ANZAC day poppies

Your comprehensive guide to the history of ANZAC Day

On 25 April, people all over the world recognise ANZAC Day, but none more passionately than Australians and New Zealanders.

ANZAC Day is an international day of remembrance for the men and women who have given their lives for war and peacekeeping efforts, both past and present.

The tradition of ANZAC Day has lasted more than a century but veterans, current defence force troops, friends, families and those wishing to pay their respects still turn out for Dawn Services and ceremonies alike.

It’s important not to let the history of ANZACs and ANZAC Day fall by the wayside. Ahead of ANZAC Day 2019, we’ve put together a guide to the history of the event, explaining the backstories and traditions in further detail so the world can have a greater appreciation of the day.

Read on!

The spark that lit the ANZAC tradition 

ANZACs at Gallipoli

Image: Australian National University

ANZAC Day marks the anniversary of the first campaign fought by Australian and New Zealand soldiers in World War I.

In 1915, the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) joined the Allied expedition to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula in East Thrace, the European section of Turkey. The goal was to open the peninsula to the Black Sea so allied navies could access the area and capture Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

The ANZACs were supposed to land on Brighton Beach – an open area south of what’s now known of ANZAC Cove. However, somehow the troops landed at Sari Bair instead, known for its steep, tangled, scrubby slopes. The Turkish were prepared for their landing and the ANZACs were ambushed upon arrival.

Scholars have argued about the reasoning behind the ANZACs landing at Sari Bair. Some argue there was no miscommunication about the landing place. Others argue the ANZACs were never given a specific landing place – just an objective to capture Constantinople.

However, there are records stating the naval commander, Charles Dix, shouted “tell the colonel the damn fools have landed us a mile too far north” upon their arrival at dawn on 25 April, 1915.

Combat lasted for weeks until the 19 May. The initial battle cost the Ottoman Empire around 10,000 troops. Australia and New Zealand lost around 600 troops. A short armistice followed to allow for burial of the dead.

The ANZACs couldn’t move forward and the Turkish couldn’t drive the ANZACs into the sea, leading to a stalemate. No matter the reason behind the botched landing, the Gallipoli Campaign lasted eight long months and in the end, the Allied mission failed.

In the end, Allied deaths totalled 56,000 including 8,709 from Australia and 2,721 from New Zealand.

The history behind ANZAC Day 

ANZAC Day in London 1916

Image: Australian War Memorial

News of the botched landing at Gallipoli had a profound impact on families and citizens of both Australia and New Zealand. April 25 soon became ANZAC Day – an international occasion to remember the sacrifice made by the ANZACs who died in the war.

The first ANZAC Day commemorations were held in 1916. Ceremonies and services were held across the world. In London, more than 2,000 Australian and New Zealand troops marched through the streets and a London newspaper dubbed them “the knights of Gallipoli”.

Marches and services were held all over Australia. In Sydney, cars carried wounded soldiers and nurses through the march. Overseas, a sports day was organised for the Aussie soldiers camped in Egypt.

From 1916 until the end of the war in 1918, ANZAC Day also had a political purpose. Recruiters would use the patriotic spirit of ANZAC Day to enlist new soldiers to the war effort.

In the 1920s, ANZAC Day became a national day of commemoration for the 60,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers and nurses who died in the war. By 1927, every state and territory in Australia marked April 25 as a public holiday.

In the 1930s, dawn vigils, marches, memorial services, reunions and two-up games became an annual ritual to celebrate the lives of the ANZACs and remember their brave, patriotic and selfless spirits.

The ANZAC Day ceremonies and celebrations broadened following World War II. Memorials remained small throughout the 1940s due to the impending threat of Japanese bombers, but the ANZAC spirit still remained.

The theories behind the Dawn Service 

boy reaching out to ANZACs

Image: Australian War Memorial

ANZAC Day Dawn Services have become a national tradition throughout the world, from Australia to Turkey. War veterans, members of the current defence force, friends, families and patriotic Australians rise with the sun on April 25 each year to recognise the sacrifice ANZACs have made for us over the decades, from 1916 to the present.

While there’s no clear reason behind the dawn start to the ceremony, scholars have suggested the Dawn Service is observed because the half-light of dawn was one of the best times to launch an attack.

Soldiers in defensive positions and camps were often woken before dawn, so by the time the sun hit the battlefield, the men were alert and manning the weapons, prepared for battle if need be.

This is known as “stand-to”.

Veterans mentioned feeling an overwhelming sense of comradeship at dawn – sleep-deprived soldiers watching the sunrise in quiet and stillness over the battlefield.

The first Dawn Service was at the Sydney Cenotaph in 1927. It was restricted to veterans only. The ceremony was concluded with the Last Post, the bugle tune which signifies the end of the day or the “final post”. It represents a time for the soldiers to rest.

The state of ANZAC Day in 2019 

Dawn Services and ANZAC Day ceremonies are still held to this day, so the world can recognise the sacrifice ANZACs have made in war efforts since World War I. Now, however, we have more traditions than ever.

Along with the solemn ceremonies and moments of respectful silence, we also celebrate the Australian spirit:

#1. Red poppies. It is said that red poppies were the first flowers to bloom on the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium in World War I, despite all the bloodshed and violence. Soldiers at the front said the flowers got their striking red colour from the blood on the battlefield.

Now, poppies are worn on lapels on ANZAC Day and laid at the Australian War Memorial.

#2. Two-up. Head to a pub on ANZAC Day anywhere in Australia, you’ll find men and women alike having a schooner and playing a game of two-up for the ANZACs. Did you know, ANZAC Day is the only day legally you can play two-up?

The game involves a “spinner” flipping two coins and the players bet whether the coins will both land on heads, both on tails, or one heads and one tails. The ANZACs loved two-up during World War I. Check out our guide to the rules of two-up and get down to the pub!

#3. ANZAC biscuits. Contrary to popular belief, ANZAC biscuits weren’t commonly sent to the frontlines for the soldiers. Instead, ANZAC biscuits (otherwise known as “ANZAC crispies” or “soldiers biscuits”) were sold at fetes, galas and parades to raise money to support the war effort. Now, Australians and New Zealanders alike make ANZAC biscuits on ANZAC Day, or you can buy them in your local shop.

#4. ANZAC Day Match. In their downtime, ANZACs would entertain themselves with two-up and football. To celebrate their spirit, each year New South Wales holds the ANZAC Day Cup – National Rugby League match between the Sydney Roosters and the St. George Illawarra Dragons. The ANZAC Day Cup was introduced in 2002 to honour the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

Remember the ANZACs this year with Dee Why RSL Club 

On 26January 1937, 13 men gathered together to form a Dee Why and Collaroy Sub-Branch of the RSL. Staying true to our grassroots and values, we continue to organise and sponsor the ANZAC Day Dawn Service in the Northern Beaches, so locals can come together and celebrate the spirit of the ANZACs.

Join us at Ted Jackson Reserve at 5:15am on April 25. Afterwards, we’re offering a $6 breakfast of scrambled and fried eggs, bacon, sausages, grilled veggies, baked beans and toast, plus fresh fruit for a sweet treat.

All proceeds will support local veterans – plus, we’ve got two-up running from 12:00pm and live music from 2:00pm.

As always, remember the Ode:

“They shall not grow 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.”

Commemorate the history of ANZAC Day with Dee Why RSL on April 25. Join us to celebrate their spirit and sacrifice.