The history of Anzac Day: Australia and New Zealand's day of remembrance

An Australian soldier carrying a wounded comrade during the WWI, Dardanelles Campaign. 1915.
An Australian soldier carrying a wounded comrade during the WWI, Dardanelles Campaign. 1915 | Shutterstock

On the morning of the 25th of April 1915, a mixed battalion of Australian and New Zealand troops set out with the objective of capturing Constantinople, these days more familiar to us as Istanbul. Taking Constantinople would have dealt a severe blow to the Quadruple Alliance that, in addition to the Ottoman Empire, consisted of the Kingdom of Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and, of course, the German Empire.

But first, the Anzacs (which stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) had to secure the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Dardanelles to grant them access to Constantinople. The priority was to take out the enemy stationed on the coast. That was the idea, anyway.

The first wave of Anzacs arrived at dawn, slightly too far north of their intended landing zone where they were more vulnerable to Turkish firepower, and they quickly suffered casualties. It rapidly became clear that the plan to remove the Ottoman coastal defences and advance inland wasn’t working out. The Anzacs were forced to dig in and there, for all intents and purposes, they remained. For over ten months both sides fought, with both sides suffering heavy losses before the Anzacs were rescued by the Allies on the 9th of January 1916.

More than 130,000 men had died of which 44,000 were Allied soldiers, including more than 8700 Australians, 2779 New Zealanders and at least 87,000 Ottoman soldiers.

Up until this point, both Australia and New Zealand had been largely spared the horrors of modern-day warfare (though both had experienced colonial warfare in the previous century) and what would be known simply as ‘Gallipoli’ had a profound effect on the collective, national, conscious.

The first commemorations to recognise the Anzacs were held on April 25 1916, ceremonies were held all over Australia and, in London, 2,000 Australian and New Zealand troops marched through the streets. During the 1920s, Anzac Day became a public holiday with ceremonial services at dawn in recognition of the time the Corps landed at Gallipoli.

By the 1930s, Anzac Day was commonplace alongside formal commemorative ceremonies at war memorials and, gradually, it began to take into account the fallen Anzacs of 1941 who perished when serving in the Battle of Greece during the Second World War. Today it’s an occasion to remember all the Anzac personnel who have died in any given conflict, whether that be warfare or peacekeeping mission, since 1916.

In addition to the services, memorials and parades, food plays an important role in Anzac Day too. Sprigs of rosemary are worn to symbolize the Anzac’s on Remembrance Day, the aromatic herb grows wild on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, but it's the Anzac Biscuit that has come to play a particularly important role in the commemorations.

Formerly called the Soldiers Biscuit, the Anzac Biscuit is legally marketed in Australia using the word ‘Anzac’ (which is protected by Federal Legislation) which gives a good indication of how highly its regarded. Made of oats, sugar, flour, coconut, butter and golden syrup or treacle this tasty, nutritious, biscuit was traditionally sent to the stranded troops at Gallipoli by their families, making it much more than just a treat that wouldn't spoil on the long voyage from home to the frontline

On the one hand, we can see this simple biscuit as something that brought joy to the young soldiers, even if it was a fleeting moment of pleasure. But we can also see the biscuit as a symbol of love, of comfort, because, for a short while at least, in the midst of warfare, the soldiers in the Dardanelles would be briefly connected with their families over 8000 miles away with a small, simple gesture that, at the time, would have meant the world.