If you are a traveller to Australia from a developed nation, it is often difficult to find something that makes Australia distinct from other western nations in the cities adorning the east coast – ANZAC day is one such distinction.
Each April 25th Australia and New Zealand remembers their military servicemen who died early morning on the shores on Galipoli, Turkey during the first world war. Since its humble beginnings of a few soldiers commemorating their fellow-servicemen who lost their lives in the battle, the day has grown to commemorate service personnel from both countries who lost their lives in all military battles.
Whilst it is easy to see the similarities between ANZAC day and the Day of Remembrance in the UK, there are many important differences that reflect the character of Australians and New Zealanders, perhaps the most telling is the name ANZAC. It stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Not as vague as ‘allied forces’ – the UK equivalent. ANZAC day is unique in the world for honouring two nations in a unifying title. This bonding of Australia and New Zealand shows a generosity of spirit that marks a characteristic of the culture in this part of the world – although some would argue its a generosity that isn’t always extended to immigrants.
ANZAC day starts at 4.28am with the dawn service. The time marks the exact moment the soldiers landed at Gallipoli. In parks and main squares in each city and town across the two nations and on Cook Island and Tonga, people gather in groups of thousands to remember.
Street lights and mobile phones are turned off, and crowds made up from all ages stand in eerie silence, except for the praying, the singing of hymns and the national anthems of Australia and New Zealand. There is a piper and a bugler to sound the lament and mark the two minute formal silence. In the half hour it takes for the service, the sun creeps into the sky to start a day like no other.
It would be foolish to believe that all Australians care enough about its nation’s short history or those who died in battle to mark the day with respect and solemnity, but even for those who do not, there is no possibility of living ANZAC day in the same way the rest of the world regards each April 25th.
If nothing else, Australians are faced with TV schedules interrupted to report on the many marches and parades that festoon the day. It is impossible to walk anywhere without seeing everyone who has a reason to own a uniform from boy scouts to world war veterans wear their regalia with honour and pride; public transport is free for those who do.
One final tradition of ANZAC day that distinguishes it from other days of remembrance is the game ‘Two-up’. The game, played in pubs on the only day gambling in pubs is allowed, consists of placing bets on whether the two coins tossed in the air will either land both face-up, both face-down or one of either. This game was favoured by servicemen during both wars and is regarded as maintaining a cultural link with the past.
As ANZAC Day comes close to its 100th anniversary, questions about its future are also seeing the light of dawn. There is talk of including as part of the remembrance service those Turks who sacrificed their lives at Galipoli to kill Australians and New Zealanders. It’s difficult to imagine the British and United States remembrance services including the Germans and Japanese who lost their lives in the world wars. If ANZAC day does become a day of respect for war dead on both sides of the fighting, it could set the future style and meaning of remembrance days worldwide; creating a trend that would be a fitting development to such a distinctive national event and a comment against all wars.