The Anzac legend

 
A painting depicting soldiers carrying goods a distance from coastline

'Anzac Cove', the site where the Anzac legend began. Painting by Frank Crozier, 1919. AWM ART16637

On the day the news came that Australian soldiers were in action at the Dardanelles, and the first list of our killed and wounded arrived, we were a changed people.

[The Glory Of It, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1915, p12]

The mettle that a race can show / is proved with shot and steel ...

[AB 'Banjo' Paterson, We're All Australians Now, 1915]

In the myth of Anzac, military achievements are exalted above civilian ones; events overseas are given priority over Australian developments; slow and patient nation-building is eclipsed by the bloody drama of battle; action is exalted above contemplation. The key premise of the Anzac legend is that nations and men are made in war. It is an idea that had currency a hundred years ago. Is it not now time for Australia to cast it aside?

[Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake, What's Wrong with Anzac?, 2010, p173]

The Anzacs on Gallipoli helped shape the Australian story. Once used to refer to those who fought in World War I, 'Anzac' now represents all men and women who serve Australia. The term also expresses the characteristics that are seen as Australian, including:

  • courage
  • egalitarianism
  • endurance
  • mateship

The Anzac legend was born on 25 April 1915, when some 20,000 soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed under fire on the shores of Gallipoli, in modern-day Turkey. They were part of a hastily planned series of landings by a British Empire Force of 75,000 troops from Britain, Ireland and India, and troops from France and her dominions.

Australia, as a nation, was only 14 years old. Before Federation in 1901, each of the current states of Australia was a British colony. At the time World War I broke out, the young nation's cultural and political ties to Britain were still strong.

The Dardanelles Campaign was the first time since the Second South African (Boer) War of 1899 to 1902 that Australian troops had been sent into battle. Shortly after the landing at Anzac Cove (Gaba Tepe), those on the home front were reading about the 'worthy sons of the Empire'. Words like bravery, courage, skill and camaraderie were used in descriptions of Australian soldiers in the newspapers.

The 8-month Gallipoli Campaign was a failure. Many of those who survived returned home, wounded and psychologically scarred. Those still fit, sent to fight in Europe or the Middle East.

Thousands of Australians now make pilgrimages to Gallipoli most years. Others attend Anzac Day ceremonies around Australia where wreaths are laid at local war memorials.

The main challenge to the Anzac legend centres on the idea that Australia was somehow born on 25 April 1915. Other aspects have been challenged too. Such as the focus on the Gallipoli Campaign when more Australians served on the Western Front in Europe from 1916 to 1918. Or the reliability of whether the Australians performed as well as the legend suggests.

In the past few decades, historians have acknowledged the roles of those not initially represented by the Anzac legend, including those not of British background, and women. Their perspectives and context continue to be explored and recognised.

As time has passed, the meaning of 'Anzac' has changed. The relevance of the Anzac legend in today’s multicultural society is, at times, debated. But, there's little doubt that it will continue to have significance for some time to come.

Origins of 'Anzac'

A badge with photograph of a man above the British and Australian flag and the words 'South Australia, Help those who helped you, Anzac Day April 25th 1915'

Fundraising badges like these commemorated Anzac Day in 1918. AWM REL39113

The term 'ANZAC' was first used in 1915, as an acronym to describe the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in army reports. The two corps were part of the British-commanded Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, which fought against the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli in 1915.

There are different stories about who first used the 'Anzac' term. General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the British forces in the Dardanelles, claimed responsibility for the acronym in the book Crusading at Anzac AD 1915. Hamilton said he:

omitted the five full stops and brazenly coined the word "Anzac"

Commander of the Australians and New Zealanders on Gallipoli, General Sir William Birdwood, also claimed credit for the term. In his introduction to The Anzac Book, first published in 1916, Birdwood wrote:

When I took over the command of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in Egypt a year ago, I was asked to select a telegraphic code address for my Army Corps, and then adopted the word "Anzac."

Later on, when we had effected our landing here in April last, I was asked by General Headquarters to suggest a name for the beach where we had made good our first precarious footing, and then asked that this might be recorded as "Anzac Cove", a name which the bravery of our men has now made historical, while it will remain a geographical landmark for all time.

[General Sir William Birdwood, The Anzac Book, 1916, ix]

Australia's official war historian, Charles Bean, attributed 'Anzac' to a British clerk in Birdwood's Cairo headquarters.

One day early in 1915 Major C.M. Wagstaff, then junior member of the “operations” section of Birdwood’s staff, walked into the General Staff office and mentioned to the clerks that a convenient word was wanted as a code name for the Corps. The clerks had noticed the big initials on the cases outside their room: A. & N. Z. A. C.; and a rubber stamp for registering correspondence had also been cut with the same initials. When Wagstaff mentioned the need of a code word, one of the clerks (according to most accounts Lieutenant A.T. White, an English Army Service Corps man, who for a time was superintending clerk on the corps headquarters) suggested: “How about ANZAC?” Major Wagstaff proposed the word to the general, who approved of it and “Anzac” thereupon became the code name of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. It was, however, some time before the code word came into general use, and at the Landing many men in the divisions had not yet heard of it.

[CEW Bean, The story of Anzac: the official history of Australia in the war of 1914-1918, vol.1, pp124-125]

'Anzac' has been used ever since. Its use is protected under Australian law.

The first Anzacs

A poster depicting a line up of soldiers with a billboard advertising 'This space is reserved for a fit man'.

Australian World War I recruitment poster, depicting Anglo-Australian men. AWM ARTV00076

... whatever happens Australia is a part of the Empire right to the full. Remember that when the Empire is at war so is Australia at war. That being so, you will see how grave is the situation. I want to make it quite clear that all our resources in Australia are in the Empire, and for the Empire, and for the preservation and the security of the Empire.

[Prime Minister Sir Joseph Cook, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1914, p21]

Australia had a population of less than 5 million in 1914. By the end of the war, 416,809 people had enlisted to serve in the armed forces. Of those:

  • 330,000 served overseas
  • more than 60,000 were killed
  • 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner

Jenny Macleod, in Gallipoli, said of all the countries in the British Empire who sent men to fight, Australia had the highest proportion of deaths.

But, who were those first Anzacs? And why did they enlist?

Australia was quick to join Britain's war against Germany. Men from around the country rushed to join up. Some travelled thousands of kilometres and even travelled on foot for the chance to enlist.

Bill Gammage, in his book The Broken Years, said popular writers and schools encouraged Australians' national pride and loyalty to the British Empire. Many Australians saw themselves as:

... 'independent Australian Britons', defenders of the white race in the Pacific, volunteers to die in the defence of the ideals they had chosen.

[Bill Gammage, The Broken Years, 1982]

Foreign ties

When the United Kingdom declared war with Germany in 1914, Australia was expected to follow.

At the time, Australia's cultural ties with Britain were strong. According to Joan Beaumont, in her book Broken Nation, some half a million Australians were born in England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland. Even more had British parents or grandparents. To most Australians, or at least those whose voices dominated public discourse, Britain represented 'all that was best in culture, architecture, education and political and legal institutions'.

There were other reasons Australia joined Britain in war. Beaumont said London was still largely responsible for Imperial foreign policy. This meant Australia made few decisions about international policy.

Australia also relied on the British Empire for its defence. Australia had a small population and lengthy island borders, with some protection from the Royal Australian Navy.

The Australian Government was mindful of the German territory of New Guinea to the north and Japan's growing influence in the region.

Government decisions were also shaped by a legally enshrined White Australia policy.

First Australian Imperial Force

The Australian Government began recruiting men for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in August 1914, soon after war had been declared.

Australians were aware of the developing political tensions in Europe. Many were concerned about Germany's aggression and its invasion of Belgium. But, the men enlisted for a variety of reasons:

  • adventure
  • better pay
  • duty to Country, King and Empire
  • joining with friends
  • personal reasons
  • social pressure
  • unemployment

World War I recruitment posters showed an ideal soldier as fit, strong and Anglo-Australian. The earliest recruits had to meet strict enlistment standards. Even a tooth that needed filling, flat feet or bunions were cause for rejection from the AIF in 1914-15. (Enlistment requirements relaxed as the war progressed and casualty numbers rose.)

Those who first embarked for Europe were among the country's fittest and strongest men. This was an image reinforced by war correspondents Charles Bean and Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett in their accounts of the Gallipoli landing in 1915. The image was also reinforced by the Anzac soldiers themselves.

Image of the Anzac soldier

6 soldiers stand in a trench lined with sandbags

Australian and New Zealand soldiers in a frontline trench on the Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915. AWM C03420

A stereotypical image of the Anzac soldier emerged from the Gallipoli Campaign:

  • He was tough, inventive and loyal to his mates and to officers who had proven themselves, but sometimes undisciplined when not fighting.
  • He was chivalrous, gallant, a good fighter but not a good parade-ground soldier.
  • He was brave, able to endure discomfort with a grin, casual about dangers, accepting of the possible consequences of combat, good-natured, humorous, irreverent towards officers who insisted on military discipline.
  • He thought himself better than the soldiers of most other nations and considered himself to be democratic and egalitarian.

Images the Anzacs presented of themselves

The cover of a book titled, 'THE ANZAC BOOK'.

In November 1915 Charles Bean gathered contributions from the soldiers on Gallipoli for a publication which he hoped would lift their spirits at Christmas as they endured enemy attacks, poor conditions, and freezing weather. The men sent in stories, poems, drawings, and cartoons which Charles edited and compiled into a book. It was published in London in 1916. Reproductions of The Anzac book are still available today. AWM RC02987

Much of what we know of the Anzacs comes from:

  • diaries
  • letters
  • newspaper reports
  • other publications and anthologies

In late 1915, Charles Bean began collecting items for a yearbook. Australians who served on Gallipoli contributed:

  • cartoons
  • jokes
  • photographs
  • poems
  • reports
  • sketches
  • stories

The Anzac Book was published after the evacuation of Gallipoli. It sold more than 100,000 copies in Australia in the first 12 months.

Inspired by the men of Gallipoli, renowned poet AB 'Banjo' Paterson wrote We're all Australians Now in 1915. Paterson's ode to the Anzacs is still popular at school ceremonies for Anzac Day.

Another Australian poet, CJ Dennis, published the anthology The Moods of Ginger Mick in 1916. More than 40,000 copies were sold in 6 months.

People who remained in Australia during the early stages of the war formed new perspectives on the Gallipoli Campaign from texts such as these. Newspaper reports also helped create the image of the Anzacs.

The Anzac newspaper men

Three war correspondents played a major role in creating the Anzac legend:

  • Charles Edwin Woodrow (CEW) Bean, Australia's official war correspondent for the Anzac campaign
  • Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, English war correspondent
  • Phillip Schuler, Melbourne Age correspondent

Phillip Schuler

A man in a suit and hat stand on the side of a ship
Melbourne Age newspaper correspondent, Philip Schuler, in 1914. AWM G01560

One day, it illustrates the spirit of the Turkish army, a Turkish officer was seen directing the erection of some overhead cover down a communication trench behind this position. A burst of shell had warned him that he was observed, and bullets from machine guns played round him. He paid little attention, and went on with the directing of his job. When complete it was blown down, and continued to be blown down as fast as it was constructed, until the Turks had to give it up in despair. That brave officer directing the operations, was killed.

[Phillip Schuler, Australia in Arms, April 1916]

Phillip Schuler was a respected journalist and photographer for the Melbourne Age newspaper. Schuler spent only 3 months on Gallipoli. He died 2 years later in Belgium while serving in the AIF. But he left behind:

Schuler's words and images acknowledge the courage of both Australians and Turks on Gallipoli. In the preface to Australia in Arms, Schuler also recognised the role played by other allied forces in the campaign. This, and the sheer breadth of the Gallipoli experience that he recorded, provides both humanity and authenticity to the Anzac legend.

Finally, I am most anxious to remove, at the outset, any suggestion that might be gained from this narrative that the Australians alone were the outstanding heroes of the Dardanelles campaign. When the history of the British forces — the magnificent 29th Division, the Lowland Division, and the Yeomanry — comes to be recorded, and the story of the French participation in the assault of Achi Baba told, it will be seen that, glorious as has been the name won by the Australians, heroically as they fought, proudly and surely as they held all they gained, they played a part in this "Great Adventure," and it is of that part that I have written because it was the only one of which I had full knowledge.

[Phillip Schuler, Australia in Arms, 1916]

Male soldiers in uniform gathered in a trench.

Australian and Turkish dead lie on the parapet of a trench at Lone Pine after the battle. Private Jim Bryant (standing, facing camera) survived the Gallipoli campaign and received a Military Medal for his bravery on the Western Front. He re-enlisted in 1941 and later survived three years as a prisoner of the Japanese at Changi. AWM A02025

A tram filled with people sitting on top and inside is moving through a street with tall building and trees on both sides of the street.

Cairo trams packed with Australian soldiers on leave from the AIF camps. AWM PS1388A

A crowd of people gather at the entrance of a building with debris on the street

Burnt buildings and carts in Cairo. This photo is believed to have been taken after the Good Friday 'Battle of Wazza' riots. AWM PS1373

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett

Studio portrait of man in uniform and medals

British war correspondent, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, 1909. NPG x6434

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, an English journalist, was first to report the events of the Gallipoli landing in Australian newspapers. In doing so, he laid the foundations for the Anzac legend.

Ashmead-Bartlett's report was published in Australia on 8 May 1915. His fulsome praise of Australian sons, brothers and husbands was welcomed by an Australian public waiting anxiously at home for news. That these comments came from a British writer, writing about Australians for both a British and Australian audience, was the icing on the cake for a dominion nation keen to prove itself to Britain.

Ashmead-Bartlett described the Australian soldiers' steady nerves as they waited to land. He praised their practical skills and fitness in language not out of place in an adventure story.

Here was a tough proposition to tackle in the darkness, but those colonials were practical above all else and went about it in a practical way. They stopped a few minutes to pull themselves together, get rid of their packs, and charge their rifle magazines. Then this race of athletes proceeded to scale the cliff without responding to the enemy's fire. They lost some men, but didn't worry, and in less than a quarter of an hour the Turks were out of their second position, and either bayoneted or fleeing.

[Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Ashmead-Bartlett's Story, Saturday 8 May 1915, p13]

In emotive language, Bartlett also praised the courage of wounded Australians:

The courage displayed by these wounded Australians will never be forgotten. Hastily placed in trawlers and lighters' boats, they were towed to the ships. In spite of their sufferings they cheered the ship from which they had set out in the morning. In fact, I have never seen anything like these wounded Australians in war before. Though many were shot to bits, without hope of recovery, their cheers resounded throughout the night. You could see in the midst of the mass of suffering humanity arms waving in greeting to the crews of the warships. They were happy because they knew they had been tried for the first time and had not been found wanting.

[Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett's Story, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1915, p13]

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett became increasingly critical of the Gallipoli Campaign as it dragged on.

Charles Bean

A man is reading at a table with stacks of documents.

Charles Bean working on the official history of Australia's involvement in World War I. Victoria Barracks, Sydney, c1935. AWM A05389

The only memorial which could be worthy of them was the bare and uncoloured story of their part in the war.

[Charles Bean, quoted in B Nairn and G Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, Melbourne University Press, 1979, p227]

Of the three newsmen, Charles Bean was most influential in creating the Anzac legend. He was the only correspondent on Gallipoli for the whole campaign, and he spent the next 3 years with Anzac troops in France. His 226 notebooks from his wartime experience formed the basis of Australia's official history of the war, which Bean worked on as author and editor for 23 years. Bean was also instrumental in the creation of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Like all writers, Bean was influenced by his background. Born in Bathurst but educated in England, Bean had travelled and reported on rural and outback New South Wales in 1908 and 1909. His influences included:

  • the ideals of the British Empire
  • Colonial and Australian literature that celebrated 'the bush' and its values of mateship, hard work and social equality
  • personal respect for those living and working in the Australian bush

Bean's public writings did not always reflect all realities of life on Gallipoli. He was influenced by his own ideals and beliefs, by what he thought the public wanted to read, the opinions of his closest friends who were officers in the AIF, and sometimes by army and political leaders.

But there is little doubt how much Bean admired and respected the Anzacs serving on Gallipoli and along the Western Front in Europe. His integrity, honesty, and bravery were equally respected by Australian soldiers. Bean is rightly remembered for his important role as one of Australia's finest historians and writers.

Other Anzacs

While the AIF was an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon force, there were in its ranks some men not of British heritage. There was, in fact, some cultural diversity within the AIF in World War I. Among the first 'Anzacs' were Indigenous Australians, Australians of German descent, and Asian Australians. Soldiers in the AIF came from other countries as well.

Those who were not Anglo-Australian did not always experience the mateship and 'fair go' associated with the Anzac spirit. Experiences varied. But, many had to overcome prejudice and discrimination, if not during their war service, afterwards, or during the enlistment process.

Indigenous Diggers

Some 1000 Indigenous Australians are thought to have served in the AIF, on Gallipoli and the Western Front.

When war broke out, First Australians were prevented from enlisting by the Defence Act 1903. These conditions were amended in 1917, with the 1917 Military Order 200(2). This made it easier for Indigenous people to join up. But their enlistment was still determined by individual recruitment officers.

Records suggest Indigenous service men received equal treatment during the war. Many were recognised for their bravery. But, despite their sacrifice and service, Indigenous soldiers returned to a country that did not recognise them as citizens. Not only were they denied war pensions or soldier settlement grants, but they were also subject to discriminatory laws and regulations that dictated all parts of their lives.

German Anzacs

2 soldiers sit on camels in the desert with a sphinx and pyramid in the background

Quarter Master Sergeant Leopold Augstein (right) was one of three brothers who were first-generation Australian soldiers of German descent. He landed on Gallipoli with the 1st Division on 25 April 1915. His brother, Rudolf, also served on Gallipoli and his brother, Gerrard, in France. Leopold is pictured in Egypt with Sergeant Owen Stewart, about January 1915. AWM P00117.049

Some 34,000 German-born people lived in Australia in the pre-war years. Many more were second and third-generation German Australians. Germans were some of the first Europeans to arrive after colonisation. They lived, worked, and owned farms and businesses throughout Australia.

Australia's Germans faced a tide of prejudice and ill-feeling when the war against Germany was declared in 1914. Bill Gammage wrote:

Australian Germans were beaten up, spat on, dismissed from jobs, expelled from clubs and associations, abused for attendance at church, and refused service at stores and theatres. Their homes were stoned, their property destroyed, their children forced to leave school. The law, the courts, the trade unions, and the universities discriminated against them, and they had to drink the loyal toast or sing the anthem or salute the flag at the beck of any malevolent patriot. They changed their names, left districts which had sheltered them for years, attempted by generous donations to purchase acceptance. Every action provoked greater mistrust, and harder penalties. Worse was to come for citizens of German blood in Australia.

[Bill Gammage, The Broken Years, 1974]

Within this context, an estimated 18,000 German-Australian soldiers enlisted in the AIF in World War I. They were among the first Anzacs to land on Gallipoli. They also served throughout the war in some of the bloodiest fighting on the Western Front.

German Anzacs enlisted for many reasons, sometimes Anglicising their details to do so. John Williams, in German Anzacs and the First World War said many were motivated by a strong loyalty to the country in which they had made their homes. They saw themselves as 'Australians'. Some also hoped their overseas service would save their families from internment as enemy aliens.

Asian Anzacs

A soldier standing next to his wife who is seated and holding a baby

Private Nelson James Sing, a Chinese-Australian Anzac, with his family. He served at Gallipoli and the Western Front. AWM P09468.001

Indian and Chinese Australians were also among the Anzacs of the First World War. Despite racially-restrictive enlistment policies, there are stories of Asian Australians so determined to join up that they tried to enlist many times, walked hundreds of kilometres, or changed their names.

An estimated 500 Chinese-Australians served in World War I, and 19 won medals for bravery. One was Gallipoli sniper, Billy Sing. Sing killed 200 enemy soldiers and was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Studio portrait of soldier in uniform with a cane held in one hand
Queenslander, Private William Edward (Billy) Sing DCM, was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his role as a sniper on Gallipoli. AWM P03633.006

At least 12 Australians of Indian descent enlisted in the AIF. None are known to have served in the Gallipoli Campaign, but they did serve on the Western Front.

Some were older soldiers, so determined to serve they did not let their age get in the way. For example, Private Nain Singh Sailani, from Perth, was 43 when he enlisted in 1916. Private Sarn Singh, from Adelaide, was 33.

Service record of Sarn Singh

Indian-born, Sarn Singh, was a South Australian farmer. He was one of 12 known Indian-Australian Anzacs

Some 1600 Indian and Sikh troops also fought alongside the Anzacs. Peter Stanley studied Anzac diaries and letters in his book Die in Battle, Do Not Despair. He discovered how highly Australians and New Zealanders regarded their Indian mates.

Soldiers line up holding rifles and wearing turbins

Sikh and Australian soldiers watch Turkish prisoners of war on Gallipoli, 1915. AWM C02711

Find out about:

Other battlefronts and the Anzac legend

Soldiers gather in a trench where one soldier is pouring a drink from a tin for another.
Hot meals were rare on the front line. Here, soldiers from the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion enjoy a hot cup of coffee in the trenches near Houplines, December 1916. AWM E00085

Gallipoli may be central to the Anzac legend, but where else did Australians serve in World War I?

Australian service men and women were involved in:

Australians on the Western Front

The Western Front was the most important battleground of World War I. This stretch of land ran 700km through France and Belgium.

Australians fought in all major campaigns on the Western Front. They suffered the highest casualty rate of British dominion armies.

Of the 295,000 Australians who fought on the Western Front:

  • 46,000 died
  • 130,000 were wounded
  • 18,000 have no known grave

Life in the trenches was dangerous and difficult. Australians suffered horrendous physical and mental wounds, the long-term effects of gas attacks, and had uncomfortable living conditions where survival from day to day could not be guaranteed.

At the very short Battle of Fromelles in July 1916, for example, Australia suffered over 5500 casualties in one night.

Battle of Pozieres 1916

A longer action, the Battle of Pozieres, took place in the Somme offensive between 23 July and 3 September.

Some 23,000 Australians from the 1st, 2nd and 4th AIF Divisions were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner - 6500 Australian soldiers died. Five Australians were awarded Victoria Crosses at Pozieres.

Charles Bean described Pozieres as:

... more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.

[Charles Bean, Australian official First World War historian]

Villers-Bretonneux 1918

A black and white photo of buildings in ruins.

The ruins of the church in Villers-Bretonneux, May 1918. The town was subjected to heavy artillery fire during the German attacks. AWM E02157

Perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war — the successful counter-attack by night across unknown and difficult ground, at a few hours' notice, by the Australian soldier.

[Brigadier-General George Grogan, 23rd British Brigade]

This school building is the gift of the schoolchildren of Victoria, Australia, to the children Villers-Bretonneux as a proof of their love and good will towards France. Twelve hundred Australian soldiers, the fathers and brothers of these children, gave their lives in the heroic recapture of this town from the invader on 24th April 1918 and are buried near this spot. May the memory of great sacrifices in a common cause keep France and Australia together forever in bonds of friendship and mutual esteem.

[School plaque, Villers-Bretonneux]

On the third anniversary of the Gallipoli landing in April 1918, a battle at Villers-Bretonneux in northern France marked the end of the German advance on Amiens on this part of the Western Front.

Fighting was brutal. Australians from the 13th and 15th Infantry Brigades and British troops fought the Germans at close quarters with small arms, bayonets and other weapons. They eventually recaptured the French town, to the gratitude of the French people who lived there.

All Australian soldiers who served on the Western Front are commemorated at the Australian National Memorial, located in Villers-Bretonneux.

A plaque and the words:

N'oublions jamais l'Australie [Let us never forget Australia]

remind students in the local school of the role played by Australian soldiers in freeing their village.

A plaque on the side of a building

Villers-Bretonneux school plaque, 1926. PROV VPRS 14520 Item 5

Three men stand before a big tank
A German tank captured by the 26th Australian Infantry Battalion near Villers-Bretonneux. 'Mephisto' is the only surviving German tank from World War I. AWM E02877

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Australia's homefront and the Anzac legend

There is more to the Anzac legend than just those who served. More Australians stayed home than went to war, including 70% of men between the ages of 18 and 60. According to Joan Beaumont, the home front carried an equally great burden for Australia's war effort.

They did not fight, but they accepted casualties on a scale that would be unthinkable today. Many thousands of them mobilised their resources — labour, money, emotional energy, and organisational and practical skills — to assist the war effort. Many more endured economic dislocation and a reduced standard of living. Most critically, whatever the terrible cost, the majority of Australians supported the war, believing that the cause for which their men were fighting was just.

[Joan Beaumont, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, 2015]

Australians at home displayed their own resilience as they waited for news of loved ones serving overseas. To help with the war effort, many people:

  • volunteered in hospitals
  • raised money for Australian soldiers and war-torn countries
  • knitted and made comforts for Australian soldiers
  • packed parcels for soldiers
  • wrote letters to soldiers

Women and the Anzac legend

Nurses stand next to injured patients who are seated or standing

Nurses and patients at No 1 Australian General Hospital, Heliopolis, Egypt, July 1915. AWM P12470.001

The original Anzac legend focused on men. But Australian women in World War I also had important roles in the war.

Some Australian women served overseas as:

  • nurses
  • medical support roles
  • voluntary aid detachments (VADs)

Many women at home volunteered and raised money for charities.

Turkish view of the Anzac legend

Soldiers inspect injured soldiers in open bush land

Turks and Australians see to their war dead during an armistice on 24 May 1915, Gallipoli. AWM A01413

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours ... You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

[Kemal Atatürk Memorial, Anzac Parade, Canberra]

Access to Turkish archives and other sources has helped contemporary Western historians better understand Turkey's perspective of the Gallipoli Campaign.

'Çanakkale Savasi', as the Gallipoli Campaign is known to the Turks, is recognised for its part in shaping Turkish national identity.

The Ottoman Empire, as Turkey was known in 1915, entered the war as a German ally on 5 November 1914. Its Dardanelles campaign began in February and March 1915, when Ottoman mines successfully deterred a British and French naval assault.

Allied forces returned to Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April. By the time the last Allied troops finally withdrew in January 1916, both sides had suffered more than half a million casualties. Some 85,000 Ottoman soldiers died, almost double that of the losses suffered by British Empire and French forces.

Gammage said Australians and Turkish soldiers shared a mutual respect for each others' bravery, particularly as the campaign continued.

But, Harvey Broadbent, in Defending Gallipoli: The Turkish Story, suggests that the defeat on Gallipoli was partly due to allied planners misjudging the Ottomans' skills, experience, and willingness to fight for their country.

Thousands of Turks visit the battlegrounds of Gallipoli each year. Turkey commemorates Çanakkale Naval Victory Day on 18 March.

The Anzac legend today

What these men did nothing can alter now. The good and the bad, the greatness and smallness of their story will stand. Whatever of glory it contains nothing now can lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages, a monument to great-hearted men; and, for their nation, a possession for ever.

[Charles Bean, Official History of World War I, p1096]

The Anzac legend has evolved over the years to be one that is more inclusive than the past. But, Anzac Day still unites and divides Australians, as the country continues to debate its history and notions of national identity.

Explore some of these different viewpoints:

Using sources to learn more about the Anzac legend

Historians and education specialists at the Department of Veterans' Affairs produce many resources for those wanting to further explore the Anzac legend. The Anzac Portal has almost 2000 resources, including oral histories. Many are curriculum-aligned. These include excerpts of and reference to primary and secondary sources.

Primary schools will find a range of resources covering the various perspectives and experiences of war. If you are looking for the best resources for primary school students, the Department of Veterans' Affairs is an excellent starting point.

Students in high school are also well-catered for. Explore teaching resources for Year 9 history and Year 10 Australian History Curriculum materials.

Modern technology now makes researching Australians at war, much easier to do from home or the classroom. Many records are digitalised or easily searchable online.

The Australian War Memorial collection holds source material, including:

  • artefacts
  • art works
  • diaries and manuscripts
  • heraldry
  • posters
  • photographs
  • sound and film archival material

Visitors can also read online digital copies of the official wartime histories.

Schools can borrow a range of Memorial Boxes, containing a theme or conflict-specific collection of historical objects.

Most state libraries also have relevant sources. For example, the NSW State Library has a collection of maps of the Western Front that are worth exploring.

The University of Melbourne is home to some 2000 archeological records from the Gallipoli Peninsula. You can search the Anzac Gallipoli Archeological Database for examples of different types of artefacts.

Charles Bean's first Gallipoli volume, The Anzac Book, is now in the public domain. You can get a copy from the University of Queensland's Digital Collections.

Ongoing research continues into the changing perspectives of the Anzac legend and impact of World War I. Philippa Scarlett, at Indigenous Histories, for example, gives voice to the contribution of Australia's Indigenous Anzacs.

To learn more about the Turkish perspective, listen to interviews with Turkish Australians.

The Gallipoli experience has also been widely explored through:

  • books
  • film
  • plays
  • poetry
  • websites

These can also be analysed critically along with primary texts and sources.

Sources

  • ‘GRAVE SITUATION’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1914: p21. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15526835
  • ‘Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett’s Story’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1915, p13. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15587076
  • ‘The Glory Of It’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1915, p12, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15587257
  • Australian War Memorial, 2019. Charles Bean: History of the Australian War Memorial, last updated 29 March 2019. https://www.awm.gov.au/about/organisation/history/charles-bean
  • Australian War Memorial, 2020. First World War 1914–18. Memorial articles, last updated 28 August 2020. https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/atwar/first-world-war
  • Australian War Memorial, 2020. Gallipoli: a Turkish view. Exhibition. Last updated 21 February 2020. https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/gallipoli
  • Australian War Memorial, 2020. Pozières: 1916 Classroom Resource, last updated 7 April 2020. https://www.awm.gov.au/learn/schools/resources/1916/pozieres
  • Australian War Memorial. 2010. The Anzac Book. University of New South Wales Press, Sydney. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/945230317
  • Bean, CEW. 1942. The Story of Anzac: the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, vol.1, pp124-125 http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/11745892
  • Beaumont, Joan. 2015. Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1050530826
  • Broadbent, Harvey. 2015. Defending Gallipoli: the Turkish Story. Melbourne University Press, Carlton. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/890011950
  • Cameron, David W. 2007. 25 April 1915: The Day the Anzac legend was Born. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/528874001
  • Cameron, David Wayne. 2013. Shadows of Anzac: An Intimate History of Gallipoli. Big Sky Publishing, Newport. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/822214649
  • Gammage, Bill. 1982. The Broken Years. Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/458488019
  • Macleod, Jenny. 2015. Gallipoli. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/915351111
  • Nairn, B and G Serle (eds). 1979. Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7. Melbourne University Press, Carlton, p227
  • Nairn, Bede, and Geoffrey Serle. 1979. Australian dictionary of biography. 1891-1939. A-Ch Vol. 7 Vol. 7. Melbourne University Press, Carlton. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/59254745
  • Paterson, AB. 1915. We're All Australians Now.
  • Pegram, Aaron, 2018. Victory at Villers-Bretonneux: Anzac Day Breakfast Address 2018, Australian War Memorial, Canberra. https://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/speeches/anzacday2018breakfast
  • Reynolds, Henry and Marilyn Lake, 2010. What's Wrong With Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History. University of NSW Press, Sydney, p173 http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/652654260
  • Roberts, Chris. 2015. The Landing at Anzac, 1915. Army History Unit, Sydney. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/972720267
  • Scarlett, Philippa, 2015. Aboriginal Service in the First World War: Identity, Recognition and the Problem of Mateship. Aboriginal History 39: 163-181. JSTOR www.jstor.org/stable/43687040
  • Schuler, Phillip F. E. 2014. Australia in arms: a narrative of the Australasian Imperial Force and their achievement at Anzac. Penguin Books, Melbourne. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/874941081
  • Seal, Graham. 2015. Great Anzac Stories: The Men and Women who Created the Digger Legend. Allen & Unwin, Sydney. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/904008556
  • Silas, Ellis, William Riddell Birdwood, and Ian Hamilton. 1916. Crusading at Anzac Anno Domini 1915. The British-Australasian, London. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/753146654
  • Singh, Manpreet K, 2016. Remembering the contribution of Indian troops in Gallipoli, SBS Radio Punjabi, 2 September 2016 8:45am. https://www.sbs.com.au/radio/article/2015/04/25/remembering-contribution-indian-troops-gallipoli
  • Stanley, Peter. 2017. Die in Battle, Do Not Despair: the Indians on Gallipoli, 1915. Primus Books, Delhi http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1036269923
  • Williams, John Frank. 2003. German Anzacs and the first world war. University of New South Wales Press, Sydney. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/849321464 

Last updated: 27 January 2021

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2021), The Anzac legend, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 4 March 2021, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/personnel/anzac-legend
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