The Anzac Legend

Even though the Gallipoli Campaign was deemed a disaster in terms of the loss of life suffered there and the failure to achieve a military victory, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (or ANZACs as they have become known as) became a legend. What happened at Gallipoli made them an important part of Australian culture at a time when the newly-federated nation of Australia had not yet established herself at an international level.

What is the legend?

In theory, the legend is that the Australian and New Zealand troops helped to establish their countries' reputations in the world through qualities of strength and bravery when faced with adversity. In fact, it is much more than that. The legend of these men who endured so much has given something of which Australians can be proud. It put Australia's mark on the world as something other than a nation descended from convicts.

How was it created?

It is not uncommon for the characteristics of soldiers to mirror the characteristics commonly found in the society from which they come. This has resulted in the emergence of a number of stereotypes for soldiers from each nation. The Australian soldiers, who had not had a chance to prove themselves on an international front prior to Gallipoli, found that their strong characteristics were revealed in the most challenging of times.

It was through events such as the landing at Anzac Cove and the battle at The Nek (where ANZACs were slaughtered in their masses), that they acquired the image that has become synonymous with the word 'digger.' Digger has come to embody the stereotype of a patriotic Australian family man who has temporarily become a soldier and has spent his civilian life in a rural area. More importantly, it suggests a soldier with certain moral qualities, such as a good sense of humour and an overriding belief in mateship and equality.

There were five particularly 'digger-like' qualities which emerged from the ANZACs when faced with hardship during the Gallipoli Campaign. These qualities set them apart from soldiers from other nations and were said to be attributable to their rural backgrounds in the bush. Many of the World War I diggers were third generation Australians from the early days of pioneering. Their particular attributes included:

  1. the ability to remain cheerful with a good sense of humour, even in the most difficult of times
  2. the ability to be resourceful when they had no supplies, for example by making hand grenades from empty tin cans
  3. the spirit of mateship in which a soldier would risk his own life for his mate's
  4. Australian courage, which was shown on the very first landing at Anzac Cove where the soldiers continued to charge up on to the beach straight into the line of Turkish fire
  5. the notion that people all deserve the same amount of respect, no matter what their background is.

It is precisely this type of person and this type of soldier who gave the ANZACs their reputation which, in turn, instilled a new national pride in Australia and New Zealand. See image 2

Why is it important?

The Gallipoli Campaign was a particularly significant event in history because it came at a time when Australia had only just become a federal commonwealth, trying to assert her place alongside a collection of nations with thousands of years of history. In the eyes of the rest of the world, Australia had no eminent military history and no distinct cultural characteristics as a nation. Gallipoli was the first opportunity for Australia to earn the respect of other nations and to show the world her strong national character.

The Anzac legend is also important because it encourages Australians to remember the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their country. The legend has made such an impression on Australians that we continue to commemorate the landing of the ANZAC soldiers on the shores of Gallipoli on 25 April each year.

Negatives of the Legend

There are not many Australians who are not familiar with the Anzac legend. In just about every Australian family there is an ancestor who has served, not just in World War I but in any of the wars or major conflicts in Australia's history. Younger generations are also having the legend passed down to them. It is taught in primary and secondary school curricula nationwide and Anzac day ceremonies are held annually at schools.

The Anzac legend is a large and heartening part of Australian culture. For that reason, people who question the relevance of the Anzac legend are often regarded as unpatriotic. As a consequence, it is not widely known that people argue that there are negative implications and repercussions of the legend itself.

The Immediate Impact

One of the negative impacts of the Anzac legend is that directly after World War I, Australian society found itself divided between those who went to war and those who did not. It was a common sight for able-bodied men who had been to Gallipoli (and had returned home early to resume their lives), to wear Anzac rosettes on their uniforms and civilian clothes. The rosettes were blue, white and red and were worn to signify that they had been to the War and had not relinquished their duty, as people may have thought.

Men who were within the age and fitness requirements to go to war and who had not volunteered were looked down upon in society. There was much pressure from their families and friends to join as a way of showing their patriotism and to impress women. Those who had served and had since returned were adamant they did not want to be associated with the men who had the reputation of being a coward.

There was also concern that the Anzac legend was distorted, the stereotypical image of the ANZAC soldier excluding women, Aborigines and people from city areas.

While women were not allowed to enlist and fight as soldiers in Gallipoli, from the time of the landing they were there too, working as nurses on board hospital ships. Often without proper equipment and supplies, these women relied on their own resourcefulness in attending to wounded soldiers as the ships sailed to general hospitals on nearby Greek islands and to Alexandria in Egypt. The nurses were not entirely removed from danger. At times, bullets hit the decks of their ships. Having such a close involvement in the War and playing such a vital role, it was not surprising that women were displeased with not being recognised and included in the ANZAC legend.

It could be inferred that while Aborigines did not necessarily value fighting for the Empire, they were keen to fight for their country and families. This is evident in the fact that between 300 and 400 Indigenous Australians fought in World War I, defying the Australian Government and the Defence Act of 1909 which did not permit Aborigines even to enlist.

It was not until the start of World War II that the Australian Defence Force permitted people who were not of 'substantially European descent' to enlist in any of the services. Once the restrictions were lifted, a number of Aboriginal men and women enlisted for service. It was too late, however, for those who wanted to show their patriotism by fighting for their country, and for the opportunity to be a part of the Anzac legend.

Australian men who had fought in Gallipoli and who had not had a rural upbringing were also unimpressed with the stereotype that emerged from the Anzac legend. They felt that they had been excluded.

They believed the legend focused too much on the notion that the tactics and skills that the soldiers exhibited were attributes of their 'bush backgrounds.' There were in fact many men who enlisted from metropolitan areas and they considered themselves to be equally as resourceful and to possess the same characteristics as did ANZACs from the country.

Repercussions for society today

Some of the issues that were raised with the Anzac legend directly after the War have continued to resurface. In the 1970s and 1980s the subject of the relevance of the Anzac legend to women and multicultural Australia, re-emerged. This continues to be debated. It is thought that such criticism could come only from a person who has misinterpreted the legend.

It has also been suggested that the Anzac legend glorifies war and allows for war to be justified by its ability to unify the nation. Perhaps this is the reason the Anzac legend is often referred to by politicians and prime ministers whenever Australian troops are being sent to fight overseas.

While some people may disagree with the implications of the Anzac legend or believe it to be distorted, it cannot be denied that our soldiers who fought so bravely at Gallipoli helped to create a proud national reputation that has earned the respect of people worldwide.

The Commemoration

For an event which had such an impact on Australian history and a group of people who inspired a legend that managed to turn the emphasis of a military failure to an honouring of strength and courage in times of severe hardship, the commemoration of the ANZACs is, without doubt, a deserved one. From modest beginnings, Anzac Day has grown to become Australia's most commemorated day.

The Beginnings

Although World War I did not officially end until 1918, on April 25, 1916, one year to the day after the ANZAC soldiers landed on the shore at Gallipoli, the first Anzac Day commemorations were held. The commemorations took the form of a march to Westminster Abbey that was attended by the King and Queen of Britain and the Prime Minister of Australia.

Although this event praised the Australian and New Zealand troops, there were suggestions that the ceremony itself was a 'picnic over Australia's dead.' This may have been the reaction of people whose memories of those they had lost at Gallipoli were still too fresh and painful.

On the same day, a sports day was held for the Australians in camp in Egypt. There was also a service held at the Domain in Sydney and in other towns and cities across Australia and New Zealand. Men who were wounded and still required the aid of nurses, demonstrated their dedication by attending the march at the Domain in cars.

From 1919 on November 11, a year after the official end of World War I, Armistice Day was introduced to commemorate the sacrifices made by servicemen and women in World War I. Armistice Day is an important day for all Australians. The day itself marks the date that warfare on the Western Front ceased and a peace settlement was secured.

The Changes

Anzac Day did not immediately transform into what it is today; that is, a chance to reflect and remember the people who gave their lives. While Anzac Day did consist of parades of serving members, until the War ended, it also served the purpose of generating attention for recruitment campaigns and patriotic rallies.

It was not until the 1920s that Anzac Day came to symbolise a day of commemoration. It was not until 1927 that all states of Australia had a public holiday on Anzac Day. Then in the 1930s a tradition was set for Anzac Day to include things such as the Dawn Service, the march and games of two-up, all of which have continued to the present day.

Around the time of World War II, the meaning of Anzac Day changed to include the commemoration of the loss and sacrifice of Australians in that war. In more recent times, with Australia having been involved in more wars and battles, Anzac Day recognises every contribution as valuable and includes all Australians who have served in any of the nation's military operations.

As Anzac Day developed with the approach of World War II to become more inclusive of all those who served their country, so did Armistice Day. Prior to 1939, Armistice Day remembered only those who served in World War I. In 1945, however, the Australian and British governments changed the name to Remembrance Day. Remembrance Day now commemorates all those who have served in all wars and armed conflicts.

How it is commemorated?

The Dawn Service which is held on Anzac Day was originally restricted to veterans, as it was perceived as a time for them to reflect with their comrades who, having shared the same experience, could understand their mixed emotions. While there has always been a solemn atmosphere, the format of the service is no longer as simple. Today the service can be attended by the general public.

The service at dawn was originally for functional purposes. The illusions created by light and shadow in the period before dawn made it the best time for an attack. For this reason, soldiers were woken early so as to be on the alert.

In almost every suburb and town across Australia and New Zealand, an Anzac Day ceremony is held. These ceremonies share similar components: the laying of wreaths, the observance of a minute's silence, prayers and hymns and the playing of 'The Last Post'.

The Anzac Day parade is also an important part of Anzac Day. Thousands of people gather in the capitals of each state to watch current and ex-servicemen and women march. This event is a major occasion for the media and is broadcast live in every state.

Each year thousands of Australians and New Zealanders travel to the Gallipoli Peninsula for Anzac Day to attend memorials to pay their respects to the war dead.

Anzac Day is also commemorated with a public holiday in Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands.