How Anzac Day has become etched in our national consciousness. and Australia split into a new history


Since Australia and New Zealand gave birth to the Anzac legend at Gallipoli in 1915, their histories, national myth and symbolism around Gallipoli have grown apart, says historian Dr Rowan Light.

Anzac Day in Australia differs from Anzac Day here, says Light in his new book, Anzac Nations: The Gallipoli Legacy in New Zealand and Australia, 1965-2015.

More than a century later, commemorations and symbolism are at odds, depending on which side of Tasmania you are on. Both countries have rewritten Anzac history and in doing so have gone in different directions.

At first they were all brothers in arms, buddies, Anzacs united in their disdain for Britain’s elitists as they sailed halfway around the world to fight an imperial war.

New Zealand soldiers at Gallipoli.  Provided to Stuff by historian Richard Stowers from his collection.

Provided

New Zealand soldiers at Gallipoli. Provided to Stuff by historian Richard Stowers from his collection.

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Gallipoli was a battle where stamina, courage, ingenuity and Anzac colonial ties could not win an ultimately unwinnable battle. Thank you, British warlords.

Light, who noticed the differences when he studied and researched in Sydney, took his first look at how Gallipoli – which was not the deadliest battle of the First World War – has etched itself into the national consciousness as a powerful expression of nationalism.

” [It] began as a question of why do societies remember certain aspects of the past? Why are some stories shared and not others? And in particular, I suppose, why did the First World War and why did Gallipoli and then Anzac resonate over the last two generations? »

And then he discovered that there were differences that a Kiwi would find apparent if they attended Australia’s Anzac Day commemorations.

Australia and New Zealand diverge

Kiwis and Australians at the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Kiwis and Australians at the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey.

Light, a University of Auckland historian whose great-grandfather fought at Gallipoli and lost an eye at the Somme, discovered that history had changed, and changed differently. Anzac does not mean the same thing for the two countries.

“Part of the change is in these huge cultural, political and social shifts during the 20th century, which is the end of the British Empire, and how these kinds of frameworks previously defined what it meant to be a citizen,” he said.

“The ways of telling these stories, or even the currency of these stories are not inevitable… The book tries to show that individuals – the storytellers, whether they are historians, journalists or filmmakers – make a difference because they interpret the story and present it in a new way, and they create public scripts that we can reuse.

In Australia, the rosemary is the traditional symbol of the Anzac, not the poppy as here.

Paul Kane/Getty Images

In Australia, the rosemary is the traditional symbol of the Anzac, not the poppy as here.

At the most symbolic, Australia is represented by rosemary, an herb native to the Mediterranean, while New Zealand uses the poppy, a throwback to later World War I battles in the Somme, France. In Australia, Anzac is synonymous with Australianism, says Light.

“Anzac talks about Australian self-definition of Australian values ​​and what it means to be an Australian. Often they don’t think of New Zealand – the NZ in ANZAC.”

As of 2015, only Australia had the word Anzac on official commemoration logos. He said “100 years of Anzac, the spirit lives on”. New Zealand opted for ‘WW100’, with a large poppy and a smaller silver fern. No Anzac to see.

In Australia, the most visited monument is not the Sydney Opera House or Uluru; this is the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra. Pukeahu – New Zealand’s version in Wellington – is far from attracting this level of attention.

“(The AWM) is a museum, it’s a memorial, it’s a grave, it’s a research facility… there’s this layering of institutions on this one site,” Light says.

“What it does is it produces some really interesting and very powerful storytelling and myth-making places. It speaks of a place of national importance. It is culturally very powerful.

Storytellers shape Anzac history

In 1981, the Anzac legend took firm hold in Australia, when filmmaker Peter Weir released the powerful Gallipoli, which made the rounds of the Anzac story – or its version of Weir. Weir was Australian, his film and central heroes reflected that.

“It was a famous Australian film, but it also had a very interesting impact on New Zealand audiences,” says Light. “And that was one of the ways we see the Anzac as fresh, young faces, who have been betrayed by the British leadership.

“It’s powerfully presented and we as a nation felt it as the film reached thousands of people in ways historians could only dream of.”

The last devastating shot of the 1981 film Gallipoli.

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The last devastating shot of the 1981 film Gallipoli.

The Kiwis who served at Gallipoli actually tended to be older and from the cities, rather than baby-faced farmers. The dominant image of the Anzac after the war was that of able martial warriors who dutifully served king and country.

So a campaign that could have been written off as an abject disaster, has over time become something two nations are so proud of that they have set aside a day of commemoration.

There is now a feeling that young people and the prime minister will take part in Anzac Day, says Light. But it was not inevitable.

“These things take on the impression of… that they have endured. They give us a sense of continuity…[but] in fact, it was not inevitable, there was this rather disputed history.

Protests change Anzac Day again

In 1965 it appeared that Anzac Day was on its last aging legs, as the number of First World War diggers dwindled. Once the last of them died, it seemed likely that the Anzac commemorations would also be laid to rest.

And then something counterintuitive happened. Anti-Vietnam War protesters, feminists and radical students decided that Anzac Day and its treasured sites were good places to take a beating from mainstream society.

“A case study is the PYM (Progressive Youth Movement) – they were really, really eager to just cause trouble and disrupt things and ruffle feathers.”

A member of the PYM (Progressive Youth Movement) trying to return the Vietnam War poster to the War Memorial in Cathedral Square in 1971 after members of the RSA removed it.  A former member of the Maori battalion holds him back.

Press archive

A member of the PYM (Progressive Youth Movement) trying to return the Vietnam War poster to the War Memorial in Cathedral Square in 1971 after members of the RSA removed it. A former member of the Maori battalion holds him back.

The ceremonies were hampered. With that boost came a backlash, which sealed Anzac Day as a central national event, and Gallipoli as something of a national Mecca.

“What was probably most surprising and what might surprise a lot of readers is the role of protest, in some ways running counter to what we expect of the Anzac story.

“It forced people to take a stand on Anzac Day that they might not have taken otherwise. The protest, oddly enough, demands a response. That is, ‘Oh, eh Well, that’s inappropriate. You shouldn’t protest, that’s breaking the rules.”

“So all of a sudden people are turning to Anzac Day to support it, and it’s a different kind of turnout, it’s not the typical turnout that was happening in the previous decade.”

Light says the protests helped formulate a sense of what Anzac meant, rather than destroy it. Such cultural debates are crucial for a country, he said.

Public powers of commemoration

So why should we care about Anzac traditions?

“There were the protests in Wellington, and we’re all coming out of Covid with our fingers crossed and all that talk – so these changes to the Anzac commemorations are very significant.

“These commemorations make statements about us, our values ​​and who we are, and in some ways we should be critically engaged.

Provided

“The longer you wait for a job, the harder it becomes to catch up,” writes Dr. Rowan Light.

“You know the importance of that, when you pick up something from the supermarket shelf; we read the label, and we check where it comes from, and what’s in it, what ingredients are in it, and also how it’s going to affect us.

“It also confirms the value of participating in commemorative practices, even if it is in protest. If we’re talking about social cohesion, getting out of Covid and getting out of our bubbles, there’s something very powerful about coming together in person, and using these forms of commemoration in communities, claiming them and using them .”

And as for the future of Anzac?

“It’s very difficult to make predictions about the Anzac because he defied predictions.”

Published by Otago University Press, Anzac Nations: the legacy of Gallipoli in New Zealand and Australia, 1965-2015 is now in bookstores. RRP $50.

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