”We landed, I suppose, somewhere about nine or half past nine in the morning. On the Sunday morning, Sunday the 25th of April. And through a mistake made by the Navy, we played into the Turk's hands beautifully. Because you can imagine a narrow strip of beach, nothing but stones, no sand, and from that narrow stretch of beach straight up were high cliffs composed of clay and rock. And the Turks had the machine guns and the rifle fire and the full view of the beach, and the only protection we could get when we advanced was to get in close to the cliff and hug it.”
- Russell Weir (Tolerton - In the shadow of war)
Of all the days of national commemoration in Australia, none are quite as respected and revered as Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Armed Corp.) Day.
Anzac Day is commemorated on the 25th of April each year, the date Australian and New Zealand forces landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey in 1915. At dawn on this day, Anzac forces landed at a site that would become known as Anzac Cove. The landing site was about a mile north of the planned site - instead of open land, they faced a narrow beach, and steep cliffs. The landing boats were cramped together, under heavy Turkish fire from the cliffs above. The plan was to assault the cliffs and ridges inland, and hold the high ground. Instead, a stalemate quickly ensued, the Anzac forces trading fire with the entrenched Turkish soldiers. Each metre of ground was hard won, fighting in the gullys in the cliffs and hills. The force was splintered, small groups fighting for their lives. The scene was one of chaos.
The Anzac forces fought at Gallipoli for eight months, before they were evacuated over the 19th and 20th of December, 1915. In contrast to the rest of the campaign, the withdrawal was a stunning success, with almost no casualties. Overall, the campaign was considered a costly failure. Over 8,000 Australians were killed, over 2,500 New Zealand soldiers also died. The number of Anzac dead pales in comparison to the Turkish losses however - it is thought over 87,000 Turkish soldiers lost their lives.
The first Anzac Day ceremonies were held on the 25th of April, 1916. In that year, marches were held in Australian cities, as well as London. Those Anzacs who had returned marched, the injured carried in cars. In the 1920s, after The First World War had finished, it became a day to commemorate all those who had died in the war. It became entrenched as a national day of remembrance, and in 1927 it first became a national public holiday. Throughout the 1930s, more of the traditions that are part of Anzac Day today started, such as marches, dawn services, and the laying of wreaths. With the outbreak of The Second World War, Anzac Day became a day to honour Australians who have served and died in all wars.
"That is surely at the heart of the Anzac story, the Australian legend which emerged from the war. It is a legend not of sweeping military victories so much as triumphs against the odds, of courage and ingenuity in adversity. It is a legend of free and independent spirits whose discipline derived less from military formalities and customs than from the bonds of mateship and the demands of necessity."
Former Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Mr Paul Keating, at the Entombment of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial 1993
Anzac Day begins at dawn, around 4.30am, in the chill of an autumn morning. The dawn service occurs at the same time of day that Anzac forces landed at Anzac Cove, and is an incredibly moving, and solemn service. The sound of the Last Post, the only sound in the dark, is amazingly emotional and poignant.
Later in the morning, ex-servicemen and women march down the streets of Australia's cities and towns. Anzac Day is marked in some way in just about every town in the country - no area has not lost people in war. Most towns have some form of memorial, listing the names of those who served, and died. Flags fly at half mast. Men and women march under the banners of the units they fought and served in - these days it is not the injured who ride in cars, but those who are too old to march any longer. Still, any who are able to participate in some way, no matter their age, do. The marches conclude with services, with the Last Post played, before two minutes silence, broken by the playing of Reveille, and the reading of The Ode.
Anzac Day is not only a day of remembrance, it is also a day of celebration, and reunion. After the marches have concluded, RSL clubs around the country are filled with those who are catching up with the former members of their units, those they have fought with in the past. Games of two-up are a traditional activity.
The face of Anzac Day is changing as Australia enters the 21st Century. Each year, fewer and fewer soldiers march, as their numbers grow older and pass away. Fear has been expressed by some, that as those who fought in wars die, the relevance of Anzac Day will be diminished, and newer generations will forget its importance. However, Anzac Day crowds over recent years have reached record numbers, and Anzac Day appears to be in no danger of fading from importance. More and more, it is the grandchildren of those who are no longer able to march, who march in their place. Children take the medals that their grandfathers earned, and pin them on their own chests, marching proudly in the ranks of their former comrades. Parents line the streets with their kids, watching those marching past, explaining to them just why the day is so important. As long as they are able to learn of the sacrifices made on their behalf, recognise the importance of their deeds, Anzac Day should never fade into irrelevance.
Every Anzac Day, The Ode is read. It is the fourth stanza of the poem, For the fallen, by Laurence Binyon. Four lines stand out in the minds of many Australians, and for me, these lines sum up the spirit of Anzac Day.
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.
Anzac Day is nearing conclusion for 2003. This year is the first ever that no Veteran of the original Gallipoli landings has marched in commeration ceremonies.
Hundreds of thousands of people turned up to mark the day, tens of thousands waking before dawns first light, to attend dawn services.
Although they number less each year, Australia's war veterans can rest assured that their sacrifice will never be forgotten.