From raw colonial troops to the legendary Anzac spirit – the history and importance of remembering those who fought.
Gallipoli – a bloody defeat that forged nations
The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the Anzacs) was formed in Egypt in December 1914 under the command of General William Birdwood. It was diverted from its intended Western Front destination to assist in the defence of the Suez Canal. A vital shipping link, the Canal was threatened by the bordering Turkish Ottoman Empire that had entered the war on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in November 1914. The Corps then became part of the Allied Expeditionary Force that invaded the Gallipoli Peninsula. The invasion was meant to open access to the Dardanelles and allow the force to march on Constantinople.
Anzac Day, 25 April, is perhaps now Australia and New Zealand’s principal day of remembrance, the anniversary of the day of the landing at Gallipoli, the first important engagement fought by the Anzacs in World War I. Anzac Day commemorations were held the following year, on 25 April 1916, and for the rest of the war there were rallies and recruiting campaigns in most cities on that date.
There is ongoing debate that due to an error, the Anzac troops were taken to the wrong beach, a mile away from the planned landing place and where the terrain was impenetrable. The fighting became deadlocked and dragged on for eight months.
By the end of 1915, when the remaining forces were evacuated, more than 44,000 Allied soldiers, of whom over 8,700 were Australian and 2,700 New Zealanders, had perished as well as 87,000 Turks. News of the deaths of officers took about six weeks to be reported at home, but the names of the other ranks killed took far longer leaving families in anguish.
Despite the military defeat at Gallipoli, Australia and New Zealand found nation-defining meaning in the carnage. In 1914, Australia’s population was less than five million. More than 400,000 Australians volunteered to fight and some 60,000 died. New Zealand’s population was only 1.1 million, of whom 100,000 enlisted and some 18,000 perished.
The Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross, conceived by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in the Crimean War is the highest British award for valour, cast from captured Russian and Chinese cannons. It is awarded for gallantry, ‘in the face of the enemy’ to members of the British armed forces and may be awarded posthumously. It was awarded to 14 Anzacs who were veterans of the Gallipoli campaign. Only 1,358 Victoria Crosses have been awarded since 1856.
Commendations and Heroes
In New Zealand, a memorial to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first leader of the Republic of Turkey, has been erected on a ridge resembling the Gallipoli Peninsula on the south coast of Wellington. The Atatürk memorial was New Zealand’s response to the Turkish government building a commemorative site at Anzac Cove.
Australia and New Zealand’s real contribution to the Great War, which has perhaps never been fully acknowledged by Britain or the US, was their six divisions in France. These divisions became one of the finest and most feared fighting forces on the Western Front.
In command of the New Zealand division was Major General Sir Andrew Hamilton Russell, an outstanding man and a strict disciplinarian. New Zealand’s most renowned war heroes were General Lord Freyber, VC, outstanding in and between both world wars, and Captain Charles Upham VC & Bar – the only ‘combat’ soldier ever to win the VC twice – in WWII.
General Sir John Monash, who led the five Australian divisions, was born in Melbourne of Prussian-Jewish parents and believed in meticulous planning and the coordinated use of infantry, artillery, aircraft and tanks. “Feed your troops on victory,” he said. King George V knighted him on the battlefield at Chateau de Bertangles, which was the first time that a knighthood had been awarded on the battlefield in 200 years.
Some historians believe that the Armistice, rather than surrender, after WWI was an error. An acknowledged defeat, rather than an Armistice (agreed truce) might have made a difference to Hitler’s approach to the German people in the 1920s and 30s and may have been important to future generations. Sadly, that is mere speculation.
“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.”
From the poem For the Fallen by Lawrence Binyon
Anzac Day – post World War II
Immediately following World War II, Anzac Day was celebrated as a very military remembrance, which was well attended and fresh in the minds of returned service personnel and their families. Then interest and participation waned following the anti-Vietnam movement. However, since the 1970s and ‘80s public interest has been steadily increasing and most Australian and New Zealand towns and villages with their own cenotaph now honour Anzac Day with well attended events.
All Australians and New Zealanders who died or served in WWI and WWII plus all military, police actions (Korea) and peacekeeping operations, as well as our serving personnel, are commemorated on this national day of remembrance to reflect on the sacrifice of our service men and women.
By Clare Wadsworth – Clare lives in France and is proficient at French-English-French translations. She has diverse experience in proofreading, editing, letter writing, clippings service and itineraries.