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Australia's ANZACsOn 25 April every year Australians commemorate Anzac Day. It is Australia's sacred day.

What is it Australians commemorate on Anzac Day?

Australia at war
On 25 April 1915 Australia was at war. With the Allies (Britain, France and Russia, Italy, Japan, and the USA [from 1917]), Australia was fighting against the Central Powers (Germany, Turkey [then known as the Ottoman Empire], Austria-Hungary).

In response to a request for help from Russia, which was being battered by the Turks in the Caucasus, the Allies decided to begin a campaign which they hoped would distract Turkey from their attack on Russia.

The plan was for the Allies to attack and take the Gallipoli Peninsula, on Turkey's Aegean coast, from which point the Allies believed they could take control of the Dardanelles - a 67 kilometre (42 mile) strait which connects the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara - and lay seige to Turkey's main city, Istanbul (then Constantinople).

Landing at Gallipoli
As part of the larger British Empire contingent, Australian troops were brought in from training in Egypt to participate. On April 25, 1915, the Australian troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Instead of finding the flat beach they expected, they found they had been landed at the 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 to face a well organised, well armed, large Turkish force determined to defend their country - and led by Mustafa Kemal, who later became Attaturk, the leader of modern Turkey. Thousands of Australian men died in the hours that followed the landing at that beach. The beach would eventually come to be known as Anzac Cove.

What followed the landing at Gallipoli is a story of courage and endurance, of death, and despair, of poor leadership from London, and unsuccessful strategies. The Australian soldiers and the Turks dug in - literally - digging kilometres of trenches, and pinned down each other's forces with sniper fire and shelling. Pinned down with their backs to the water the Australians were unable to make much headway against the home-country force.

A lack of success
In Britain, the lack of success of the campaign was creating arguments amongst the leaders of the time about whether the campaign should be continued.

While political leaders argued, the Australian soldiers died in battle, from sniper fire and shelling, and those that lived suffered from a range of ailments due to their dreadful living conditions - typhus, lice, gangrene, lack of fresh water, poor quality food, and poor sanitary conditions all took their toll.  

That is surely at the heart of the Anzac story, the Australian legend which emerged from the war. 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

The withdrawal
Eventually it was decided that the Allied troops would be withdrawn from the Peninsula; the attempt to control the Dardanelles had failed. The ANZACs were evacuated and returned to the Middle East and the Western Front where they were involved in other battles.

The Gallipoli campaign was an enormous failure, a failure bought at the cost of an enormous number of lives, and the failure led to the resignation of senior politicians in London. Thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers had died, and thousands of other Allied troops from France and Britain also died.

An Anzac commemorative location has been built at Gallipoli in conjunction with the New Zealand government and with the approval of the Turkish government.

Australians make heroes of noble failures
Dr Frank Bongiorno, ARC Research Fellow at the Australian National University suggests, "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. On the other hand, long before the evacuation - and therefore before the Gallipoli campaign was called a 'failure' - many Australians had come to recognise 25 April 1915 as the day their young Commonwealth had come of age. This notion was fuelled by reports from journalists such as Ellis Ashmead Bartlett, an Englishman who described the Australians as a 'race of athletes', and the Australian war correspondent C.E.W. Bean.

"When Australia went to war in 1914," says Dr Bongiorno, "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. 'She is not yet', proclaimed James Brunton Stephens in 1877. In western culture, sacrificial death - blood sacrifice - was widely recognised as the foundation of nationhood, and Gallipoli seemed to fit the bill.

"At the same time, Gallipoli expressed Australians' sense of a dual loyalty: to Australia and to the Empire, of which Australia was a part. Australians were fighting for their Commonwealth, but they were also fighting for their Empire. They were 'independent Australian Britons'.

"The perception of the Gallipoli campaign as the beginning of true Australian nationhood," says Dr Bongiorno, "was also consistent with Australians' self-image as the Coming Race: the physical superiority of Australian soldiers to their English counterparts was a prominent theme in much of the contemporary writing about the ANZACs.

"This idea confirmed some popular Australian self-images about masculinity and nationhood: notably, that the typical Australian was a bold white male," says Dr Bongiorno. "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 in battle - 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 popular imagery, the ANZAC hated military etiquette and held the British officer class, and even the subservient 'Tommy' (English soldier), in contempt.

"In the 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. This image was able to withstand evidence of contrary behaviour by Australian soldiers, not least because the ANZAC image was an adaptation of the image of the bushman, which had been so popular in nineteenth-century Australia.

Gallipoli: the defining moment for Australia
"In this sense," argues Dr Bongiorno, "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."

ANZAC title and poppy
For the Fallen
by Laurence Binyon

They shall not grow 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.

The larrikin
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 C.J. Dennis's characters - characters like Ginger Mick and Digger Smith - created by Dennis during the war years. 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 what it means to be Australian - courage under fire, grace under pressure, giving a hand to a mate.


The Last Post | Remembrance Day | Wreath laying | ANZACs: heroes of a nation


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 first dawn service on an ANZAC Day was in 1923.
  • The ANZACS were on the Gallipoli Peninsula for only 8 months, around 8,000 of them died there.
  • There is no town called "Gallipoli". It is the name of an area. Visitors to Gallipoli usually stay at nearby towns - like Ecubeat.
  • ANZACs were all volunteers.
  • The Gallipoli Peninsula is very near the famous ancient city of Troy

Anzac Day link highlights

Our article about Remembrance Day has information about and links to information about the Australian experience in World War 1 - including the Western Front, the ANZACs, the Light Horse, personal stories of Australian diggers, Victoria Cross winners, as well as information about accessing information in Australian archives about family members who served their country.

Listen to The Last Post

Wreath laying

Digger Smith by CJ Dennis

Department of Veterans' Affairs: World War 1


Other Anzac Day links

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