Anzac Day Commemoration Speech
Given to the Indianapolis Australian Society
Indianapolis, Indiana
April 29, 2006

By Dr. David M. Hart

David Hart was born and raised in Sydney, Australia. He has the following degrees in history: B.A. (Hons) Macquarie, M.A. Stanford, PhD King’s College, Cambridge, and taught in the Department of History at the University of Adelaide for 15 years. His areas of interest are the intellectual and cultural history of war, history and film, and early 19th French political and economic thought. He now resides in Indianapolis where he works for a non-profit educational foundation.


I’d like to welcome you all to this Anzac Day commemoration on the 91st anniversary of the landing of British, French, Australian, New Zealand, and other nations’ troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now Turkey on 25th April 1915.

The Turks call the Gallipoli peninsula “Gelibolu.”

91 years is a long time ago and so it is not surprising that the last veteran of that campaign, Alex Campbell, passed away in Tasmania in May 2002. With his passing we have lost the last living contact with those events. All we have now is history and the traditions of rememberance which have been passed down to us to help us try to understand what happened so long ago.

As an Australian national and as an historian who is interested in the history of war, I would like to share with you my thoughts on why I think Anzac Day is important and to reflect on what it has meant to generations of Australians. I would like to begin by sketching some historical background to the Gallipoli campaign before turning to how the event of Anzac Day first emerged and how it has evolved over time to become one of Australia’s most important national days.

The Historical Anzac Day of 25 April, 1915.

For those of you who weren’t paying attention in your high school history class, let me remind you of some of the key events of 1914-1915 which led up to the invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula on the Aegean coast of Turkey on 25th April 1915.

War broke out in August 1914 between, on the one hand, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey and its territories in what is now the Middle East), and, on the other hand, the French Empire, the British Empire, and the Russian Empire. The trigger for the war was the assassination of the archduke of Austria by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. Secret treaties which linked the various blocs of empires together eventually drew them all into a war, the catastrophic consequences of which none of them could have imagined.

What might have remained just another war in the Balkans rapidly turned, first into a European-wide war between the so-called Great Powers, and then into the first “world war” as the European Empires called for support from their colonies – France calling upon its colonies in Africa (1,000s of Senegalese also fought in the Gallipoli campaign), and Britain upon its colonies in India, Australia and New Zealand.

When the “war to end all wars” did not end as expected by Christmas 1914, war planners turned to more grandiose schemes. Winston Churchill, the First Sea Lord of the British Navy, concocted a plan of “shock and awe” to quickly knock the Ottoman Empire (“the Turks”) out of the war, so the British Navy could control the Black Sea and thus supply their ally the Russian Empire with troops and materiel. This would force the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires to fight a difficult two front war and force them to an early capitulation.

But the arrogance and incompetence of the war planners made this strategy fail. They overestimated their own technological and cultural superiority and underestimated the ability and willingness to fight of their Muslim enemy. Instead of being owerawed by the might of the British Navy the Turks were able to sink 3 ships with mines and cripple 3 others. Instead of calling off the invasion, the British and French insisted on carrying out their plans, assuming the Turks would fold and run when confronted by armies of the two greatest European imperial powers. This foolishness was compounded by the incompetence of the invasion when, for example, Australian troops were landed at the wrong beach; not landing on an open shoreline but facing steep and rocky cliffs where Turkish machine guns could fire at them at will. Once the Turks were able to get organised, they resisted all attempts by the British and French forces, and their colonial allies, to move further inland for 8 horrible months. The end result was their humiliating defeat and retreat at the hands of a vastly underestimated enemy who were vigorously defending their own homeland from invasion.

What were the costs in human lives of this folly? Of the 1/2 million men who served in the British and French imperial armies the following casualties were recorded:

Dead Wounded
British 21,255 73,485
French 10,000 27,000
Australia 8,709 19,441
NZ 2,701 4,752
India 1,358

I don’t know how many Turks served in the campaign, but about 86,000 died and an unknown number wounded (probably 2-3 times as many who died).

Altogether about 130,000 men died and about 250,000 were wounded in the Gallipoli campaign.

What can one say about the impact this campaign had on the men who were involved? On the Turkish side, there was a growing pride in themselves as a nation that they could resist the invading forces of 2 of the greatest European powers and their colonial allies. Although the Ottoman Empire eventually lost the war, modern Turkey emerged from the ruins of the Empire and the nationalist Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state who had served in the Gallipoli campaign, drew upon this growing Turkish nationalism during the 1920s.

The Anzac soldiers who served in the Gallipoli campaign went to war ready and willing to fight for the British Empire (of which they felt very much a part) as well as to demonstrate to the world their newly forged nationalism for the Commonwealth of Australia which had been proclaimed on 1st January, 1901. Their first “test as a nation” ended in humiliating defeat, so they sought meaning in what they had suffered in a way very different from most other nations. Instead of seeing heroism in military valour and victory, the Anzacs found heroism in the day-to-day endurance of ordinary soldiers who faced impossible circumstances for 8 months – coping with the lack of water and supplies, enduring an epidemic of dysentery, clinging to a steep cliff face under machine gun fire, taking risks to rescue injured comrades on the battle field (like the legendary Simpson and his donkey), and maintaining a sense of humour in these extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

It says a lot about the Australian character that one of our most important national days, Anzac Day (which can be compared to a combination of the American Memorial Day and July 4th), symbolizes a catastrophic military defeat, a very different notion of heroism, and a very different attitude towards military authority.

Yet this was only a foretaste of what was to come in the remaining years of WW1. Most of the survivors of the Gallipoli campaign were sent to the Western Front where even bloodier and more murderous battles were to be fought: the battle of Verdun (Feb-June 1916 – 300,000 French and 300,000 German dead and injured); the battle of the Somme (June-Nov 1916 – 415,000 British and 650,000 Germans); the 3rd battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) (July-Nov 1917 – 260,000 British).

Total deaths for WW1 amounted to about 9-10 million people – a staggering number until WW2 eclipsed this figure. Of this, about 60,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders died. It seems a relatively small figure until one compares it to the total size of these countries’ population. In the case of Australia, 60,000 soldiers were killed out of a total population of 5 million. For New Zealand, 18,000 were killed out of a population of less than 1 million. To compare this to the American experience, 58,000 Americans were killed during the Vietnam War out of a population of around 200 million (in comparison, 2-3 million Indochinese died). The Australian death rate as a percentage of the total population in WW1 would translate to about 1.2 million dead Americans for the Vietnam War (this is twice the number of Americans who died in the Civil War).

This might help explain why, when one drives across Australia, one comes across in every small country town a memorial or cenotaph built during the 1920s to commemorate the dead who had come from that locality and had travelled half way across the world to fight for King and Empire.

Then there is the bigger picture of what resulted from the 4 1/2 years of conflict of WW1. We see the defeat and collapse of the Russian Empire, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. This leads to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the rise of communism in Russia; the punitive Versailles Treaty and the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany; the division of the territories of the Ottoman Empire by the French and British Empires which lays the groundwork for 80 or more years of conflict in the Middle East. It then takes another world war to bankrupt the French and British Empires which leads to their ultimate demise, but only after Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany fight a war to the death which results in the deaths of 50-60 million people.

The Many different Anzac Days

On the other side of the world, how do the soldiers who survived WW1 and the other 5 million Aussies make sense of this mass, industrialised killing and the extraordinary political and social upheavals which followed in its wake? Two of the most common immediate reactions to the suffering of war are grieving for the dead and trying to forget. As time passes, other forces come into effect which influence our attitude to past wars: the waxing and waning of nationalism, the political organization of veterans or “returned servicemen” who want medical and other benefits, the preparations for new wars, the vested interests of the professional military and the industries which supply them with weaponry, popular opposition to wars (such as the Vietnam War), and the inevitable passing away of the men who actually fought in these conflicts.

The first Anzac Day commemoration, although it was not called that at the time, took place in 1916, one year after the invasion force landed on the Gallipoli peninsula, by injured Anzacs who had been repatriated to recover from their injuries. They had no official support from the Australian government which was preoccupied with fighting the war on the Western Front and which was perhaps embarrassed by the humiliating defeat. But they did get support from local officials who encouraged school children to join the Anzacs. Gradually this grew into a grass roots movement from below to put pressure on the government to recognize Anzac soldiers with a formal public holiday. This was first achieved in New Zealand in 1921 and the Australian states followed later in the same year.

The modern form of the Anzac Day ritual began in 1923 when, in Albany Western Australia, the first dawn service on Anzac Day was held. This gradually evolved into the “traditional” dawn service, march past by returned servicemen (veterans), speeches by serving senior officers, social functions at pubs and RSL clubs (Returned Servicemen League), the inevitable “two up” game, and Rugby League or AFL football match.

Anzac Day got much greater official recognition with the building of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 1927. The impetus came from the war journalist Charles Bean who had reported from Gallipoli, collected letters and diaries of the soldiers, along with other memorabilia, and had lobbied the Federal government to build an official monument to the war dead.

The second major development in the Anzac Day tradition took place after WW2 when 100,000s of new Australian war veterans returned to add their numbers to WW1 veterans in the April 25 march pasts. There was a strong move to link the veterans of both World Wars in the common tradition of the Anzacs and the Diggers. Both generations could be seen as continuing a common Australian tradition of fighting in defence of the British Empire and for national pride.

The most serious challenge to the Anzac Day tradition came during the Vietnam War when popular protests against the war and conscription were transferred to Anzac Day itself. Participation in the official march pasts and popular attendance on the footpaths and streets along the march route fell steadily as younger Australians challenged their father’s faith in patriotism, their support for America, and the morality of unquestioning obedience to the government in time of war.

The latest incarnation of Anzac Day has developed over the past 10-15 years during which time there has been a popular rediscovery of the importance of Anzac Day. It seems that younger Australians have a new form of patriotism which drives them to make a pilgrimage to Anzac Cove during March and April, or what the Turks calls the “Gallipoli season”. They want to explore the meaning of a day which used to have such importance for their grandparents; they are curious about an aspect of Australian history which they vaguely remember from their high school days but which they feel wasn’t properly taught and whose overall significance escapes them; they also understand that they have never been called upon to fight for their country as their ancestors were and don’t quite understand, in this time of internationalism and globalisation, why they went so willing to fight so far away from home. Perhaps these younger Australians feel that going to Anzac Cove might provide them with some answers to these important questions.


Given all these powerful historical forces, it is not surprising that there is not one “Anzac Day” but many “Anzac Days” which we might celebrate, reflecting the balance of forces between all these conflicting interests over past and present wars.

At certain times in history, there has been:

  • the solemn, “remembrance” Anzac Day when the dead and injured are commemorated – the dawn service, the recitation of the names of the dead, the recitation of poems such as “For the Fallen”;
  • then there is the “patriotic” Anzac Day when the vitality of the nation is celebrated by the willingness of its citizens to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the state;
  • then there is the “militaristic” Anzac Day when we are told that the discipline and order of the military make “men” out of boys and when the heat of battle turns a people into a nation;
  • then there is the “anti-war” Anzac day, as during the years of the Vietnam War, when attendance at the ceremonies fell off in direct proportion as opposition to conscription and supporting the Americans grew;
  • and then there is the newest version of Anzac day, the Anzac Cove “pilgrimage”, which shows itself in the willingness of younger Australians to travel to Turkey for what the Turks call the “Gallipoli season”, to attend the dawn service on the spot as a kind of civic ritual.

I think that what makes Australia’s Anzac Day so unique compared to other nations’ war memorial or national days is the underlying historical significance of the day itself. Far from being a day of military victory, it marks the beginning of a campaign that ends in humiliating defeat, a series of battles in which both sides come to respect the courage and valour of the “enemy”, when heroism is seen as the capacity of the ordinary soldier to merely survive, a recognition that military leaders are sometimes incompetent and repeatedly send their men to senseless slaughter, and when self-deprecating humour and cynicism are the best way to preserve one’s sanity in an insane situation. Every time one is tempted to turn Anzac Day into merely the “patriotic” Anzac Day, or the “militaristic” Anzac Day, or the new “pilgrimage” Anzac Day, one is forced by the events of 91 years ago to see the complexity which history has bequeathed us. War is a giddy mixture of patriotism, imperialism, militarism, heroism, mateship, incompetence, criminality, stupidity, grieving, suffering, and hopelessness.

I don’t know what kind of Anzac Day you wish to commemorate today. I hope my remarks might have stimulated you to think about how complex the memory of the 25th April 1915 has been and continues to be 91 years after the event. There is no “right way” to remember this event, except perhaps the very act of remembering itself, and for that we need the study of history.

As the poem “For the Fallen” states:

“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.”