ANZAC Day, 25 April, has been the date for over a century now when the people of New Zealand and Australia remember their sacrifices in various conflicts. What started as a day to remember the landing of soldiers at Gallipoli during the First World War has evolved into a multipurpose commemoration of all conflicts the two nations have shared in since. It has been described by some as having a greater standing among other public holidays, owing to the fact of its deeply personal meanings and connections to many in both nations, past and present.
However, ANZAC Day has not lacked debate and disagreements over its nature, despite the largely homogenized way it commemorates the fallen. Now that New Zealanders find themselves in mandatory isolation amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, it will be interesting to see how the day is remembered and celebrated as the usual gatherings are cancelled. I would like to offer some thoughts about how we might all remember ANZAC Day (or any other conflict commemorative day) in a way which is mindful of the spirit and purpose of it.
Before reflecting upon contemporary celebrations of ANZAC Day, it would be helpful to understand how it came about and appreciate its significance. As previously mentioned, it was the day in which soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps attempted to take control of positions from the Ottomans during the Gallipoli/Dardanelles Campaign of World War One. While this ultimately failed and became synonymous with the futility of war, people from both nations decided to hold individual remembrance services for the soldiers who were now properly involved in the fighting of the war.
According to the New Zealand History website, patriotic meetings, hymns, speeches, wreath laying, as well as a greater presence of returned servicemen after the Great War and their influence over the occasion, became what we now recognise as ANZAC Day. These remembrance ceremonies have all occurred around 25 April every year since, although this did not become officially recognised in both nations until after the war. Given the larger role both nations’ soldiers played in other parts of the war, it was also extended in meaning to commemorate the soldiers who served in conflicts beyond the Gallipoli Campaign.
Therefore, it now retroactively applies to the involvements of both nations in the Second Boer War, Second World War, Vietnam War, and other conflicts either nation has been involved in since. Understandably, this has led to criticisms over the commemoration of ANZAC Day as people have felt the inclusion of other conflicts warps the original lessons and sacrifices made during the First World War. As such, or when there have been other disruptive events preventing the celebration of the day, it has sometimes fallen out of favour or not been consistently observed over the past century.
Depending on your perspective, it may be strange to observe how ANZAC Day is now remembered in recent history. Many of the hallmarks remain intact, including the largely non-commercialized nature of the day. Past legislation, although initially wishy-washy in sorting out the holiday in New Zealand, is to thank for no one directly profiting from anything ANZAC related (except for the wartime hard biscuit). Sale of other symbols like the red poppies usually benefit services which assist returning servicepeople. All businesses are allowed to open in the afternoon. Additionally, should the day fall on a weekend, the holiday is ‘Mondayised’ in New Zealand. This is one of the ironies of what is considered to be an important day. It seems odd that holidays of a religious nature are afforded a day of rest, whereas a fairly recent historical date is not. This is especially so, given the large sacrifices that were made by our forefathers and the kinds of justifications as to why fighting these wars was necessary.
In the case of the First World War, one common justification for New Zealand’s involvement was to protect our country and Commonwealth. There is little evidence that should New Zealand have sat out the war there was much danger to be encountered. The closest adversarial territory was German Samoa which had little there to threaten the Pacific with. The consequences for not assisting our empire during the war were probably greater than any outside threat. Not that this was seriously considered, as New Zealanders and Australians at this time loyally followed Britain’s lead.
I would strongly argue here that more harm was done by Britain and her allies getting involved in the war over a technicality, something that bears out strongly in the casualties for New Zealand. Regardless, another argument for our involvement and remembrance of ANZAC day is that these sacrifices ensured our rights and freedoms for us future generations. Again, however, there is not enough widespread evidence that this was ever a motivating cause for fighting the Great War. Might it have crossed the minds and diaries of some men during the war? Possibly, but given the propaganda used by all sides during the war, it’s impossible to say that any great number of servicemen held this idea naturally. This is especially true when early recruitment methods, before conscription, focused on the “adventure” and assurance that the war would not last long. It did though and it created the conditions for a far worse Europe that lasted nearly a century and beyond.
I could continue to discuss misunderstandings and argue about the conflict which started this memorial day, however it is eventually more important to take ANZAC Day at its ‘tagline.’ We might not be forgetting about the occasion, but we would certainly not be remembering it in a great manner. I write this piece not as someone who is vehemently anti-war, but as someone too who has had ancestors perish in this ‘war to end all wars.’ Even without this pandemic preventing the usual traditions taking place, I would encourage anyone to learn all things Great War related. It might not only help someone understand the world we live in today but how similar at times we are, even only a century later, to the people back then. It is no good saying “lest we forget” for those who died, supposively for our way of life, if we take positions we ought not to or stand idly-by without objections when conflicts occur. It is far more patriotic to tell the truth and work things out peacefully than to make vain sacrifices, especially when we have had a clear example to learn from.
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