Australia's National Day of Commemoration for the Anzacs

Anzac Day

On 25 April, Australians will turn out in their thousands to pay tribute to those who have served the country in times of war. April 25th is known as Anzac Day in Australia. It is a public holiday and a day when Australians remember the men and women who have sacrificed their lives for their fellow countrymen. It is arguably Australia's most important national day.

ANZAC is an acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought during World War I. Soldiers in these forces soon became known as ANZACs.

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When World War I was over, Anzac Day became a national day of commemoration. Nearly 59,000 Australians died during the war. It was thought that Anzac Day might die a natural death as World War I veterans passed on but instead there are ever increasing numbers attending Dawn Services. Thousands more attend services later in the day. Street marches include ex-servicemen and women, children wearing their parents' medals, and convoys of cars carrying the disabled and very old. Anzac Day services are held in every capital city and almost every tiny country town.

These small towns have memorials bearing perhaps twenty or thirty names, many sharing a surname - brothers, uncles, cousins - and representing the greater part of the young men of the district.

Over the years, the Dawn Service has become highly significant and each year thousands of men, women and children come silently to reflect and pay their respects. They will come quietly at an early hour, rugged against the cold, walking silently to take their place before the monuments and pay their respects.

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From Mt Clarence in Albany they will watch the first rays of the sun light the memorial to the Desert Mounted Corps. Mount Clarence would have been the last sight of Australia for many of the troops who left in ships from Princess Royal Harbour. Rather than send ships on a long and perilous journey to the Middle East from the eastern ports of Australia, troops were transported overland to Albany.

In tiny Mulallyup a handful of people will gather in the early morning mist, just as reverently, to honour the young men of the district who never returned home.

Thirty-eight percent of the total male population (aged 18 to 44) of Australia enlisted for service in World War I. Nearly 59,000 were killed and 166,811 wounded. The Australian casualty rate, almost 65%, was the highest of the war.

Anzac Day was once concerned only with World War I veterans. After the Great War (World War II), the day gained a greater significance. Today Anzac Day commemorates all those who have fought overseas and at home, in Korea, Vietnam and now in the Middle East. The street marches which take place later in the day will include soldiers from all countries with many appearing in their national dress.

Far from dying a natural death, the services on Anzac Day is now attended by more and more people as parents pass on to their children the knowledge of the debt we owe to the armed services. Thousands more Australians travel overseas to Anzac Day services held at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, Anzac Cove, Villers Bretonneux and other places.

Australia had been a federal commonwealth for only 13 years when its young men volunteered in their thousands to go overseas and fight beside the motherland, Great Britain, and her allies, France and Russia, against an increasingly powerful Germany. When Britain declared war, all members of the British Empire moved forward to help.

Recruiting centres were set up in Australia within days. Australia pledged 20,000 men and raised a new army which was called the Australian Imperial Force. By the end of the war, 416,809 Australians would enlist.

Young Australian men could not get to the recruiting centres quick enough, looking forward to the excitement and adventure they believed would follow. 'It would all be over by Christmas' was the belief of the common people. Many raised their ages so that they could go overseas and be part of a great adventure. John Simpson Kirkpatrick signed on as 'John Simpson' as he had absconded from the Merchant Navy and thought he might not be able to enlist if the authorities found out.

Young men and women were not the only ones to sacrifice their lives. During World War I seventy thousand horses were killed in the Middle East during the conflict. The horses were transported by ship. Because of the dreadful conditions below deck, many succumbed on the way. They suffered from thirst and hunger in Egypt and, at the end of the war, only one was brought home.

In late October 1915, the Australians were joined by the New Zealanders to form the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. They sailed to Egypt, where they spent four and a half months in training near the pyramids. Turkey had joined with Germany in the war.

The Anzacs, together with British and French soldiers, were to land at Gallipoli and break through the Turkish lines on their way to capturing Constantinople (now Istanbul). On 25 April 1915 the Anzacs were dropped in the shallows just off the beach. Many never even made it to the beach. Those that did gained a tenuous grasp on the steep slopes. There was little cover and the forces could make little headway up the rocky slopes that were covered with thorny scrub. Stretcher-bearers would risk their own lives to retrieve the wounded from the battle-field.

It was truly a baptism of fire. The Turks met them with fierce resistance. The allies were unable to break through the Turkish lines and the Turks were unable to force the allied troops off the peninsula. The stalemate which followed lasted until the middle of December. Later a British Royal Commission would find that the risk of failure at Gallipoli far outweighed the chances of success.

The whole event was an absolute debacle. The most successful operation at Gallipoli was the evacuation of the entire force under cover of darkness. The evacuation was completed by 20 December 1915. On 9 January 1916, the Turks carried out their last offensive only to find that the entire enemy force had been withdrawn virtually without casualty. Both sides had endured great hardship and loss of life.

The Anzacs lost 8,000 soldiers at Gallipoli. Another 18,000 were wounded. New Zealand lost 62% of its fighting force. Later the Anzacs would serve in Palestine and on the western front in France.

Although the campaign failed as a military action, the event was seen as the day Australia grew up, taking her place as a fully-fledged nation. Her young men, sacrificed at so high a price, had shown Australia was no longer a convict colony but a nation worthy of the name.

In 1916, April 25th was officially named Anzac Day. Since then, every year Australians and others gather to pay tribute to the soldiers who have fought for the freedom of their own countries and those of their allies.