Thursday, May 3, 2012


Every April 25th, Australians celebrate Anzac Day.  The day is Australia’s version of the United States’ Memorial Day.  Australia’s military history is nowhere near as long and devastating as the military history of the US, but Australia is a much newer country with a much smaller population.  With that, Australian troops have fought alongside their allies in many wars over the past 100+ years and their smaller losses shouldn’t be discounted when comparing them to the population.  Anzac Day here is as big or probably even bigger than Memorial Day in the US.

Anzac Day marks the landing of the Anzacs – the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – at Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) on April 25th, 1915.  Fighting alongside other Allied troops, the goal was for the Anzacs to take the Gallipoli Peninsula and open up access for the Allied troops to the Black Sea.  The 8 month siege was unsuccessful, with over 8,000 Anzac casualties and 18,000 more injured before they retreated.

As the name suggests, Anzac troops came from both Australia and New Zealand.  The countries had a combined volunteer force to assist Britain, France, and Russia in their attempt to defeat Germany and pals.  Troops from the two countries had previously fought as part of the British empire in the Sudan Campaign in 1885 and the Boer War in the 1890’s, but World War I marked the first time that troops fought as Australians and New Zealanders under their own command.

On the first anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, services were held in both Australia and New Zealand to commemorate the day and remember those who sacrificed for their country.  Services continued on subsequent anniversaries, and the holiday was made official in New Zealand in 1920 and Australia in 1921.  From then on, the public holiday became a national day of commemoration for all 60,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders who died in World War I.  After World War II, the holiday took on a greater meaning and now commemorates those who have fallen not just in World War I, but during all subsequent wars in which the countries have participated.

Popularity of the holiday has increased and decreased over time.  One notable decrease was during the Vietnam War when anti-war sentiment ran high.  More recently, the holiday has seen a massive resurgence as younger generations have not directly experienced war.  A greater sense of national pride may also contribute to the holiday’s resurgence.

Anzac Day is celebrated with marches and memorial services at war monuments around both countries.  One of the most well-known features of the holiday is the dawn service.  Dawn services are held across both countries to commemorate the peaceful moments before dawn – right before the Anzacs made their charge ashore at Gallipoli.  The roughly one-hour service features hymns, prayers, addresses, bands, dedications, wreath laying, and a moment of silence.  Also played are the national anthems of both Australia and New Zealand (both are played in both countries), along with the now Royal Hymn which was the national anthem of Australia during most wars fought.

In Australia, many Aussies wear rosemary on their lapels as rosemary was abundant at Gallipoli.  In New Zealand, poppies have taken on this role.  In Sydney, the main dawn service is held at the Cenotaph, a World War I war monument located in Martin Place right in the middle of the city.  As a future Australian who missed out on most Anzac Day activities during my first two years here, I decided that I should probably get up and check it out.  Third Anzac Day is the charm, right?  So, my alarm went off at 3:45am and I met a co-worker outside my apartment at 4am.  We wandered over and found a place to stand for the 4:30am start to the service.  They really should call it the pre-dawn service as there were no traces of the sun anywhere even after the service ended.

I didn’t take any photos during the service as it was quite solemn and I thought it would be very disrespectful.  I did manage to snap a few afterward.

The City of Sydney installed a big screen for the service first in 2005 as too many people were attending and not all could see:

People crowded around the Cenotaph right after the ceremony concluded:

I was amazed at how many people actually woke up so early for the dawn service.  I only live less than a 15 minute walk away, but not all of these people have the luxury of rolling out of bed and walking down the street.  And so many of them were dressed up!  I was wearing pajamas…  Ooops.

And while many people went off to breakfasts and prepared themselves for the next ceremony and morning marches, I… crawled back into bed and slept for a few more hours.

I am definitely glad I went to the service and actually would like to do it again next year, but that being said, 4:30am is still an ungodly hour.

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