Why Wear Rosemary on ANZAC Day?

Remember Me Researcher Dr Yvonne Inall explores the reasons underlying the tradition of wearing sprigs of rosemary on Anzac Day.

Last year, guest-blogger Dr Jenny McLeod explored the origins of ANZAC Day . This year I want to focus on one of the smaller details of ANZAC Day remembrance activities: the wearing of rosemary.

StateLibQld_2_72759_Anzac_Day_procession_through_the_streets_of_Brisbane,_1916
Anzac Day procession through the streets of Brisbane, 1916. Public Domain

Each year, at ANZAC services and marches across Australia and New Zealand, you will see people wearing a sprig of rosemary, either pinned to their chest, or on their hat. One of my enduring childhood memories, growing up in Sydney, is of my mother cutting masses of rosemary from the bush in our back garden for distribution at our local ANZAC march, filling the house with its fragrant odours. As I child I never really knew why she did it. So, why do we wear it? What does it mean?

Group_portrait_of_retired_military_personnel,_1916-1930_(7154606973)
A group of retired Australian Naval and Army Personnel (c.1916-1930). You can see two men on the left are wearing sprigs of Rosemary. Photograph: Australian National Maritime Museum’s Samuel J. Hood Studio collection.
Rosemaryflower
Rosemary in bloom. Photograph by D.-R. D. Luria, used under creative commons license.

The herb Rosemary has been associated with memory, remembering and remembrance since ancient times. In Ancient Greece and Rome it was thought to aid memory. This belief was persistent and Culpeper’s 1642 edition of “The English physician or an astrologo-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation” cites rosemary as an effective treatment for a “weak memory”. Interestingly, modern medical research has been exploring this belief and studies are finding rosemary in oil and powdered forms do have positive effects on cognitive performance.

In medieval and early modern times, rosemary was a common funeral offering. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet [Act IV, Scene 5], Ophelia tells us “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance…”. Sprigs of rosemary were carried by mourners in medieval funeral processions, and cast into the grave as offerings, in much the same way that roses are cast onto the casket at burial funerals today.

The associations of rosemary with ANZAC day have an added dimension, in the fact that rosemary grows wild across the Gallipoli peninsula.

It is uncertain when the practice of wearing rosemary on ANZAC Day first began, but it has become a regular feature of remembrance.

Dr Yvonne Inall was recently awarded a PhD in History from the University of Hull, undertaking an archaeological examination the role of spearheads in Iron Age Britain. As part of her doctoral thesis Yvonne conducted a review of British Iron Age burial practices, with a particular focus on martial burials. She is now assisting Dr Malcolm Lillie with the long durée component of the Remember Me Project: ‘Deep in Time: Meaning and Mnemonic in Archaeological and Diaspora Studies of Death’.

Featured image: Buttonhole – Rosemary, Red Poppy & Australian Flag, Anzac Day, Melbourne, 25 Apr 2014. Source: Museums Victoria Copyright Museums Victoria / CC https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/2074743.

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