22 April 2021
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Anzac Day 2021
Foreign Affairs Defence and Security
This quick guide is a reissue of the Parliamentary Library’s
2017 quick guide on the same subject. Hyperlinks have been checked and updated
but only minor amendments have been made to the text.
History of Anzac
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) website 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.
Many communities follow the dawn service with a
‘traditional’ gunfire breakfast. ‘Gunfire’ is a British tradition and was:
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
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.
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 that of a relative 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.
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
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
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.
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
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, either Reveille or 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
25 April 2020—Soldier On—Anzac Day commemorative address [via video], by the Governor-General,
25 April 2020—address: Anzac Day commemorative service, by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.
25 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,
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.
25 April 1945—Anzac Day message 1945, Prime
Minister John Curtin, audio and transcript.
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:
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.
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
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,
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.
C Holbrook and M Hutchison, Representing war: cultural histories of the First
World War in Australia and New Zealand, 2013-2020, Journal of
Australian Studies, vol. 44, no. 4, December 2020.
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
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:
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
(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).
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