Anzac Day: Why it's marked on 25 April and what's next?

A soldier at the Sydney Cenotaph in Martin Place. Source: AAP

The Anzac centenary commemorations come to an end in 2018. SBS News explores why Anzac Day is so meaningful and whether it should be marked any differently from next year.

On 25 April each year, countless Australians make the same pledge: “Lest we forget”.

Around the country and world, Anzac Day sees Australians acknowledge the sacrifices made during war with a day of remembrance, parades, sport and gambling.

But the Centenary of Anzac, a four-year national commemoration and government initiative marking 100 years since World War One (1914 – 1918), comes to an end in 2018.

What are we commemorating?

Anzac is an acronym of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and the date marks the day its soldiers landed at Gallipoli, Turkey on 25 April 1915. The dawn landing marked their first time acting together as a composite military unit and the moment the Anzac legend was born.

The aim was to capture what was Constantinople (now Istanbul), an ally of Germany, and knock Turkey out of the war - but the troops were met with resistance and a stalemate ensued for eight months. 

Soldiers in Anzac Cove at Gallipoli during World War One.
Soldiers in Anzac Cove at Gallipoli during World War One.
Mary Evans Picture Library / AAP

Anzac Day is held to remember the landing and the broader sacrifice of Australian soldiers, sailors, airmen and service personnel in more than 100 years of war.

Just over 102,000 Australians have been killed in war or warlike service. Nearly all of them died on foreign battlefields in the First and Second World Wars.

“Every nation has its story and Anzac Day is our story,” the Australian War Memorial’s director Dr Brendan Nelson told SBS News ahead of the 2018 commemorations.

Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial.
Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial.

But why Gallipoli?

While other nations celebrate victories and focus their World War One commemorations on days including Remembrance Day (11 November), Australia is unique in focusing so heavily on a military defeat.

All attempts to break the stalemate at Gallipoli failed. The most successful part of the campaign came eight months later with the near-perfect withdrawal of the allies under the cover of darkness. About 8,000 Australians lost their lives in the campaign.

Deakin University’s Dr Carolyn Holbrook has written extensively on Anzac Day. She believes the events of that Sunday morning in April 1915 and the following campaign have taken on near-mythical importance.

“We were a nation in search of a mythology; a mythology to give us confidence, and this fitted the bill,” she told SBS News.

Australia had only federated in 1901. And even though Australian soldiers had served in conflicts like Sudan (1885) and the Boer War (1899 – 1902), World War One marked the first time soldiers fought for the new Australian nation.

“It’s fulfilling sort of a quasi-spiritual role, a quasi-religious role for Australians,” Dr Holbrook said. “The further back in time the subject is, the more effective the mythology.”

An honour roll in Canberra showing names of Australian soldiers who died in World War One.
An honour roll in Canberra showing names of Australian soldiers who died in World War One.
Getty Images

Dr Nelson agrees it forms the substance of who we are as Australians, but says it doesn’t glorify war.

“The paradox is Anzac Day is not actually about war. It’s in a context of war but, in the end, it’s about love and friendship,” he says.

“We emerged victorious, deeply divided [and] inconsolably mourning 62,000 dead; we emerged from that war with a greater understanding of what it meant to be an Australian and a greater belief in ourselves.”

How do Australians mark the day?

Anzac Day offers a full day of commemorations, from the huge dawn service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to smaller services held across country towns.

The day begins with thousands of dawn services around 5.30am. In the darkness, Australians gather for hymns and prayers, the laying of wreaths, a minute’s silence and the national anthem.

Anzac Day 2017
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, and Deputy Leader of the Opposition Tanya Plibersek at the 2017 dawn service in Sydney.

Services also include a reciting of The Ode, part of the poem ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon.

The most well-known lines are:

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.

Once the sun has risen, the morning is dedicated to marches and parades of veterans and the relatives of those who lost their lives.

What about the 'celebrations'?

While the day is marked in respectful services across the country, there is a lighter side to the day as well, with the customary betting game of two-up (which can only be played legally on a few days every year) as well as NRL and AFL fixtures.

Anzac Day 2017
A crowd enjoy a game of two-up in The Rocks, Sydney on Anzac Day 2017.

“By 1927, [Anzac Day] had been made a public holiday in all the states and territories and there was very early legislation, as early as 1916, to prevent the commercialisation of the word Anzac,” Dr Holbook said.

But, she said, the importance of Anzac Day has shifted a lot since then: from the inter-war years, to its unpopularity during the Vietnam era and harsh criticisms of it being irrelevant during the 1980s.

“It became very unpopular and people, including historians, assumed it was just going to die out along with the last of the old Diggers.”

But it didn’t. Australia is a world-leader when it comes to remembering its fallen.

How much does Anzac Day cost the government?

“Australia is spending more than any other nation, including the major combatant nations, like Britain, France and Germany, on commemorating the First World War,” Dr Holbrook said.

Especially since 2014, with the special Centenary of Anzac being marked.

“The Commonwealth is spending around $330 million, states and territories about $140 million and there’s at least $18 million from corporate interests,” Dr Holbrook said.

“So, that’s a total of roughly $550 million.”

Germany has been criticised for the amount it spends on war commemorations (about €4m / $6.4m in 2014) While the UK government set aside £50m ($91m) for commemorations at the start of the centenary.

What will we do in 2019?

2018 marks the last Anzac Day in the Centenary of Anzac. From 2019, it will be more than 100 years since the major battles and events of the First World War.

Does that mean it’s time to focus more on the soldiers and battles of other eras including World War Two, Vietnam and more recent conflicts like Afghanistan?

“We might think more notice should be given to contemporary legends but I don’t think the Anzac legend is something that can be transferred onto contemporary conflicts,” Dr Holbrook said.

The 2017 Anzac Day march in Sydney.
The 2017 Anzac Day march in Sydney.

The Australian War Memorial’s Dr Nelson says the events of 1914 – 1918 will never be forgotten.

“It’s not a case of thinking ‘Oh well, we’ve done the First World War, we’ve remembered those 62,000 dead. So, now we will move onto something else,’” he said.

And, he says, other conflicts are given equal attention by Australians.

“What we actually do is commemorate those men and women, two million of them, who wear and have worn the uniform.”

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