Since 1915, one day in the year has involved the whole of Australia in solemn ceremonies of remembrance, gratitude and national pride. That day is ANZAC Day - 25 April.
Why does the Nation pause to commemorate what most historians choose to describe as a failure or a sad series of blunders? It is because every person and every nation must, sooner or later, come for the first time to a supreme test of quality; and the result of that test will hearten or dishearten those who come afterwards. For Australia as a nation that first supreme test began in the early hours of Sunday 25 April 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Eastern Mediterranean.
(Above): Marchers in a typical ANZAC Day march.
The historical lead-up to the events which took place came to boiling-point with the commencement of World War on 4 August 1914. Historians have long since analyzed the motivations on all sides which led to that disastrous war. In Australia, the motivations which led our national leaders to commit our country to the conflict, and our extraordinary volunteer army to respond to the call to arms were very simple.
Most of the colonists had come originally from the United Kingdom which they continued to call ‘Home’ or ‘The Mother Country’. When war appeared inevitable, on 31 July 1914, the great Labor leader, Andrew Fisher, made his famous statement:
‘Should the worst happen, after everything has been done that honour will permit, Australians will stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to the last man and the last shilling.’
On the following night the Liberal Prime Minister, Joseph Cook, said, ‘If the old country is at war so are we.’
On the 4 August, an offer of 20,000 men was made, and ten weeks later the first contingent of volunteers was on the water bound for Egypt. For volunteers, apart from the sentimental motivation, there was a very strong strain of idealism. They believed that a small nation (Belgium) was being trampled underfoot by a mighty power, and that their role was - as the children of the time sang in the schools -
To help the weak against the strong,
To guard the right against wrong,
And bear the flag of Truth along.
As they sailed towards Egypt one of the few pieces of ‘grand strategy’ in World War 1 was being developed. The idea was to capture the outlet from the Black Sea in order to relieve pressure on our Russian allies in the Caucasus and influence Bulgaria to join the allied cause. It is not unreasonable to believe that success would have greatly shortened the war and saved millions of lives on both sides. On 8 August the Allies were on the very verge of success; but the campaign was narrowly lost.
The Gallipoli campaign lasted from 25 April until 20 December 1915. Australia’s test of nationhood began in the darkness of that fateful Sunday morning of 25 April. The soldiers landed in the dark under fire; and always under heavy fire, climbed precipitous cliffs mostly covered by prickly oak scrub through which progress was difficult even for the strongest. Individual courage and initiative won a foothold on the plateau and the ridges, which for the next eight months saw epic valour and endurance on both sides. Apart from the heavy casualties from attack and counter-attack the lines were so close that there was no respite from bombs, shells and mines. Mental strain and physical illness reduced the bodies of our finest youth to gaunt skeletons held together only by determination. Finally pressures of other theatres of war led to the evacuation, itself a casualty-free miracle.
Any senior student who fails to read the accounts of Gallipoli by Australia’s Alan Moorehead and England’s John Masefield is failing to take up an important share of his or her national heritage.
It was not that Gallipoli, with all its casualties, hardship and suffering was worse or even as bad as the experiences of later campaigns, or the sufferings of defence forces and civilians in later conflicts. But because it was the first great national test of our young men in the horror of war it has become the focal point of remembrance and gratitude for the fallen and the broken in health of all wars; of the contributions made by civilian workers in areas subject to attack; and of the continuous heartbreak and courage of the women and children whose agony of fear became a reality of deprivation.
So every year, on or near 25April, we have a time of remembrance and gratitude to those who helped to keep our country free from invasion and our way of life free of choice; to acknowledge our debt to their mothers, wives and children, and our obligation to those who through their sacrifice now need our help.
Beyond that we have a legacy of responsibility that the heritage fought at so costly a price should not suffer in our hands; so that the word ANZAC does not so much commemorate an event as a standard of character in action which we must maintain in all circumstances - in peace as in war.
We wish to thank Melbourne Legacy for allowing us to use the foregoing information from the program for the Victorian ANZAC Commemoration Ceremony for Students.
The following text and images are adapted from the book “Don’t forget me, cobber!” by Matt Anderson.
Will you remember them?
There are many ways we can celebrate ANZAC Day and help to remember the Australians who have fought and died in war. The most traditional way is to go into town each year and watch the veterans of recent wars polish their medals and march down the streets. It is a great opportunity for old friends to gather, and for families to remember.
In many towns and cities, one of the most moving ceremonies is the Dawn Service, when family, friends and veterans gather as the sun rises. A bugler plays the Last Post, and then everyone is silent for a minute. It is a very emotional time. It is a time for reflection – to think about all the Australians who have fought and died in all wars, and to remember their courage and sacrifice. You could ask your parents if they have ever been to a Dawn Service, and ask them to take you.
A digger still stands atop Mount St Quentin. (photo by Pte Robyn White)
As a school project you could write a letter pretending that you were a soldier or a nurse in the front lines. What would you say to your family at home? Maybe you could make a list of all the things you would ask to be sent in a comfort parcel.
With the help of your teacher, you could write to your town planner, and ask him or her if any of your local streets were named after Australians who fought or died in war. This is more likely in the city, or in older suburbs. You could then write a project about them, and what they did in the war. It may even be possible that your suburb, like the town of Pozieres in Queensland, was named after a battle. How many others can you find in the street directory? Perhaps you could also make ANZAC biscuits. These are very easy to make, taste delicious and the recipe can be found right here on this website.
Some troops of 1st Australian Division near Broodseinde, Belgium in World War 1. (AWM E833)
But the best way to celebrate ANZAC day is to come up with your own idea – something that means a lot to you that will help you remember this uniquely Australian day.
[A page to assist students with research for projects and assignments on memorials has been placed on this site - just click anywhere on this text to go to it.]