I hadn’t really known much about it till I arrived here, and to be honest, I still don’t. But here in New Zealand it’s the 98th anniversary of the arrival of troops at Gallipoli. They wear poppies and hold church services up and down the country. Shops are all closed, and it truly is a day of memorial. They also commemorate Remembrance day in November, but this is a nationwide commemoration that seems to be growing in scale.
Schools held services to remember the fallen last week (usually held on the day but not this year due to how the school holidays fall). It has been a moving experience. I was amazed to see in the museum in Auckland last October, exactly how many people from New Zealand fell in the world wars, and it was not even their war.
Lest we forget.
History behind Anzac day
Anzac Day occurs on 25 April. It commemorates all New Zealanders killed in war and also honours returned servicemen and women.
The date itself marks the anniversary of the landing of New Zealand and Australian soldiers – the Anzacs – on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. The aim was to capture the Dardanelles, the gateway to the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. At the end of the campaign, Gallipoli was still held by its Turkish defenders.
Thousands lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign: 87,000 Turks, 44,000 men from France and the British Empire, including 8500 Australians. To this day, Australia also marks the events of 25 April. Among the dead were 2721 New Zealanders, almost one in four of those who served on Gallipoli.
It may have led to a military defeat, but for many New Zealanders then and since, the Gallipoli landings meant the beginning of something else – a feeling that New Zealand had a role as a distinct nation, even as it fought on the other side of the world in the name of the British Empire.
Anzac Day was first marked in 1916. The day has gone through many changes since then. The ceremonies that are held at war memorials up and down New Zealand, or in places overseas where New Zealanders gather, remain rich in tradition and ritual befitting a military funeral.
The word Anzac is part of the culture of New Zealanders and Australians. People talk about the ‘spirit of Anzac’; there are Anzac biscuits, and rugby or rugby league teams from the two countries play an Anzac Day test. The word conjures up a shared heritage of two nations, but it also has a specific meaning.
Anzac is the acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. This corps was created early in the Great War of 1914–18. In December 1914 the Australian Imperial Force and New Zealand Expeditionary Force stationed in Egypt were placed under the command of Lieutenant General William Birdwood. Initially the term Australasian Corps was suggested, but Australians and New Zealanders were reluctant to lose their separate identities completely.
No one knows who came up with the term Anzac. It is likely that Sergeant K.M. Little, a clerk at Birdwood’s headquarters, thought of it for use on a rubber stamp: ‘ANZAC’ was convenient shorthand. Later the corps used it as their telegraph code word.
The Anzacs first saw action at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. The small cove where the Australian and New Zealand troops landed was quickly dubbed Anzac Cove. Soon the word was being used to describe all Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Eventually, it came to mean any Australian or New Zealand soldier.
There were two Anzac corps on the Western Front from 1916, with the New Zealand Division serving in II Australian and New Zealand Army Corps until early 1918. During the Sinai–Palestine campaign the combined Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division was more commonly called the Anzac Mounted Division.
The term continued into other wars. A new Anzac corps was briefly formed during the campaign in Greece in 1941. During the Vietnam War, New Zealand and Australian infantry companies combined to form the Anzac Battalion.