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  • Writer's pictureMichael Murphy

Anzac Day: A Commemoration

Updated: Jun 10

Anzac Day
Australian soldiers preparing to land at Anzac Cove. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial (A02781).

On 25 April, 1915, Australian and New Zealand troops along with forces from Great Britain and India landed on the shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. Troops from France would land on the Asiatic shore of Turkey, being re-deployed to Cape Helles on 26 April, while soldiers from Newfoundland would also fight at Gallipoli from September.

While the date has retained significance for both Australia and New Zealand, this article will focus on how 25 April became the focus of national commemoration in Australia; a celebration of values and ideals that were perceived to be essential in developing the core fabric of the nation’s identity, and how these ideals have been contested and changed.

After two decades of the twenty-first century, and more than 108 years since the fateful landing, ANZAC Day has come to represent more than just the acronym of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. For many Australians, the day exemplifies the ideals of: mate-ship, resourcefulness, courage, resilience and also pride in the national identity.

Over time, the event has morphed from commemorating the soldiers who landed on the Turkish shoreline, to a memorial to all Australians that have served in the armed forces, with ceremonies seen as being core to the Australian psyche. While attended in ever increasing numbers in recent years, Anzac Day has not been without its opposition. Some suggest that Anzac Day glorifies war, or that the day and what it represents is not as relevant in a modern multi-cultural society. As a day of national importance, however, Anzac Day still remains in the forefront of the national conscious, more so than other commemorative days such as Remembrance Day, which commemorates the signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918.

In fact, studies from Catherine Austin and Farida Fozdar from 1998 onwards showed that 90% of Australians thought that Anzac Day had an influence on Australian identity, while over two-thirds of those surveyed are in favour of retaining the Anzac legend, with one-third supporting an increase in its use in national imagery.

It is interesting to consider why Australia as a nation moved towards 25 April as its National Day of Commemoration over Remembrance Day, when other Commonwealth nations like Canada give 11 November public holiday status. Obviously, Canadians did not take part in the Gallipoli campaign (Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949), but they did have a significant introduction to the First World War in terms of battle in 1915 at the First battle of Ypres.


In 1901 the British colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia. At the time, many Australian citizens still saw themselves as British. Although the colony of NSW began under a military authority, Australia did not have the military history in terms of battle that other nations could rally behind.

There is an argument that in an effort to be seen as a nation that was relevant internationally, Australians grasped the first opportunity presented to proclaim its virtues. It could be argued that the Boer War of 1899-1902 was Australia's introduction to battle, but while Commonwealth forces were sent after Federation, the first troops to leave for South Africa were colonial troops, and any support that the conflict may have had initially was challenged by the reality of expenditure after the 1890s depression, causality lists, and later, the news of concentration camps for Boer civilians.

In 1915, a heavily censored press heralded the landing at Gallipoli as Australia’s baptism under fire; a moment when, through the brave and selfless acts of the soldiers of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), the ‘consciousness of Australian nationhood’, according to official correspondent Charles Bean, was born. Values such as mate-ship, loyalty, resourcefulness and bravery were seen as essential ingredients in forming a much-desired nationhood, and the moment was seized as an opportunity to be seen as independent.

In the 1920-30s and also during and after the Second World War, the ideals associated with Anzac Day were reinforced. In some ways the word Anzac had become sacred, a term that was reserved for values that a person could aspire to. The men and women of the Second AIF, and in subsequent conflicts throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century, had a level to attain in order to carry on the tradition of their esteemed relatives from the First World War.

Despite the celebration of national pride, which often saw the almost compulsory two-up games and drinking, the placing of the Anzac legend on a pedestal also had its detrimental effects on Australian society. Not all returned servicemen took part in Anzac ceremonies, mainly due to the horrors that they encountered in conflict, while other citizens who were not able to serve (or elected not to serve), felt a sense of inferiority. They became isolated and disconnected from a society that held the Anzac ideals in such high regard and essential to the communities functioning.

The legend of ANZAC, and terms such as Digger became synonymous with the core set of Australian beliefs. In 1924, the then prime minister of Australia, Stanley Melbourne Bruce made a speech after a trip to the battlefields of northern France and Gallipoli that illustrated how important Anzac Day had become to the national identity in a relatively short space of time. In part of this speech, he reinforced Australia’s British roots but proclaimed that Australia had become a nation in battle.

“Those early settlers took the first step in the molding of Australian ideals, but it was left to Australian soldiers to make Australia a nation.”

The Anzac legend became a sort of template for people to follow, but as the decades moved on the military conflicts that were first only read in newspapers, and then eventually seen in cinemas via newsreels, took a different slant. During the 1960s the Anzac legend was scrutinised by historians and feminists, and Australians were introduced to the horrors of military combat in their own living room when scenes from the Vietnam War were broadcast.

Not for the first time, but certainly on a more widespread scale, the Anzac ideals had been brought into question because public perception had been altered. The censored print of the early twentieth century gave a vastly different picture of war to that of modern journalism through film. Worldwide protests against the Vietnam War divided family, friends and political parties, and the Anzac legend was not left unscathed.

Those scars were somewhat healed in 1987 when 22,000 Australian Vietnam Veterans marched in a belated 'welcome home' parade in front of a crowd of 100,000 people in Sydney.

In 2008 former prime minister Paul Keating added more tension to the Anzac Day discussion. He said, in relation to Gallipoli, that the idea that Australia was ‘born again’ or ‘redeemed’ by the event was ‘utter and complete nonsense’. Another Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, refuted Keating’s statements, saying that Gallipoli is: ‘absolutely fundamental to the Australian identity’.

While Anzac Day appears to hold strong support as a day of commemoration, these statements by political leaders, who often echo public sentiment, illustrate some divide. Furthermore, the initial lack of validity felt by returned soldiers from the Vietnam War in terms of their perceived upholding of the Anzac legend has been carried on to those who have served in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan, according to soldier and author, James Brown.

The Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was arguably able to bridge a gap between the original notion of Anzac Day and what it had become, and the relevance of the ceremony to the modern multi-cultural Australia when he spoke at the Lone Pine Memorial in 1990.

“It is that commitment to Australia, which defines and alone defines what it is to be Australian. The commitment is all.”

In many ways, Anzac Day has become a ceremony of reflection; the games of two-up and long sessions at the pub have taken a back seat to a focus on the dawn service and the honouring of sacrifice. Commemoration is key to the day. The word commitment used by Hawke is something that is common amongst Australian society, and is a term that links generations of a diverse nation.


Further reading

Ashbolt, A. ‘The Anzac Mystique’, Broadside, vol.1, iss.4, 1969, pp.10-12.

Austin, Catherine, and Farida Fozdar, ‘Australian National Identity: Empirical Research since 1998’, National Identities, col. 20, iss. 3. 2018, pp. 277- 298.

Australian War Memorial website.

Brown, J. Prologue: On Parade, Introduction: Outside the hall of memory, In Anzac’s long shadow: The cost of our national obsession, Collingwood, Black Inc, 2014, pp.1-15.

Department of Veterans Affairs.

Holbrook, C. Politicians and the commemoration of the Great War. In Anzac: The Unauthorised biography, Sydney, New South Wales Publishing, 1990, ch.7, pp. 166-206.

Howe, A. ‘Anzac mythology and the feminist challenge’, In J. Damousi and M. Lake (eds), Gender and War: Australians at war in the twentieth century, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1995, ch.17, pp.302-310.

Inglis, K. S. ‘Anzac and the military tradition’, Current Affairs Bulletin, vol.64, iss.11, 1988, pp.4-15.

Lake, M. ‘Anzac and the women who bear the children’, The Age, p.1.

McLachlan, N. ‘Nationalism and the divisive digger’: Three comments, Meanjin Quartely, vol.27, iss.114, 1968, pp.302-308.

National Library of Australia, Trove.

Thomson, A. ‘Passing shots at the Anzac legend, In V. Burgmann and J. Lee (eds.), A most valuable acquisition, Fitzroy, McPhee Gibble, 1988, pp.190-204.




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