The enigma of ANZAC Day

Australian, New Zealand and Turkish flags fly over ANZAC Cove.
Australian, New Zealand and Turkish flags fly over ANZAC Cove.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ANZAC Day and what it means. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of things that bother me about the way we commemorate ANZAC Day. I feel compelled to ask ‘what does ANZAC Day mean in 2015 and beyond?’; ‘is the 2015 commemoration different because of the centenary?’ This is followed by the natural compulsion to evaluate how adequate and appropriate these meanings are.

Yesterday I visited Bondi for the very first time. I work all day Saturdays so I will unashamedly admit that I was excited to have a day off thanks to the ANZAC Day public holiday. I was being a good passenger and looking out for a parking space when I was distracted by a house with three flags draped over its balcony. Yes there was an Australian flag (no surprises there) but it was flanked by (no pun intended) a New Zealand and Turkish flag. It was refreshing to see ‘ordinary people’ understand and demonstrate a more balanced view of what ANZAC Day means. It was also very different to what I was accustomed to. I was born and raised in the Sutherland Shire so ‘naturally’ I spent a lot of time in and around Cronulla. Me and my friends would frequently walk to and fro along the Esplanade where Australian flags hover in your periphery vision at all times. The use of Australian flags became more ubiquitous and was charged with extra meaning on Australia Day particularly that of 2005.

The ‘Gallipoli fixation’

It has been over a decade since I was in high school. During that time the history curriculum has changed a lot. But what alarms me is the overemphasis on Gallipoli. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until I started to study Australian history at university that I learnt that Gallipoli was a military failure and that it wasn’t the only place we fought in World War One. Only a few years ago I was languishing at home half watching the ANZAC Day coverage on TV. I had seen the Sydney ANZAC Day march and the Dawn Service at ANZAC Cove. But that year I kept watching and my attention was caught by what sounded like French over the PR system. Intrigued I paused and sat on the couch where I realised that they were showing a commemoration ceremony in France. What did this have to do with ANZAC Day? I now know that this was the dawn service at Villers Bretonneux. I had no idea that Australians fought on the Western Front. All I had been taught and had heard about since were our ‘exploits’ at Gallipoli which were likened to the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae. If you can’t tell already I find this very concerning and frustrating. If such misconceptions were held in the mind of someone who is engaged in history what is going on in the minds of people who aren’t?!

Unlike most of the other countries who were involved in World War One, we choose to commemorate ANZAC Day more than Remembrance Day. It’s pretty simple. It comes down to the fact that ANZAC Day coincides with the landing of the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli. This is where the ‘Gallipoli fixation’ originates. But this is only the beginning of the story. I had the privilege of teaching most of my lessons for Australians at War from the perspective of the Australian contribution to the campaigns on the Western Front. My master teacher had done only a couple of lessons looking at Gallipoli and breaking down the ANZAC myth thereby allowing me to focus on the leadership of Sir General John Monash and the breakthroughs achieved by Australian soldiers away from Gallipoli.

What ANZAC Day IS (should be) 

First and foremost ANZAC Day is about remembering those who have died whilst serving and protecting our nation. Thankfully, this is yet to (and hopefully never will) be lost in the way we commemorate ANZAC Day. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the following. ANZAC Day is also about recognising and reflecting on the actions of all of those who served including those that lived to tell the tale. This means a greater appreciation of how we treat veterans and their families. It also means understanding the multicultural nature of Australian servicemen and women particularly the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It also means a greater appreciation of the contributions of those on the home front whose service goes too often unnoticed. I could go on, but I won’t because (hopefully) you get the idea.

What ANZAC Day ISN’T (shouldn’t be)

*braces self for backlash* Hold that thought (and/or object) and hear me out for a minute I entreat you. To soften the blow let me begin by saying that I don’t think the things I am about to mention shouldn’t be a part of ANZAC Day. Rather, I’m saying that they shouldn’t receive so much focus at the expense of more significant things.

ANZAC Day is about commemoration NOT celebration. There is a subtle but significant difference between the two (ahh semantics we meet again). Take ANZAC Day sporting matches. Australians have a unique relationship with sport. As a devout netball nut I am not immune. But as a whole Australians often take it way too far. If you hadn’t met her by now, let me introduce you to my cynical (or realistic) side. The terminology used for ANZAC Day ‘clashes’ ‘blockbusters’ etc is inappropriate and is (nowadays) more about tokenistic commercialisation than commemoration. When you read or listen to what returned service people say about how they and their fallen comrades would like to be remembered things like playing two-up and drinking copious amounts of alcohol whilst watching copious amounts of sport are not on their list. Rather they are on their list of things they dislike about the way we ‘do’ ANZAC Day. Finally, Australia was not born on the shores of ANZAC Cove. But our involvement in World War One did shape us and continues to do so.

So what should we do?

What I am trying to say is the we need a more complete and accurate picture of Australia’s involvement in World War One and other military campaigns. There is a (sometimes overwhelming) wealth of quality information and resources out there ready for the taking. There are so many people out there who are far more knowledgeable and eloquent than I on this (and indeed almost every other) topic. I really encourage you to view commemorations as learning and self-development opportunities. This doesn’t have to be complex, difficult or a chore. Read an editorial or watch a documentary. Take advantage of the wealth of resources out there.

I’m doing my bit to help make that happen. I’m on the way to coming full circle and teaching my students what I wasn’t taught at school, namely a more well-rounded perspective of Australians at War. What will you do?

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