Anzac Day

Page 4 – The making of Anzac Day

Anzac Day, as we know it, began to take shape almost as soon as news reached New Zealand of the landing of soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April. Within a few years core elements of the day had been established and the sacredness of the commemoration enshrined.

1915: Gallipoli remembered

When the dramatic news that New Zealanders had landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula was received by the governor on 29 April 1915, four or five thousand people attended a hastily organised ‘demonstration’ in the grounds of Parliament. Wider public recognition of the landings at Gallipoli came the next day. A half-day holiday was declared for government offices, flags were flown, and patriotic meetings were held. People eagerly read descriptions of the landings, and newspapers gushed about the heroism of the New Zealand soldiers. The casualty lists that were published from early May made for grimmer reading. 

From the outset, the landings evoked national pride. The eventual failure of the Gallipoli operation enhanced its sanctity for many; there may have been no military victory, but there was victory of the spirit as New Zealand soldiers showed courage in the face of adversity and sacrifice.

1916: a half-day holiday

New Zealanders soon demanded some form of remembrance on the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. This became both a means of rallying support for the war effort and a public expression of grief – for no bodies were brought home. On 5 April 1916 a half-day holiday for 25 April was gazetted, and church services and recruiting meetings were proposed.

Returned servicemen wanted something else: 'the boys don't want to be split up among twenty or thirty different churches on Anzac Day, and it is certain they don't want to go to a meeting to hear people who haven't been [to war] spout and pass resolutions'. Returned servicemen preferred a public service conducted by an army chaplain.

Returned servicemen soon claimed ownership of the day's ceremonies. These included processions of returned and serving personnel, followed by church services and public meetings at town halls. Speeches extolled national unity, imperial loyalty, remembrance of the dead and the need for young men to volunteer at a time when conscription seemed likely to be introduced.

Large crowds attended the commemorations in 1916. There were 2000 at the service in Rotorua, and in London, 2000 Australian and New Zealand troops marched to a service at Westminster Abbey. New Zealand soldiers in Egypt commemorated the day with a service and the playing of the last post, followed by a holiday during which sports were played.

Only a year after the landings, some saw potential profit in using the term ‘Anzac’ to promote their products. On 31 August 1916, after lobbying by returned soldiers, the use of the word for trade or business purposes was prohibited.

In 1917 there were local-body elections on 25 April, and Anzac Day was observed on the 23rd. This is the only time the date has been changed.

Patriotism and remembrance

The New Zealand Returned Soldiers' (later Services') Association, in co-operation with local authorities, took a key role on the day, organising processions of servicemen, church services and public meetings. The form of the ceremony on 25 April was gradually standardised.

Once the war was over it became more explicitly a remembrance of the war dead and less a patriotic event. The ceremony was conducted around a bier of wreaths and a serviceman's hat, and there was a firing party of servicemen. Men stood with their heads bowed while a chaplain read the words of the military burial service. Three volleys were fired by the guard before the last post was played. The ceremony ended with a prayer, a hymn and the benediction.