Every year on April 25, Australia and New Zealand celebrate a holiday that is unique to those two countries.
It is one of the most important days on the calendar, and it was created to celebrate an event that took place over 100 years ago.
Today the holiday has taken on a broader meaning and has developed traditions all its own.
Learn more about ANZAC Day, its origins, and how it is celebrated on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
ANZAC Day is celebrated on April 25 every year in Australia and New Zealand.
Today, the holiday has become a general-purpose holiday to commemorate all those “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” as well as “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”.
To this extent, it is similar to holidays in other countries which honor veterans and those who died in wars. The closest equivalent holiday in the United States would be Memorial Day.
However, there are specific reasons why ANZAC Day is called ANZAC Day, why it is celebrated on April 25, and why it is only celebrated in Australia and New Zealand.
The story of ANZAC Day begins with the start of the First World War.
When Germany invaded neutral Belgium, it caused Great Britain to enter the war in August 1914.
At the time, the British Empire was a much more unified concept, and Australia and New Zealand were self-governing parts of the empire with what was known as dominion status.
This was also the status at the time given to Canada and South Africa as well. Dominion status was sort of a quasi-colonial status were a country was largely independent but also still sort of a colony.
When war was declared, both the governments of Australia and New Zealand quickly pledged their support for the war.
While the vast majority of the fighting in the First World War took place in Europe, it was, in fact, a global conflict. Germany, at the onset of the war, had colonies scattered all over the world which were quickly attacked and taken over by the British.
Of relevance to this story, on September 11, 1914, a little more than a month after the war began, the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) landed in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, to remove the Germans there. Over the next month, they expelled the Germans from the region.
Likewise, on August 29, New Zealand forces landed in German Samoa and managed to take the islands without any bloodshed.
The Pacific Campain of World War I did exist, but it was over relatively quickly. The use of Australian and New Zealand forces during this phase and theater of the war made perfect sense.
This phase of the war has been mostly forgotten, as the main battles were being fought on the other side of the world.
Like all the other countries which entered the war, Australia and New Zealand began recruiting efforts to encourage young men to enter military service.
As the war went into full swing, soldiers from the two countries were shipped off to fight in Europe.
Most of the soldiers from this region wound up being sent to Egypt in what became known as the war’s Mediterranean Theater. The original intent was to send them to France, but it was decided to keep them in the region for the winter of 1914-1915.
In December 1914, the forces from Australia and New Zealand were reorganized as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, usually just referred to by its acronym, ANZAC.
The original idea was to call it the Australasian Army Corps, as the word Australasian was used at the time to collectively describe Australia, New
Zealand, and all other British colonies in the region.
It was changed due to complaints from New Zealand soldiers who wanted their own national identity respected.
Despite the name, the original ANZAC corps, formed in 1914, had soldiers from more than just Australia and New Zealand. It also included British recruits from India and Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka.
Besides Germany, the Ottoman Empire was one of the other major central powers in World War I. The story of Turkey in the first world war is the subject of a future episode, but suffice it to say that Britain and Russia had a vested interest in seeing Turkey out of the war.
A plan was hatched by the 41-year-old First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill that would be a decisive blow to the Turks and would give the British a means of controlling shipping in and out of the Black Sea.
They would attack the Gallipoli Peninsula. Gallipoli Peninsula is the peninsula on the European side of Turkey, forming the western half of the Dardanelles Strait. The Dardanelles, along with the Bhopserphus near Istanbul, are choke points where the shipping can be controlled.
If the Allies could take Gallipoli, it could then serve as a springboard to take Constantinople….which was still known as Constantinople at the time.
I will devote a full episode to the Gallipoli campaign at a later date, but suffice it to say Churchill’s plans did not pan out.
On April 25, 1915, the first of the ANZAC forces landed on the beaches of Gallipoli. The primary landing site later became known as ANZAC Cove.
They encountered fierce resistance, and instead of a quick victory, it led to a long, bloody stalemate. The trench warfare which was being fought in France was now being fought in Gallipoli.
By the end of 1915, the Gallipoli campaign was called off. It was arguably the worst Allied defeat of the war, with 57,000 Allied soldiers and a similar number of Turks killed.
Within the total number of Allied soldiers killed was 8,159 Australians and 3,431 Kiwis.
Both Australia and New Zealand were much smaller than they are today, and these numbers were devastating. Each country had only about one-fifth of their current population.
Word of the military disaster arrived back in Australia and New Zealand on April 30.
Both nations were in shock as it was arguably the biggest tragedy to have struck either country in their brief histories.
Immediately, church services were held around both countries, and within months, monuments to the war dead were already being erected.
On April 25, 1916, the first anniversary of the landings of Gallipoli, was officially named ANZAC Day and was observed in Australia, New Zealand, and in London. It was an unofficial holiday at the time, but the anniversary was observed in almost every town in Australia and New Zealand, often with veterans of the campaign taking part in parades.
It wasn’t until after the conclusion of the war that ANZAC Day became an official part of the calendar in both countries.
ANZAC Day wasn’t just a holiday, however. The disaster of Gallipoli was a defining experience for both countries.
Australia and New Zealand were young countries, and many felt that neither country had its own national identity outside that of the British Empire before the start of the war.
Despite being a military failure, Gallipoli served to give Australia and New Zealand separate identities. It was one of the first international events where they were represented as distinct countries.
After the war, an ANZAC spirit was referred to, broadly defining the countries’ national characteristics. It referred to fortitude and bravery but a more egalitarian and laid-back approach than the British.
After the Second World War, ANZAC Day was expanded to honor those who served in that war and all other conflicts.
In 1921, ANZAC became a protected word in Australia. Legislation was passed that said, “no person may use the word ‘Anzac’, or any word resembling it, in connection with any trade, business, calling or profession or in connection with any entertainment or any lottery or art union or as the name or part of a name of any private residence, boat, vehicle of charitable or other institution, or other institution, or any building without the authority of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.”
ANZAC Day waned in popularity after World War II as the generation who experienced it began to pass, and a more anti-war sentiment developed against the war in Vietnam.
In the 1980s and 90s, ANZAC Day saw a resurgence in popularity. It is usually credited to have started with the 1981 Australian film Gallipoli which helped bring awareness to the events that happened to an audience who didn’t live through it.
A 1990 visit to ANZAC Cove in Turkey on ANZAC Day by the Australian Prime Minister and the New Zealand Governor-General also increased public awareness.
On ANZAC Day 1985, Turkey made the name “Anzac Cove” official.
Visiting ANZAC Cove on the morning of ANZAC Day has become a popular attraction for many Australians and Kiwis.
Today ANZAC Day is also a celebration of Australia and New Zealand’s national identity. Commemorations are held at memorials in communities in both countries, often at dawn.
Australian Football and Rugby League matches are usually televised, and small events are held all over the world where there are ex-pat communities of Australians and New Zealanders.
ANZAC Day is also an official holiday in Tonga and the Cook Islands.
One exemption to the ban on the commercial use of the word ANZAC are ANZAC biscuits. Both Australia and New Zealand claim to have originated ANZAC biscuits, and their origin dates back to before the war.
The biscuits, what Americans would call cookies, are traditionally made with rolled oats, flour, sugar, butter, golden syrup, and baking soda.
It is believed that ANZAC biscuits were made by women in Australia and New Zealand during World War I and sent to soldiers serving overseas. Because the ingredients did not spoil easily and the biscuits could withstand long journeys, they were an ideal food item to send to soldiers.
ANZAC biscuits are consumed on ANZAC Day but can also be found all throughout the year.
I should close by noting that the events on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 didn’t just create national identities for two countries, it created them for three.
The Turkish defense of Gallipoli was headed by Mustafa Kemal, who went on to become the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, but again, that is for another episode.
ANZAC Day has become the quintessential national celebration in both New Zealand and Australia. I had the pleasure of being in Australia during ANZAC Day many years ago, where I got to taste ANZAC biscuits for the first time.
For those of you listening in Australia and New Zealand, have a happy ANZAC Day.