Tomorrow, April 25, is Anzac Day, which memorializes men and women of the armed forces of Australia and New Zealand who have lost their lives in military service. The name comes from ANZAC (the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), who fought for the British in World War I. These soldiers became known as “Anzacs,” and the name has endured.
The web site for the Australian War Memorial gives a good overview of the Anzac experience in World War I:
When war broke out in 1914 Australia had been a federated nation for only 13 years, and the new federal government was eager to establish its reputation among the nations of the world. When Britain declared war in August 1914 Australia was automatically placed on the side of the Commonwealth. In 1915 Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of the expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in order to open the Dardanelles to the allied navies. The ultimate objective was to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany.
The Australian and New Zealand forces landed on Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Turkish defenders. What had been planned as a bold stroke to knock Turkey out of the war quickly became a stalemate, and the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915 the allied forces were evacuated from the peninsula, with both sides having suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. More than 8,000 Australian soldiers had been killed. The Gallipoli campaign had a profound impact on Australians at home, and 25 April soon became the day on which Australians remembered the sacrifice of those who died in the war.
Although the Gallipoli campaign failed in its military objectives, the Australian and New Zealand actions during the campaign left us all a powerful legacy. The creation of what became known as the “Anzac legend” became an important part of the identity of both nations, shaping the ways they viewed both their past and their future.
In Australia, Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” memorialized the loss, although it’s not well-known in the US. (In a minor bit of heresy, I prefer the version by the Pogues).
Although Anzac Day was marked in 1916, a year after the landings at Gallipoli, the commemorations did not become officially recognized national memorials until the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, several traditions had been established in marking the day. In Australia, the day begins with the Dawn Service, which is about what it sounds like: a usually religious ceremony with a hymn, a prayer, two minutes of silence, and a bugle playing “Last Post,” which is analogous to the American “Taps”). Many people partake of “gunfire breakfast” (coffee and rum), which it is said soldiers would drink before battle to help build courage and calm nerves. At 10:15 a.m., a national ceremony is held at the Australian War Memorial.
I was first made aware of the Anzacs and the disastrous Gallipoli campaign when I was 16 years old. My friend and I went to see a movie (I don’t remember which one), but it was sold out. The other film showing that evening was “Gallipoli,” and from the posters we deduced it was a war film starring Mel Gibson, whom we had seen in “Mad Max.” So, we bought our tickets and walked in. When we left the theater, my friend said he felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. So did I. Years later, when I was teaching freshman composition at Brigham Young University, I showed the film to my classes as a way of introducing them to analyzing art and literature.
Director and co-writer Peter Weir (better known for directing such films as “Witness,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “The Truman Show”) uses the conventions of war movies and then turns them on their heads. The first half of the film is a typical coming-of-age buddy film, with the two leads (Gibson and Mark Lee) going through silly and humorous adventures in trying to join the cavalry, and then shipping out to Egypt for basic training. But with an ominous blast of a ship’s foghorn as it arrives in Anzac Cove, Turkey, the film shows us in unsparing detail the brutality and senselessness of war. The final shot of the film is indelibly etched in my brain. I remember several students at BYU leaving the classroom in tears, and some expressed anger that I would show something so brutal to them (keep in mind the film is rated PG, so it’s remarkable that Weir makes such an impression without being overly graphic).
It seems kind of pathetic to recommend a film to commemorate the pointless loss of so many lives, but it seems to me that it’s easy for me, at least, to become pretty detached from the horror and suffering that is everywhere in the world. I read about car bombs and mass executions and drone attacks, and because I don’t know the people involved, it doesn’t touch me as it should. I’ve never had a good friend or relative killed in military action. My dad’s stepfather was a career cook in the Air Force, serving in England in World War II and in Korea, and my father-in-law was a self-described “pencil pusher” in North Africa in World War II, where he was never in combat. I can’t imagine sending one of my sons off to war, let alone having them killed. But it happens all the time. Even in places where the United States is not supposed to be in combat, such as Afghanistan, our young men and women are still being killed.
War isn’t going to end anytime soon. It seems to be the default human condition to be in conflict with one another and will likely be so as long as our species survives. But days such as Anzac Day remind us that war is not something to be glorified or celebrated, and the numbers on the casualty lists represent real people with real lives lost. But we can and should remember and honor those who gave their lives for us.