Anzac Day: Misconceptions and the Real Meaning of Commemoration


I begin with a brief outline of the history of the Gallipoli Campaign, and then address three apparently common beliefs about Anzac Day which I believe are misconceptions: that Australia was a (or the) major participant at Gallipoli, that Anzac Day commemorates those who died to defend our country, and that Anzac Day is a glorification of war or crude nationalism. I conclude with some thoughts on reflections on what I consider to be the real purpose of Anzac Day, and the proper mode in which it ought to be observed.

Some History

In late October 1914, following a long period of rising tensions between the two nations, the Ottoman navy conducted a number of raids against Russian shipping in the Black Sea. Russia responded on 1st November by declaring war on the Ottomans, with Britain and France following suit a few days later.

Gallipoli is a peninsula located at the northern edge of the Dardanelles, a narrow body of water separating Europe from Asia, both sides of which were controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The British, spearheaded by then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, desired to send shipping through these straights (in particular to gain access to Russia via the Black Sea), and to do so would require neutralising the Ottoman fortifications on the peninsula. Naval attacks conducted in March 1915 were unsuccessful in achieving this aim, so plans for a ground invasion were hastily drawn up.

After some delays, British, French, and Commonwealth troops were landed on the northern side of the peninsula on 25 April 1915. Though they failed to capture the peninsula, the Ottomans were likewise unable to drive them back into the sea. Thereafter followed months of gruelling and inconclusive fighting in which neither side was able to make significant headway. As a result of these failures and also because of growing need for Allied troops on other fronts, it was decided to withdraw the expeditionary force, an operation which was completed in January 1916 and thereby brought the campaign to a conclusion.

Causalities from the campaign were split roughly evenly between the Allies and the Ottomans, around 50,000 men killed apiece. Overall the campaign was a clear operational failure for the allies, as they failed to achieve their objective of capturing the peninsula and securing safe passage through the Dardanelles. Strategically the outcome of the campaign is less clear-cut, with several historians arguing that the invasion drained the Ottomans of men and matériel they could replace much less easily than could the allies, and thereby diverting their attention away from possible aggressive actions elsewhere. In sum, the Gallipoli campaign was an important secondary campaign of the war, though far from decisive for its outcome.

Some Misconceptions

‘Australia was a major participant in the Gallipoli campaign’

Australia was certainly an important participant in the campaign, but it was certainly not the largest. Of the roughly 188,000 casualties suffered by both sides, only 28,000, or about 15%, were Australians; by comparison, the British suffered 120,000 casualties. Now of course, 28,000 causalities is a horrifically large number, particularly for a country as small as Australia. But it is, I think, important to bear in mind that the Gallipoli expedition was not predominantly an Australian affair. It was planned by the British, executed using British naval vessels, and manned mostly by British troops. Australians, as well as New Zealanders and Indians, were essentially just along for the ride, as Britain needed all the manpower it could get from its vast empire.

‘Anzac Day commemorates those who fought to defend our country’

With the possible exception of certain actions fought against the Japanese in World War Two (and even then I think its dubious how much of a genuine threat Japan ever posed to Australia), no Australian serviceman have ever fought in a war to defend Australia. Australians have fought in British colonial wars (Sudan, Boer War, Boxer Rebellion, and the Malayan Emergency), in two Cold War conflicts (Korean and Vietnam Wars), in several peacekeeping operations (Somalia, East Timor), and in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Not a single one of these wars was in any way in defence of Australia. These wars (whether justified or not) were all fought in the furtherance of foreign political interests, and not because Australia was under any genuine threat. In the case of World War Two, Australia was never under any threat whatever from Germany, and the actions against Japan I have already mentioned.

The First World War, the conflict of most concern to us here, had no direct bearing on Australian security. None of the Central Powers (least of all Turkey) had any interest in Australia or ability to exert military force over it even if they did. The only sense in which Australian involvement in World War One in any way related to the defence of Australia was via the fact that Australia’s security rested on the strength of the British Empire, which was (although again fairly indirectly) threatened by the war. In the case of the Gallipoli landings, there is really no relation to Australian security at all. If anything, the invasion was about protecting British interests in Egypt, and in preventing the Ottomans from doing more damage to the Russians or from aiding the Germans in fighting France and Britain in Europe. So in a way Australians were dying to help defend Russia and France, albeit indirectly, and likely not very effectively.

‘Anzac day is a glorification of war and vulgar nationalism’

Anzac Day was first celebrated by veterans as a way to solemnly remember their fallen comrades and commemorate their experiences. At first the general public was not even allowed to join in the marches. As far as I have been able to gather, Anzac day waxed and waned somewhat in importance over the years, and was not a particularly prominent event even as late as the 1970s. Its current popularity with many young people and concomitant association with a certain brand of frenzied Australian nationalism seems to date to the 1980s and 1990s.

Thus, if people feel like Anzac day glorifies war or a encourages a particularly distasteful form of nationalism, that is in large part an affectation, the way the day has come to be seen and experienced by a certain group of people. Rather than saying Anzac day ‘is’ those things, I think it is more accurate to say that Anzac day has been (or can be to varying degrees in varying circumstances) coopted for such uses, and that when this happens the real spirit and meaning of the day is lost.

I find it particularly odd when people make the claim that the solemn marches, minutes of silence, sounding of the last post, reading of commemorative stories and poems, etc, in any way constitutes a ‘celebration’ or ‘glorification’ of war or militarism. To commemorate something is not to celebrate it. If people are incapable of understanding the difference, this is a fault of their ignorance, not of Anzac Day itself. Misplaced attitudes or expectations regarding what Anzac Day is and what it is for can and should be corrected by communication and proper social modelling of how to conduct a respectful commemoration without turning it into crass celebration. I think this would be a far more productive response than demonising the day altogether, as some have tended to do.

Some Thoughts

I think it is good and proper to have a national day to commemorate those who fought and died in war. I do not see any need for this to be linked in any particular way to nationalism or to contemporary military or political issues. It is not necessary that those we commemorate fought for a righteous cause, or even for any cause at all. In this respect I think we should be reflective and honest about Australia’s military history, which I think is mixed at best. Australians like to think that Australian soldiers fought and died to protect freedom and liberty, and arguably Australia has done this some of the time (e.g. World War Two, the Korean War, the Gulf War).

In many other cases, including that of Gallipoli, the rightness of the cause for which Australian soldiers fought is much less clear. Indeed, in the case of the Gallipoli campaign I would go further and say that there was no clear cause being fought for. Moreover, whatever the cause, the Gallipoli campaign was a failure – the invasion was not successful and the soldiers were eventually evacuated. It was a pathetic waste of human life, which achieved little or nothing to advance our interests, all in support of a war that had no real purpose to begin with. Is this something we should celebrate? Glorify? Sanitise? Absolutely not. Is it something that we should remember? Commemorate? Reflect upon? Absolutely.

Anzac Day, correctly understood and commemorated appropriately, is exceptionally important. It is a day to remember those who fought and died, for Australia and for other countries, for causes good and bad. They were, most of them, ordinary men and women who for various reasons found themselves in horrific circumstances. They fought, they suffered, and they died. They were just people, like you and me. They don’t have to have done died for a noble cause in order for their lives and experiences to be worthy of our commemoration.

Anzac Day is also a day when we should reflect on the past. We should celebrate those occasions when brave men and women stood up against injustice or tyranny, and at times gave their lives so that we may live in peace and security. Romanticised as it may sound, I believe this has happened on occasion in Australian military history, and is certainly worthy of remembering and celebrating. We should also reflectively consider the times when war was fought because of greed, cruelty, intolerance, or even for no clear reason at all. We must try to remember and learn from these experiences, so that we can grow as individuals, as a nation, and as a species, and learn to live with each other in greater peace and harmony. Forgetting the mistakes of the past and not taking time to reflect upon them will not help us to achieve this vital goal. This, in my view, is one of the most important purposes of Anzac Day.

I’ll close with a few words from one of my favourite commemorative songs:

There is no enemy
There is no victory
Only boys who lost their lives in the sand
Young men were sacrificed
Their names are carved in stone and kept alive
and forever we will honour the memory of them
And they knew they would die
Such waste of life

Have a commemorative, thoughtful, reflective Anzac Day.

Lest We Forget

The Price of a Mile: Reflections on the Folly of the Great War


On this the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I share some thoughts and reflections concerning this great conflict. I discuss the enormous human cost of the war, and the flagrant disregard for life displayed by all sides throughout its course. I analyze the utter futility and pointlessness of the war, and examine how this pointlessness contrasted with the rationalistic manner in which technology was applied to the conflict. I then discuss the peace settlement, examining how it failed to achieve a stable postwar geopolitical settlement, and thus sowed the seeds for the next great conflict. I conclude with some thoughts on the importance of studying and remembering history.

Such Waste of Life

Some ten million soldiers and perhaps six million civilians died in World War One. This included entire generations of young men from many of the major combatant nations: 1.4 million from France, 2 million from Russia, 2 million from Germany, 1.3 million from Austro-Hungary, and 1 million from the British Empire. Many millions more returned home wounded. The psychological effect of the war was also immense: among the British forces, the term ‘shell shock’ came to be used to describe the symptoms of dizziness, amnesia, headache, etc which, in the absence of any obvious physical injury, plagued an increasingly large proportion of the men who had been exposed to prolonged artillery bombardment in the trenches, unable to either flee or fight back.

Throughout the conflict, all sides exhibited a disgustingly profligate disregard for human life. The Battle of Verdun, an eleven month campaign consisting of several waves of German assaults against the French fortress at Verdun, left about 300,000 men dead, and the front lines almost exactly where they had been at the commencement of the engagement. During the Battle of the Somme, the British suffered 60,000 causalities in a single day, with total deaths by the end of the six-month battle amounting to another 300,000 men. This battle was a victory for the allies – they managed to advance a grand total of six miles into the German lines. The well-known debacle at Gallipoli cost 110,000 lives, and achieved absolutely nothing – aside, that is, from the establishment of a rather perverse national obsession and related tourism industry in two of the less important combatant nations.

What was the Purpose of it All?

One is driven to wonder: what was the purpose of all this suffering and death? Why did millions of young lives continue to be poured into this immense conflict for over four years, to be killed or maimed by machine guns, artillery shrapnel, and air bombardment? It is  comforting to think that such death served a purpose – that the sacrifice was not in vain. But that is by no means clear. Even a century later, scholars still hotly debate the contributing factors which led to the outbreak of the war. Some causes are widely agreed upon: the balance of power struggle between the emerging power of Germany and the more established empires of Britain and France,  tensions between Russia, Austria, and other nations stemming from the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the rise in nationalist sentiment throughout Europe, and also the false confidence among many about how quickly any war could be brought to an end.

These factors, however, are all quite vague and high-level. They might be able to explain why a war broke out, but that’s not quite the same as explaining why, for instance, Germany and France each thought that it was a good idea to send millions of their young men to stand around in trenches for four years hurling bombs and projectiles at each other. What did either nation get from that? What was the point? Why were they fighting? Why were Russians dying in Poland, Americans in France, and Australians in Turkey? When the obfuscatory veil of diplomatic and geopolitical machinations is lifted, it is hard not to see the entire war for what it truly was: pure, unadulterated, folly. It served no purpose at all. All those men died for no reason whatever.

A Rationalistic Stupidity

Although the war itself was completely devoid of reason, the means by which it was carried out were anything but. One especially amazing thing about the war was the immense energy and ingenuity with which all the new wonders of science and technology were turned to the task of killing as many people as possible. Chemical weapons, machine guns, barbed wire, aircraft, tanks, submarines, railways, flamethrowers, wireless, telephones – all harnessed to make more efficient the process of getting bodies into trenches, smashing pieces of metal into these bodies at high velocity, and then removing removing the bodies from the trenches again. In a very real sense, the war represented the culmination of the industrial revolution. For the first time, the killing of young men had been turned into a mechanised, standardised, ‘rational’ assembly-line procedure.

The Failed Peace

Perhaps one of the most odious aspects of the war, somewhat ironically, was the manner in which it ended. In my view, the peace settlement established by the Treaty of Versailles was one of the most ill-conceived in the history of warfare. In particular, the war guilt clause (which placed the blame for the war entirely upon Germany), the loss of its colonies, the large reparations, and the sharp limitations on its armed forces (it was limited to 100,000 men, banned from having an airforce, and prohibited from using tanks or submarines), left Germany greatly humiliated and desirous of some kind of reprisal. Germany was not, however, substantively weakened as a military or economic power, as it retained most of its territory and industry. This was perhaps the worst outcome possible. German industry was left intact. The General Staff was preserved. Scientific and military expertise were retained. All that was achieved was to give Germany the justification and motivation to achieve redress by violent means. My point is not that the treaty was unfair or too harsh. My point is that it achieved the worst possible compromise: it looked harsh without actually being very harsh. Thus the seeds for the next war were well and truly planted.

Versailles also created a profusion of new, unstable, and in some cases (e.g. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) quite arbitrary new states, which produced a very profound power vacuum in central and eastern Europe. Even worse was the manner in which the provisions of the treaty were enforced. The United States refused to join the League of Nations (the newly created international organization tasked with preventing another great war), instead choosing to withdraw into political isolationism. This dramatically limited the effectiveness of the body, which without the involvement of the US proved to have very little real power. Britain and France likewise proved relatively unwilling to take action to maintain the treaty: most of the reparations were never paid, and virtually nothing was done throughout the course of the 1930s as Hitler openly violated one provision of the treaty after another. The League also proved to be completely unable to prevent conflict, doing virtually nothing to stop Italian, Japanese, and German aggression during the 1930s.

All in all, then, the peace settlement was badly designed, and that botched settlement itself was poorly implemented. The result was that the one thing which the First World War did have the potential to produce – a stable new international geopolitical system – was not to be found. When the treaty was signed in 1919, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch declared with remarkable foresight: “This is not peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years”.

The Legacy of History

The ‘War to End All Wars’, as it was called, did not live up to this grand title. It did succeed in ending four major world empires, a century of relative peace in Europe, the sense of optimism and progression that had pervaded the West over the past few decades, and over fifteen million lives. It did not, however, succeed in ending war. Though its consequences were profound, the war itself was an utterly senseless waste of life and resources.

More than anything, we must remember that this happened only a century ago, in what was considered (not without reason) to be the most ‘developed’, ‘advanced’, and ‘enlightened’ part of the world. We may think this could not happen to us in this day and age – we’ve moved beyond that sort of thing. Perhaps. But, on the other hand, new mothers of the 1890s did not expect to see their sons dying by the millions in the mud of the trenches. If we hope to avoid such a catastrophic folly from recurring in our time, we would do well to heed the lessons from history. And how can we heed the lessons of history of we do not learn about history, talk about history, think about history? For this and many reasons beside, history is vital.

Lest We Forget.