How Anzac Day came to occupy a sacred place in Australians’ hearts

Australians are deeply attached to the cluster of beliefs and traditions we call the ‘Anzac legend’. Shutterstock

Australia is spending the extraordinary amount of A$562 million commemorating the centenary of the first world war between 2014 and 2018 — far more than any other nation, including the major combatants. This is compelling proof we are very attached to the cluster of beliefs and traditions we call the “Anzac legend”.

While we identify Anzac as one of the most prized components of the Australian identity in 2017, that has not always been the case. The values we associate with Anzac today – mateship, sacrifice, the birth of the nation – are not necessarily the qualities that would have come to mind for an Australian of the 1920s.

And if you asked a university student in the 1970s what they thought about Anzac, they might well have told you that it was an old-fashioned idea that glorified war; the sooner it was forgotten, the better.

The Anzac legend has an often-controversial history. That history began almost as soon as news of the dawn landing of the Anzac troops at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 reached Australian shores.

Newspaper editors, politicians and leaders of the church readily proclaimed the charge up the cliffs into Turkish fire to be Australia’s “baptism of fire” and “the birth of the nation”.

Australian soldiers and their dugouts built on the hillside overlooking the landing area at Gallipoli. Australian War Memorial

The more obvious occasion for Australia’s national birth — the peaceful act of federation on January 1, 1901 – lacked the bloody appeal of Gallipoli. The Australian nation was created during the age of “New Imperialism”, when the empires of Europe were engaged in furious competition for colonial outposts and the resources and markets they would bring.

It was a contest that led in 1914 to the outbreak of the first world war. According to the chest-beating nationalism that accompanied and justified this imperial jostling, war was the truest test of the character of men and nations.

Australians felt especially keenly their lack of bloody initiation (the frontier wars with Aboriginal peoples did not count), given our penal past. A good showing in battle would expunge the convict stain and prove us worthy members of the British race.

Even the radical poet Henry Lawson favoured war as the national midwife over peaceful federation. “We boast no more of our bloodless flag, that rose from a nation’s slime,” he wrote in The Star of Australasia. Instead, Lawson forewarned:

The Star of the South shall rise, in the lurid clouds of war.

The earliest version of the Anzac legend reflected the society from which it sprung. It sought both to distinguish Australians from Britons and earn their approval. Thus, the original Anzac legend emphasised the fighting ability of the Australian soldiers, and their national distinctiveness.

Unlike the English, we were laconic and egalitarian. We didn’t stand on ceremonies like saluting and parading, but when it came to battle we were second to none. None of these comparisons with Britain indicated disloyalty to the “mother country”. One of the tenets of Anzac commemoration remained our continuing devotion to King and Empire.

The Anzac legend became an important addition to the Australian identity during the 1920s and 1930s, but it would be wrong to assume that it enjoyed the celebratory connotations it does today.

Anzac commemoration had natural constraints. Sixty thousand Australians were killed in the war, and 160,000 were recorded officially as wounded. Australians felt immense pride in the achievements of their soldiers, but that pride was tethered to the grief of those who had witnessed first-hand the devastating effect of war.

Along with the deep attachment to our British heritage, female subservience and sexual abstinence, the Anzac legend was one of the foundation stones of Australian society that was upturned by the generation that grew to maturity in the 1960s.

Alan Seymour’s 1958 play, The One Day of the Year, notoriously condemned Anzac Day as a day of “bloody wastefulness” perpetuated year after year by a “screaming tribe of great, stupid, drunken, vicious, bigoted no-hopers”.

The unpopularity of the Vietnam War from the mid-1960s greatly exacerbated anti-Anzac feeling. Later, in the 1970s and early 1980s, feminist protesters targeted Anzac Day, condemning the rape of women in war. For many among the baby-boomer generation, war commemoration had become indistinguishable from the glorification of war.

Myths and legends always reflect the societies in which they exist. So, we have seen the Anzac legend bend and sway to accommodate our contemporary concerns with diversity and inclusiveness. Women and non-Anglo Australians have been increasingly drawn into the Anzac tent.

The extent to which Aboriginal Australians have both sought and been invited to participate has been one of the noticeable trends of the Anzac centenary commemorations. Tom Wright’s play Black Diggers has toured the country, telling the story of a group of Aboriginal soldiers who fought loyally for Australia, only to be relegated to their lowly status after they returned.

Monuments to British and Australian army forces in Gallipoli in Canakkale, Turkey. Shutterstock

As the centenary of the Gallipoli landing loomed in 2015, it looked as if Anzac was becoming the kind of commercially driven carnival that Easter and Christmas have morphed into.

Canny business people knew a cash cow when they saw one. There were Gallipoli cruises, camps and concerts. Men’s magazines and merchandisers peddled Anzac porn (before the Department of Veterans’ Affairs shut them down). We even had Gallipoli the Musical.

The most notorious of the “Brandzac” ventures was Woolworths’ “Fresh in our Memories” campaign — a public relations disaster for the ages. Leading up to Anzac Day in 2015, Woolworths encouraged people to post images of those who had been affected by war. At the bottom of the images, Woolworths’ picture generator inserted the slogan “Fresh in Our Memories” and the company’s logo.

The blatant commercial motive drew an immediate social media backlash, including a rash of satirical memes.

Woolworths’ blunder was a symptom of a bigger problem. Perhaps the public appetite for Anzac had been overestimated. Amid rumblings about Gallipoli fatigue, Channels Seven and Nine scaled back their plans for coverage of the dawn service in Gallipoli. Lee Kernaghan’s “Spirit of the Anzacs” arena spectacular was cancelled due to poor ticket sales.

Channel Nine’s seven-part TV series, Gallipoli — predicted to be the “biggest show on television” in 2015 by network head David Gyngell — was a spectacular ratings flop, despite critical acclaim. Foxtel’s excellent Deadline Gallipoli, starring Sam Worthington, also failed to fire.

Anzac commemoration has been noticeably more muted since 2015. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is less ready than his predecessor Tony Abbott to exalt the Anzacs and prime the nationalist pump. Like his son-in-law and former army captain, James Brown, who criticised our “Anzac obsession” in his book Anzac’s Long Shadow, Turnbull prefers to emphasise the service and well-being of contemporary military personnel and veterans.

Criticisms of the Anzac excess from commentators including historian Marilyn Lake, co-author of What’s Wrong with Anzac?, and David Stephens at the Honest History group have arguably helped to temper the more exuberant rhetoric of politicians and ambitions of cynical commercial interests. Stephens has recently co-edited The Honest History Book, which argues that:

Australia is more than Anzac – and always has been.

While Australians no longer blink an eye at the rampant commercialisation of Easter and Christmas, we have drawn the line at allowing Anzac to be surrendered to the profit gods. Does this mean that Anzac is more sacred to Australians than the Christian traditions of Easter and Christmas?

With its invocations to suffering and sacrifice, its quasi-worship of long-deceased young men and its solemn dawn service rites, Anzac commemoration shares many of the elements of conventional religion.

The historian Ken Inglis wondered as long ago as 1960 whether Anzac functioned as a secular religion in Australian society. In 2017, I think we can confidently answer: yes, it does.