The origins of Anzac Day

Remember Me guest-blogger Dr Jenny Macleod, Department of History University of Hull explores the origins of a national day of commemoration in Australia and New Zealand

The 25th of April 2016 marks the centenary of the origins of an extraordinary phenomenon: Anzac Day. What has now become the pre-eminent national day in Australia, marked by dawn services, parades and speeches, began as a response to loss in war, and took the first anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli as its cue. The urge to reflect on Australian service in the First World War was widely felt in communities across the country: their sons had left home to fight overseas, and those who had died were buried more or less where they fell. This remained the case for all soldiers of the British Empire. In the absence of a body, a grave, or a funeral, new commemorative rituals emerged to fill the breach for the bereaved.

The Anzac Day Commemorative Committee, formed in Brisbane, Queensland in January 1916, was particularly dynamic in formulating the structure of the day. Its Honorary Secretary, Chaplain Lieutenant-Colonel David Garland, wrote to newspapers across Australia and New Zealand encouraging them to commemorate Anzac Day. At the heart of the day’s proceedings were religious services which sought to give comfort to the bereaved and to give meaning to their loss in traditional Christian terms. But, with the war still raging and recruitment waning, there was also a patriotic element to Anzac Day which sought to renew the community’s support for the war. In Sydney and elsewhere returned men marched through the streets cheered on by large crowds. Across Queensland, there were also political meetings in the evening which addressed a patriotic resolution that re-asserted Australia’s commitment to King and Empire.

At first, there was a good deal of variation in the observances of Anzac Day. In 1916 the first ever dawn service – or ‘daybreak service’ as it was termed – was held in Rockhampton, Queensland. It began at 6.30am, and was attended by 500 people including the Mayor and local church ministers. The National Anthem was sung, prayers were offered, and speeches made. But this event did not lead directly to what is now the central component of Anzac Day. That tradition stems from Sydney in 1927. A year earlier, some ex-soldiers on their way home from a night out in the wee small hours of Anzac Day 1926 came across an elderly grieving woman who was laying flowers at the cenotaph in Martin Place. They joined her in her solemn moment, and resolved to hold a service there at dawn the following year. From small beginnings – perhaps 200 attended the third dawn service in 1929 in Sydney; by 1935, over 20,000 were expected. Nonetheless the main event of the day remained the march of returned men in cities and towns across the country.

If the invention of the Anzac Day tradition took more than two decades to find its now traditional form, so was the rhetoric attached to the commemoration subject to change. In wartime, newspaper editorials and Anzac Day sermons combined a deep pride in the special qualities of Australian soldiers, with a sense that the nation’s achievement and sacrifice were perfectly in keeping with that of the Empire at this point in time. What developed subsequently was that the imperial dimension fell away, and the heartfelt sorrow prompted by the Australians’ sacrifice in war increasingly revolved around a sense that the Anzacs embodied distinctive national qualities. In this way, Anzac Day became a means by which a distinct Australian identity developed over time. Grief and commemoration were central to the defining of a national identity.

JMcL Book Cover Dr Jenny Macleod is Senior Lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull and the author of Gallipoli (Oxford University Press, 2015).











Poppy Park 3
Poppy Park in Penrith NSW, Anzac Day 2015


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