About Anzac Day

About Anzac Day
Group of Diggers
Diggers on the Dardanelles c. 1914-18. Photo by Phillip Schuler via Australian War Memorial

Saturday 25 April is Anzac Day.  Along with Australia Day, it marks a key date in the development of both our Australian national character and calendar.  I think it is actually a more important day for us than Australia Day, because war dead is something common to all Australians not just those related to people who were here when Australia started.

Anzac started out as A. & N. Z. A. C., an acronym for the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, though it became Anzac for short very quickly.  It was a  mixed unit of Australian and New Zealand volunteers that formed part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) under British command.  The Corps comprised two Divisions: the first the Australian Division, and the second the New Zealand and Australian Division [1].

On 25 April 1915, the MEF was deployed to capture the Gallipoli Peninsular and open the Dardanelles so the Allied navy could gain access to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul).  At the time it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire and allied to Germany.  There were five landing sites (including two fakes for deception), but the Anzacs landed just south of Ari Burnu in a place now known as Anzac Cove.  The campaign failed and there were many contributing factors, but in the main, the MEF was just too small for the task it was given.  However, one of the most successful moves of the campaign was the staged mass evacuation after eight months of hard fighting that took place between 7 and 20 December [2].

It was (and still is) common to use a slang term to designate a group of soldiers e.g. Hun (German), Tommies (British), Doughboys (American), etc..  During this time, Anzacs became known as Diggers.  Anecdotal evidence suggests it was given by the British who thought Australians were all cowboys or miners.  But at the same time, the Anzacs were digging trenches and settling in for a long campaign.  New Zealanders came to be known as Kiwis, but the Australians took the name Digger and made it so much their own, that Billy Hughes (Attorney-General at the time of the Gallipoli campaign, but becoming our seventh Prime Minister six months later) became known as “the Little Digger” [3].

Diggers have become a representation of what is known as the “Anzac Spirit”, a mixture of qualities described by Charles Bean in 1946 as “reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat” [4].  And more recently by Arthur Bourke as “a powerful driving sensation that can only be felt. It is a feeling that burns in the heart of every Australian and New Zealand countryman. A warm, tender, fiery, even melancholy ideal that nurtures intense patriotism in the innermost soul of every body” [5].

For me, this is interesting, because the character of the digger is who you get when our romanticised version of the archetypal hard drinking and had working bushman goes to war.  The kind of courageous and determined, yet humorous matey kind of bushman glorified by poet Andrew Barton (Banjo) Patterson in poems like The Man from Snowy River.  Yet weirdly enough, it is the wholehearted adoption of this stereotype that makes Australians who we are, regardless of when we arrive and when we start calling ourselves Australian.  It’s who we like to think we are, and it’s why Anzac Day means so much to us.  Not necessarily in relation to the Gallipoli campaign in particular, because the day has expanded to include commemoration of our war dead from every conflict we have been involved in.  But we honour the Australian dead, and most of us honour our family war dead as well, no matter where they were from and who they fought for.

We mark the day by attending commemorative services at dawn (marking the time of landing), and observing morning marches of ex-service personnel.  Descendants may visit memorials and place poppies in remembrance, or wear rosemary (it grew wild on the peninsula).  The first commemoration took place in 1916, and over time it became traditional to relax with a few beers and a game of two-up after the formalities.  Two-up is a gambling game where you toss two coins in the air and bet on how they will land, ironically enough, illegal until the 1970s.

The Gallipoli campaign set the standard for bravery and tenacity, combined with humour and support for your friends (mateship) that we use when we are faced with modern hardships like our recent cyclones, floods, and bushfires.  The Anzacs themselves took this spirit with them to further campaigns on the Western Front and Palestine.  The last Anzac survivor of the 25 April Gallipoli landing (Ted Matthews) died at 101 years old in 1997.  The last survivor of the Gallipoli campaign (Alec Campbell) died at 103 in 2002.

Discussions of the battle often focus on the errors and mismanagement made by the British commanders, and minimise the strategic decisions of their opposition, so I want to close this post by telling you about Mustafa Kemal.  He became the commander of the 19th Division (reserve of the Turkish Fifth Army) in 1915.  He was a clever military strategist analyst and inspired his troops with his own reckless bravery in defence of the peninsula against the MEF.  His success led to command of the Turkish troops in the Anafarta sector and the title of Pasha (similar to a British knighthood).  He was in command of the Seventh Army in Palestine during the final allied offensive that defeated Turkey in 1918.  He went on to found the Republic of Turkey, becoming its first President in 1923, where he is fondly remembered as Atatürk (Father of the Turks).  In 1934, he commemorated the Anzacs at Gallipoli [6]

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Lest we forget.

[1] Australians at Gallipoli

[2] The Gallipoli Campaign

[3] Origins of the term ‘Digger’

[4] Bean, C.E.W. 1993. Anzac to Amiens. New York: Penguin Books Australia. (UPDATED 20/9/2016; book is not available online anymore).

[5] The Spirit of ANZAC

[6] Atatürk (Mustafa Kemal)

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