that the image of the Anzac was the careful creation of the official historian, CEW Bean who, as editor of the enormously popular 1916 publication, The Anzac Book, acted as a prism through which Australians were presented with an oversimplified view of the realities of war and its effect on men.
In ‘A possession for ever: Charles Bean, the ancient Greeks, and military commemoration in Australia’ Peter Londey argues that the Australian official war historian drew parallels between the deeds of the Australian Imperial Force and ancient Greece in the 5th century BC (Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 53, no. 3, September 2007, pp. 344–349).
In ‘Re-reading Bean’s last paragraph‘, Martin Ball discusses the last paragraph of CEW Bean’s official history which has ‘long been appreciated as a concise yet effective statement about Australia’s response to its war experience’. Although the volume which contains it was published in 1942, the last paragraph was actually the first to be written in 1919 (Australian Historical Studies, no. 122, October 2003, pp. 231–247). Bean’s last paragraph reads:
What these men did nothing can alter now. The good and the bad, the greatness and smallness of their story will stand. Whatever of glory it contains nothing now can lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages, a monument to great-hearted men; and, for their nation, a possession for ever (CEW Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, vol. VI, chapter XXII, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1942, p. 1096).
In his 1988 article, ‘Anzac and the Australian military tradition’, historian, Professor Ken Inglis, describes the essential meaning of the word Anzac, its early use, the Anzac tradition in schools between the wars, the relationship between the Anzac concept and social class and between the Anzac tradition and feminism, the continuity of the tradition from the Second World War through to the Vietnam conflict, and the observations of writers, scholars, artists and film makers (Current Affairs Bulletin, vol. 64, no. 11, April, 1988).
In ‘ANZAC: the sacred in the secular’, Graham Seal argues that the resurgence of interest in Anzac Day has ‘only served to emphasise the strongly secular nature of Anzac and its centrality to widespread notions of Australian nationalism’ (Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 91, 2007).
In ‘Reflections: a symposium on the meanings of Anzac’, to mark the 75th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli, ten Australians discuss various aspects of the meaning of Anzac to indigenous Australians and Vietnam diggers, the place of Anzac in Australian society and the future of Anzac (Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no. 16, April 1990).
‘Anzac’s influence on Turkey and Australia’ was the keynote address given to the 1990 War Memorial History Conference by Bill Gammage. In it he explored the different ways in which Turks and Australians remember Canakkale (Gallipoli), and how they regard each other as a result of the campaign (Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no. 18, April 1991).
In ‘Lest we forget the cult of the digger’ Nick Horden discusses how the memory of past wars continues to shape the Australian nation (Australian Financial Review, 20 January 2000).
‘What is Anzac Day? It is the embodiment of the national ethos‘, retraces the history of 25 April and the traditions of Anzac (Stand To, April-May 2002, pp. 4–5).
‘Why we will never forget’. Graham Cooke talks about how, even after four generations since Gallipoli, the Anzac spirit is still alive (Canberra Times Magazine, April 2003).
‘They shall not grow old’, Ken Inglis discusses how the Anzac legend grows rather than recedes (Age, 30 April 2004).
‘The mystique of Gallipoli’, Les Carlyon explains what makes Gallipoli so important to Australians (Canberra Times, 13 November 2004).
‘History should respect realities‘ by Craig Barrett and Martin Crotty: Argues that it is possible to balance a questioning approach towards the Anzac tradition with respect for the men who fought at Gallipoli (Australian, 1 February 2006).
In ‘The Anzac myth: patriot act‘, Mark McKenna argues that ‘since the early 1990s Australians have lost the ability (or inclination) to debate Anzac Day’ (Australian Literary Review, June 2007).
In Origins of the Anzac dawn ceremony: spontaneity and nationhood Robyn Mayes looks at three possible origins of the dawn service and discusses the sociological context of these.
Series on ‘Our Anzac heroes’ published in the Daily Telegraph in 2004:
‘Heavy hearts when the Light Horse disbanded‘, 20 April 2004
‘The living hell of a war that took so many lives‘, 21 April 2004
‘Sporting greats who fought bigger battles‘, 22 April 2004
‘The machines that brought destruction‘, 22 April 2004
‘Keeping soldiers well fed was half the battle‘, 23 April 2004
In their 2010 book What’s wrong with Anzac?: the militarisation of Australian history, Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake criticise what they describe as ‘the relentless militarisation’ of Australian history and argue that it is no longer appropriate to have a military event playing such an important role in defining the Australian identity (H Reynolds and M Lake, eds., What’s wrong with Anzac?: the militarisation of Australian history, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2010).
In a review of What’s wrong with Anzac, Geoffrey Blainey rejects many of the arguments made by the authors, and states that the popularity of Anzac Day has fluctuated, and in all probability will continue to do so (We weren’t that dumb, Australian, 7 April 2010).
James Brown’s 2014 book Anzac’s Long Shadow: the cost of our national obsession argues that the importance of commemorating those Australian who served and lost their lives during war should not take resources away from currently serving personnel. Brown summarises his views in an article for The Age.
A selection of four First World War poems by Leon Gellert: Anzac Cove (written in January 1916) and three poems about life and death in the trenches, from Volume 1 of Poetry in Australia.
The text of two famous First World War poems, In Flanders Fields and For the Fallen is here :
- In Flanders Fields was written in 1915 by the Canadian physician and professor of medicine, John McRae, who fought on the Western Front in 1914 but was then transferred to the medical corps and assigned to a hospital in France. He died on active duty in 1918.
- For the Fallen was written in 1914 by Laurence Binyon who worked at the British Museum. The fourth verse of For the Fallen is now more commonly known as ‘The Ode’. It was selected to accompany the unveiling of the London Cenotaph in 1919 and by 1921 was already in use in Australia as an ode read on Anzac Day. It has been used at commemorative services on Anzac Day ever since.
In ‘They also served—and wrote‘, Steve Meacham discusses a compilation of Anzac poetry, commenting particularly about Banjo Paterson and his association with the First World War (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April 2002).
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