Anzac History

But Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat.
Charles Bean, Australian journalist and historian present at the Anzac landing at Gallipoli hbhj

Why Gallipoli?

In times of war, access to and from different areas is vitally important. The Gallipoli Campaign began with an attempt by the Allied naval forces to secure passage through the Dardanelles, a waterway on the Ottoman Empire's (modern day Turkey's) Aegean coast. Success here would enable Allied ships to bombard the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, hopefully forcing a surrender while also opening up a sea route to Russia's warm water Black Sea ports. The naval attempt failed and the decision was taken to use infantry to destroy Ottoman fortifications overlooking the Dardanelles on the Gallipoli peninsula, making it possible for the navy to get through.

Landing at Gallipoli

As the first major military campaign by Australian and New Zealand soldiers in the First World War, Gallipoli was an important test. Some four thousand soldiers landed at dawn in the first wave of boats, and by the end of the campaign's opening day some 20,000 Australian and New Zealand troops were ashore .

As the first wave of soldiers came to shore in low light, they did not land in their planned positions and were confronted with steep cliffs and impassable gullies instead of a beach and a gentle rise leading inland as expected. The Australian and New Zealand troops were confounded by the terrain and made little headway. Some men died even before they reached the shore, struck by bullets and shrapnel, or drowning when the weight of their equipment dragged them under water. Those who did reach the shore dashed inland, climbing the nearest ridge and seeking to capture the high ground to their north.

Australian troops outnumbered the enemy at first, forcing the Turkish troops to mount a desperate defence. Turkish commander Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal demanded of his troops: "I do not order you to attack; I order you to die. In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can take our place." They bombarded the arriving troops with artillery and machine gun fire and accurate sniping, which – combined with the Anzacs' confusion in the unexpectedly rugged country, inexperience in battle and isolation from one another and often their commanders – meant that the Anzacs could not advance were forced instead to begin digging into the trenches that marked the limit of their progress.

Turkish reinforcements arrived within hours, leaving the allies outnumbered for the remainder of the Gallipoli Campaign.

By the end of the first day some 2,000 Australians and New Zealanders had become casualties, including more than 750 who were killed. Nowhere had the survivors achieved their objectives. Senior commanders considered an evacuation until ordered to have their troops dig in and hold the positions they had gained.

The Eight Month long Campaign

The Allied forces stayed on Gallipoli for more than eight months; the Anzacs at a Gallipoli Peninsula cove that is now called "Anzac Cove", and the British and French further south at Cape Helles.

The bloodiest fighting took place in the campaign's opening ten days and in August, when the Allies made a failed attempt to break out of the coastal areas they had effectively been confined to. It was during this period that the massacre at the Nek and the bloody fighting at Lone Pine took place.

Living conditions were extremely difficult; during some periods more men were evacuated with disease than with battle wounds. Illness exhausted the men and the constant exposure to enemy fire wore at their nerves and gave them no chance of rest. As winter set in it was clear that no further progress could be made, and the arrival of heavy artillery on the Turkish side further weakened Allies' ability to achieve their objectives.

In November, the command was finally issued for the Allied forces to be evacuated from Gallipoli . Conducted with great stealth and discipline, the removal of the large number of Allied troops on the Gallipoli peninsula – sometimes from within yards of enemy trenches and without significant casualties – proved to be the campaign's most successful operation.

By the time the last troops left Anzac Cove on 20 December 1915, 8,709 Australians and 2,721 New Zealanders – 11,430 brothers, fathers, uncles, sons, husbands and friends – had died in the campaign. The British and French left Cape Helles the following month.

The First Anzac Day

Gallipoli was not the deadliest campaign for the Anzacs in WW1; the worst was yet to come on the Western Front. However, the Gallipoli Campaign entered into legend almost immediately.

Commemorative events were held on the first anniversary of the landing around Australia, New Zealand, in London, and in the Anzac training camp in Egypt. Anzac Day, as it became known, remained an important commemorative occasion for the duration of WW1 and through the decades that followed.

Anzac Day Today

In the 1920s in both Australia and New Zealand, the 25th of April came to be recognised as a national day of remembrance. The elements of the ceremonies that we see today – the dawn services, the marches, the playing of the Last Post – were all firmly established by the 1930s.

Animosity between the Allies and Turkey over the campaigns on Gallipoli (and later battles in the Sinai Desert and Palestine) ended almost as soon as the war did. Turkey's first president after the country became a republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal, who on the first Anzac Day had ordered his regiment to die (see above), went on to become a peacemaking, progressive leader known as Kemal "Atatürk" (father of the Turks).

In 1934 he wrote a heartfelt tribute to the Anzacs of Gallipoli:

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 now 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.

With the passage of time, Anzac Day has become the day on which we honour all those who have served, in the Second World War, in Korea, Vietnam, in Iraq and who continue to serve in Afghanistan or on peacekeeping operations all over the world.