Anzac Day traditions and rituals: a quick guide

Anzac Day 2017

31 March 2017

PDF version [284KB]

David Watt
Foreign Affairs Defence and Security

History of Anzac Day

The first day to be called Anzac Day was 13 October 1915 and occurred in Adelaide as a replacement for the Eight-Hour Day holiday (a forerunner of Labour Day and already a public holiday). This event was more of a patriotic carnival designed to raise awareness of, and funds for, the war effort than the solemn commemoration it was to become.

Anzac Day as we know it 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, other than naming the day as Anzac Day, did not. 

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.

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 Dawn Service

The first commemorative event of Anzac Day is the Dawn Service at 4.30 am. This is 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.

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, 44(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, 38, 2007, pp. 38–39).

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.

Gunfire breakfast

Many communities follow the dawn service with a ‘traditional’ gunfire breakfast. ‘Gunfire’ 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.

(E Fraser and J Gibbons, Soldier & Sailor Words & Phrases, 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).

Anzac Day march

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 relatives. Former soldiers from allied armies have also been allowed to march.

Follow-on and two-up

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.

Wearing medals

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. Unit citations are worn according to individual service instructions but are usually worn on the right. An ANZAC Commemorative Medallion and Badge was issued in 1967 to surviving Gallipoli veterans.

Wearing rosemary

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.

Laying a wreath or flowers

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

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’.

The Last Post

This is one of a number of bugle calls in the military tradition to mark phases of the day. Traditionally, it marked the end of the 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 Anzac biscuit

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.

Anzac Day speeches

15 April 2016—address at Anzac Day National Ceremony, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

25 April 2015—Anzac Day National Ceremony—commemorative address, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, by the Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove.

25 April 2015—speech at the Dawn Service, Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, by the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

25 April 2005—address at the Dawn Service, Gallipoli, by the Prime Minister, John Howard.

25 April 2005—address delivered by the Anglican Bishop to the Defence Force, Dawn Service, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

11 November 1993—transcript of the speech made by the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, at the tomb of the unknown soldier on the occasion of the Funeral of the Unknown Australian Soldier, Remembrance Day.

The Australian Army website contains a variety of suggested speech notes which can be used in different contexts.

The meaning of Anzac

The history of the commemoration of Anzac and debate over its meaning has been discussed at length over many years.

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 (AIF) and ancient Greece in the 5th century BC (Australian Journal of Politics and History, 53(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, 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 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, 64(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, 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, 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, 18, April 1991).

In ‘The unknown Australian soldier’, Ashley Ekins discusses the symbolic significance of the return of the remains of an unknown Australian soldier (Wartime, 25, January 2004, pp. 11–13).

In ‘Lest we forget the cult of the digger’, Nick Horden discusses how the memory of past wars continues to shape the Australian nation (The 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).

In ‘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).

In ‘They shall not grow old’, Ken Inglis discusses how the Anzac legend grows rather than recedes (The Age, 30 April 2004).

In ‘The mystique of Gallipoli’, Les Carlyon explains what makes Gallipoli so important to Australians (The Canberra Times, 13 November 2004).

In ‘History should respect realities’, authors Craig Barrett and Martin Crotty argue that it is possible to balance a questioning approach towards the Anzac tradition with respect for the men who fought at Gallipoli (The 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 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, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 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’, The Australian, 7 April 2010).

James Brown’s 2014 book Anzac’s Long Shadow: the Cost of our National Obsession argues that, although important, commemorating those Australians who served and lost their lives during war should not take resources away from currently serving personnel. Brown summarised his views in an article for The Age.

The debate about the use of the history of Anzac and what kind of commemorative activities are appropriate has gained pace since the publication of What’s Wrong with Anzac, and there are perhaps more dissenting voices now than has been the case in the past. The website Honest History contains a section entitled Anzac Analysed which attempts to promote some of these voices.

In ‘The minefield of Australian military history’, Martin Crotty and Craig Stockings discuss the sometimes difficult relationship between academics and popular history (Australian Journal of Politics and History, 60(4), 2014).

Joan Beaumont, ‘Symposium: commemoration in Australia: a memory orgy?’ (Australian Journal of Political Science, September 2015, pp. 536–544).

Anzac Day Then and Now (edited by Tom Frame, UNSW Press, 2016) contains a variety of essays which reflect on the history and meaning of Anzac Day. In his introduction to the book Frame discusses something of the tension that exists between differing viewpoints about Anzac Day in contemporary Australia.


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 ‘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 (The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April 2002).

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. The official historian, Charles Bean,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 (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 with a brass ‘A’ to stitch onto their unit colour patches).

For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.

© Commonwealth of Australia

Creative commons logo

Creative Commons

With the exception of the Commonwealth Coat of Arms, and to the extent that copyright subsists in a third party, this publication, its logo and front page design are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence.

In essence, you are free to copy and communicate this work in its current form for all non-commercial purposes, as long as you attribute the work to the author and abide by the other licence terms. The work cannot be adapted or modified in any way. Content from this publication should be attributed in the following way: Author(s), Title of publication, Series Name and No, Publisher, Date.

To the extent that copyright subsists in third party quotes it remains with the original owner and permission may be required to reuse the material.

Inquiries regarding the licence and any use of the publication are welcome to

This work has been prepared to support the work of the Australian Parliament using information available at the time of production. The views expressed do not reflect an official position of the Parliamentary Library, nor do they constitute professional legal opinion.

Any concerns or complaints should be directed to the Parliamentary Librarian. Parliamentary Library staff are available to discuss the contents of publications with Senators and Members and their staff. To access this service, clients may contact the author or the Library‘s Central Enquiry Point for referral.