ANZAC Day in Australia

Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Today is ANZAC* Day in Australia, New Zealand and several countries in the Pacific (Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji I think). It is the day which Australians and Kiwis remember their war dead. In the US it would be the equivalent of Memorial Day, or Remembrance Day in the UK.

ANZAC Day, from what I’ve gathered, has actually become the biggest national holiday in Australia. Bigger than Australia day. During the drive up to Cairns, I had been listening to talk of ANZAC day on the radio for the week leading up.

Every nation seems to have some sort of day similar to ANZAC day where they honor war dead. The thing which makes ANZAC Day different than most is the day which they celebrate. April 25 is the anniversary of the 1915 invasion of Gallipoli in Turkey during WWI. The reason why picking this day to commemorate is odd is that Gallipoli, in a strict military sense, was a disaster. Most nations tend to pick days which coincide with victory, which is why many European countries pick November 11 as Remembrance Day (the end of WWI) or the end of WWII like the Russians (May 9).

The Battle of Gallipoli was an attempt by the Allies to land in the Dardanelles, capture Istanbul and link up with Russia by sea. If successful, it would have knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the war. Planning for the invasion was done by then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. You could sort of think of it as a WWI version of landing at Normandy.

It never worked and the Allies never made any serious ground in Turkey. Even though Turkish casualties where higher, the defeat of the Allies, the Turks felt empowered to try and take other British possessions in the Middle East. (go watch Lawrence of Arabia for that part of the war).

Diorama at war museum
Diorama at war museum

The total number of deaths at Gallipoli was close to 100,000. 45,000 Allies and 55,000 Turks. About 7,500 Aussies and 2,700 Kiwis were killed. Australians had the highest casualty rate in WWI.

Gallipoli looms large in Australian history. My knowledge of it primarily came from the movie Gallipoli with a young Mel Gibson. When I visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the exhibit on Gallipoli took up (what I thought) was an unusually large portion of the entire museum.

Even though the battle didn’t go so well, Gallipoli was perhaps the first time when Australians and New Zealanders fought and considered themselves as such, rather than just British subjects overseas. That is, as best I can figure, why this is honored here, as opposed to November 11.

Today Gallipoli is a very popular tourist attraction for Aussies and Kiwis. ANZAC day is celebrated there at dawn each year. ANZAC Day has a big Australian Rules Football game every year (sort of like how the NFL plays on Thanksgiving). There are also smaller ANZAC celebrations around the globe. The US Marines have hosted an ANZAC Day celebration in Hawaii for Australians and Kiwis for many years.

The other big tradition are ANZAC cookies, or ANZAC biscuits as they are called here. They are basically an oatmeal cookie sent to troops in WWI. They aren’t bad, but I can think of many things I’d rather eat for dessert.

*ANZAC = Australia New Zealand Army Corps

6 thoughts on “ANZAC Day in Australia”

  1. Your description of the origins of Anzac Day were great – I’m Aussie and my (German) husband was grilling me yesterday about why we celebrate a loss – but it’s definitely the idea that we were really “Australians” for the first time in an international sense that’s important to us. I’m not sure that it’s bigger than Australia Day yet but certainly a lot more young people are going out to the dawn services and parades now. And about the Anzac biscuits – I promise they’re really good, but you have to try home-made ones!

  2. It was interesting. When you are traveling full time I don’ think the full impact of a holiday is really felt by you :)

    I saw a bit of the parade in Cairns and went to the war memorial where there were lots of vets wearing medals and young guys in uniform.

    Really, it was much like what you would see in US during Memorial Day, but probably a bigger deal here.

  3. Linda and I were just there: I’m putting together a short audio piece on it for matador, which will be great. Of course, we’ll talk about it on the podcast this week too.

    You’ve described the history well, but did you enjoy your first ANZAC day?

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