Apr 252015


Today is ANZAC Day, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served.” Anzac Day was originally to honor the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Some Canadian soldiers, who had signed up for service with the United Kingdom, were among the British forces at Gallipoli. In addition, several Canadian military field hospitals supported the campaign. Anzac Day is also observed in the Cook Islands, Niue, Pitcairn Islands, and Tonga, and previously also as a national holiday in Papua New Guinea and Samoa. Although Anzac Day is not a holiday, it is observed in Canada; during World War I, Newfoundland was an independent dominion and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was the only North American unit to fight at Gallipoli.


In 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of an Allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula to open the way to the Black Sea for the Allied navies. The objective was to capture Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which was an ally of Germany during the war. The ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Army commanded by Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk). What had been planned as a bold strike to knock the Ottomans out of the war quickly became a stalemate, and the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915, the Allied forces were evacuated after both sides had suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. The Allied casualties included 21,255 from the United Kingdom, an estimated 10,000 dead soldiers from France, 8,709 from Australia, 2,721 from New Zealand, and 1,358 from British India. News of the landing at Gallipoli made a profound impact on Australians and New Zealanders at home and 25 April quickly became the day on which they remembered the sacrifice of those who had died in the war. Today is special because it is the centennial.


Though the Gallipoli campaign failed to achieve its military objectives of capturing Constantinople and knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war, the actions of the Australian and New Zealand troops during the campaign bequeathed an intangible but powerful legacy. The creation of what became known as an “Anzac legend” became an important part of the national identity in both countries. This has shaped the way their citizens have viewed both their past and their understanding of the present.


Here is my remembrance of ANZAC Day in the 1950s taken from my book New Australian: Memories of an immigrant Childhood. An e-text of the book can be found on Amazon:


Anzac day . . .was a most important holiday in the first term, and in the preceding week a great deal of class and assembly time was devoted to it. It was the national holiday. Every year portions of afternoon classes were devoted to the retelling of the story of the Dardanelles campaign: the landing and establishment of a beach-head; the withering sniper fire from the Turks; the heroics of Simpson and his donkey rescuing wounded under fire; the defeat and withdrawal; the butcher’s bill (out of 330,000 soldiers engaged 60,000 killed and 166,000 wounded, the greatest percentage casualty loss of any of the allied nations). We heard radio programs that dramatized the events and included readings from the poetry and diaries of eye witnesses with the words of Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” echoing and re-echoing:

     They shall grow not 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 main emphasis was on Gallipoli and the Great War, but ANZAC day had become by the 1950s an opportunity to celebrate and glorify participation of Australian troops in all wars since 1915, and so we were asked to bring memorabilia and artifacts from any war our fathers and mothers had participated in, for a show-and-tell session. For days the classroom resembled a battle zone. There were fragments of shrapnel and grenades, bayonets, spent shell cartridges, ribbons and medals, pieces of uniform. . . .  

     ANZAC day itself was a day off from school and I always went with my father to the dawn service at the Returned Serviceman’s League (RSL) club. Half dopey with sleep we crawled out of the house just after four a.m. for the drive to Gawler center. It was always chill and the lack of sleep made me shiver wretchedly until we reached the RSL hall, bright and cheery with big urns of milky coffee (and plenty of hip flasks of whisky and brandy to add a nip “to keep out the cold”). The men wore their Sunday suits with rows of medals pinned on their breasts, clanking and jingling as they walked.

     As dawn approached we filed outside to stand around the memorial, a white stone obelisk in the RSL club grounds. At a sharp word of command the four soldiers who made up the catafalque party marched, shoulder arms, to stand at the cardinal points around the obelisk, facing out. They went through a series of precision drills ending with reverse arms, open muzzle ends resting on glossy black toe caps, arms crossed on stocks, heads bowed, and as the first faint rays of the sun broke the horizon a bugler sounded Last Post while an old soldier recited “For the Fallen.” Many men cried silently, while others stood granite impassive.

     As light broke fully on the scene the service swung into high gear, and the moment of peril vanished for another year. Ministers from local churches recited prayers, representatives from schools and branches of government laid wreaths, speeches were made, feet began to shuffle, and heads relaxed. By the time the catafalque party shouldered arms in preparation to march off, the crowd was already shambling into the clubhouse or to their cars.

     A great number of veterans headed off from the dawn service to Adelaide to participate in the annual parade. This was a mammoth affair, by far the biggest parade I had ever seen for sheer numbers involved. The men and women were divided into their respective branches of the service, then further subdivided into regiments or other appropriate units, each headed by a banner indicating theaters of operations and campaigns. In the 1950s the Great War contingent was smaller than that of the second World War, but was, nonetheless, substantial. The Korean War had a small, barely noticeable, representation.

     Those who could, marched in full uniform, and all took the trouble to step out in style and not just amble along. Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marine bands fleshed out the long snaking line of marchers to give them a good stirring rhythm, and each branch of the service responded according to its traditions. The navy rocked and rolled along in their parody of militarism, the infantry regiments paced smartly, and the marines swung their arms high as they quickstepped down King William Street.

     At the tail end of the marchers came a long line of buses and ambulances carrying amputees as well as infirm, and ailing veterans, all wishing to be part of the day’s celebrations. The vehicles flashed and honked their way at a snail’s pace, while dimly perceptible faces smiled and waved from behind bus windows. The occupants of the ambulances were invisible. When the last vehicle had passed, children, who had formed the front row of onlookers, spilled into the roadway copying the actions of the marchers, and unwittingly filling the place some of them would later occupy officially as veterans of Vietnam.

The Vietnam War changed a lot of things about ANZAC Day. In my boyhood the day was about straight out patriotism. The general sense was that Gallipoli had forged the Australian national character. Never mind that aborigines were excluded even though they fought in the war. Never mind that half the population – women – were excluded. Never mind that the notion of national character was under fire in the social sciences (and is now a bankrupt notion). Gallipoli was the anvil on which the Aussie was forged.

Vietnam was a turning point when young Australian draftees were sent to fight in a war they had no stake in and did not believe in. Anti-war sentiment flooded Australia and was most prominent on ANZAC Day. In the late 1960s interest in ANZAC Day seriously declined. Instead you had sentiments such as these expressed by Eric Bogle in his 1971 “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”

Nowadays things cut both ways. Many younger Australians who have never experienced war have become super-patriots, draping themselves in Australian flags and seeing ANZAC Day as a chance to loudly express their nationalist pride. Others use the day as a time to remind people of the horrors of war, other sides of the Anzac legend, and the racism that excluded, and still excludes, aborigines from the benefits of having served as illustrated in this cartoon:


I prefer this simple 1934 remembrance by Kemel Atatürk, commander in Gallipoli and first president of the Republic of Turkey:

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.

The troops at Gallipoli normally ate bully beef (tinned corned beef) and hard tack, food that could stand up to the arduous sea voyage in supply ships from Australia. There is a common story, not really confirmed, that women “back home” made a special kind of biscuit, now called Anzac biscuits, to cheer up the troops. They are sweet and crispy, made with coconut, nuts, and golden syrup, but with no eggs because they were perishable, and scarce in war time. It is more likely that they were baked for sale at galas with the proceeds going to the war effort. Whatever the truth of the matter, they are now available commercially and are very popular. Of course, you can also bake them at home.


Anzac Biscuits


1 cup plain flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup coconut
125 g butter
2 tbs golden syrup
1 tbs water
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda


Sift the flour into a bowl. Add the sugar, rolled oats and coconut.

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the golden syrup and water.

Stir the bicarbonate of soda into the liquid mixture.

Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Place tablespoons of the mixture on a greased tray, spaced well apart, and bake at 175°C for 15-20 minutes.

Place on wire racks to cool. The biscuits will harden when cooled.

If you want crisper biscuits add more golden syrup; if you want them chewier and less. Chewy versus crispy is an ongoing debate.