The Emergence of Anzac Day

Anzac Day procession, Brisbane, 1916.

Each year Australians and New Zealanders observe Anzac Day on 25th April.  ANZAC Day  is a day when Australians and New Zealanders remember their war-dead and the terrible suffering soldiers endured while carrying out what they were ordered to do.  25th of April was chosen for Anzac Day in recognition of the day when Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the shores of Gallipoli in Turkey during World War One.  This did not lead to victory but to a stalemate costing the lives of many men on both sides.  Anzac Day is not a celebration of military victories, nor is it a remembrance confined to memories of World War I.  It is a commemoration of the devastation wreaked by all military conflicts.

This post started with the question; how and when was the first Anzac Day commemorated?  I thought I knew the answer but as the process of writing for publication requires writers to carefully justify opinions and facts I did some further research.  The application of this discipline quite often leads to surprises for the writer on the way and this was certainly the case for me.

South Australia

I expected to find that the first Anzac Day was observed in 1916 in memory of the first anniversary of the landing in Gallipoli in 1915, but after a search through Australian digitised newspapers I found that South Australia hosted the first Anzac Day in 1915.  There were other days earlier in the year when the landing at Gallipoli was publicly recognised (Inglis pp. 76-78), but this appears to have been the first time it was officially called Anzac Day.

Anzac is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – a name used for the troops from the antipodes in World War I.  The name Anzac Day appears to have been chosen as a result of a competition to name the day.  Mr. Robert Wheeler of Prospect was recognised as the winner of the competition despite several other people choosing the same name in their entries.  The winner was chosen out of a hat.

The South Australian Anzac Day replaced the traditional observance of Eight Hour Day on 13th October 1915.  It was observed in Adelaide and several South Australian towns.  The day in Adelaide was marked by an “unusually long and spectacular procession” according to The Register newspaper, and events at the Adelaide Oval.  A badge created for the day can be seen on the SA Memory website.  Fundraising for the South Australian Wounded Soldiers’ Fund was an important objective of the day. The organisers also saw to it that the crowds were entertained during the day.

The Advertiser published a lengthy description of the procession and other events on the day.  What particularly caught my eye was the account of the “tramway smash” that was part of the Anzac Day events on Adelaide Oval.  Two superseded horse-drawn trams (without the horses) were placed on a single rail that sloped towards the middle.  They were released and as they hurtled towards each other detonators placed along the track were triggered adding to the noise and spectacle of the fiery crash when the trams collided.

It was emphasised by the organising committee of the South Australian Anzac Day in 1915 that this was a one-off event.  It was hoped that the war would be over by the time the Eight Hour Day came around in October 1916.  So this does not explain how we came to commemorate Anzac Day on 25th April each year.  To understand this we need to turn to Queensland.


Until last year I had never explored military history, or the effects of war on civilian populations, but the history of Anzac day found me while I was writing my thesis.  My thesis was about Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum in 1910.  One of the most visible campaigners for special religious instruction in Queensland schools in the campaign leading to the referendum 1910 was a Church of England clergyman, David John Garland.  While reading about Garland I discovered that he played an important role in establishing Anzac Day as an annual observance.

The first intimation we see in Trove’s newspaper database that plans were afoot for celebrating Anzac Day on 25th April is an announcement in the Brisbane Courier that a public meeting was to be held on 10th January 1916 to start planning for the upcoming anniversary.  Chaplain Lieutenant-Colonel Garland, as he was then known, was listed as a speaker at this meeting alongside the Governor of Queensland and the Premier.

The Anzac Day Commemoration Committee (ADCC) which was formed on that night were specific about the nature of the day and the types of activities that they regarded as appropriate for what was to be a solemn day. In his capacity as honorary secretary of the ADCC Garland wrote to other states:

It will be noted that so far as Queensland is concerned, the day is to be kept with solemnity and with avoidance of anything approaching jubilation or carnival. For this reason, no attempt is being made to raise funds for any purpose, it being felt that a valuable factor will be added to the building up of our people by an effort to make them realise there are other things of importance in the creation of national character. Of course, Queensland does not presume to impose its views on any other State, but, at the same time, it is felt the observance should be, as far as practicable, Australasian; therefore we venture to acquaint you with the steps we have taken.

David J. Garland to the Council of Perth on behalf of the ADCC, The West Australian, 23/3/1916.

Thus in contrast to the earlier South Australian observance the focus of the day was to be on remembrance, not entertainment, and no fundraising was to occur.  The main purpose of the day was “the commemoration of our fallen heroes and for the honour of our surviving soldiers.”  The committee wanted the following activities to be organised to mark the day:

  • religious services organised by religious organisations in accordance with their beliefs;
  • public meetings to be held in the evening in every locality, these meetings to include one minute of silence to be observed at 9pm;
  • activities for school children such as special school assemblies and the use of a special issue of The School Paper; and
  • other events as organised by a committee convened in each municipality.

This list shows that teaching children about the nature of the day was an important feature of Anzac Day from the beginning. This has continued to the present day as demonstrated in a recent podcast about Anzac Day from ABC Radio National.

This is just a snippet from the history of Anzac Day.  Below I have listed a few items that you may wish to follow up if you want to find out more about Anzac Day.   The Australian War Memorial website gives an overview of Anzac Day which is fairly typical of how the day is presented to the Australian public.  The article by John Moses explains the role played by Garland and the ADCC in establishing Anzac Day as a national public holiday on 25th April.  Chapter five of Ken Inglis’ book is also well worth a read.  His work focuses on war memorials hence he does not seek to explain the origins of Anzac Day, but as the history of war memorials is so connected to Anzac Day he gives an interesting overview of the early commemorations of Anzac Day.  The ABC Radio National podcast gives some insights into issues surrounding the history of Anzac Day that are being debated by Australians today.

This post relies heavily on the digitised newspapers stored on Trove. As I discussed in a previous post, Trove does not include all newspapers published in Australia.  The State Library of South Australia link lists some more newspaper articles relating to the early history of Anzac Day that do not appear on Trove.  I am sure that by digging around you will be able to add to what I have written about here.  Please share what you know in a comment below.


11 thoughts on “The Emergence of Anzac Day

  1. Pingback: A remembrance and a recommendation on Anzac Day « Now and then

  2. I really enjoyed learning more about the establishment of Anzac Day. I think the original Committee could be happy the day has retained its solemnity.


  3. Great post! ANZAC Day sounds very similar to Memorial Day (a U.S. holiday that honors the dead of all American wars), as both call for people to solemnly reflect upon the casualties of war rather than celebrate victories.


    • Thanks for this comment Jason. I would imagine there would be similar days observed in other countries too, each with their own national inflection, but all with the common theme of remembering the suffering of people at war.


    • To my mind it is important that the centenary is conducted as the originators of the day had intended – it should be a commemoration, not a celebration. The horrific ‘war to end all wars’ is a stain on the history of humanity. It should be remembered, not as a source of glory, but with great sadness at the wanton destruction of lives. I would also like to see Australians and New Zealanders connect more with the Turkish people through ANZAC Day. They suffered also, but even though the Turks were the foes in the Gallipoli campaign, Australian soldiers respected them. I would like to see this respect emerge into friendship and sharing through the centenary. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to read Turkish histories about the Gallipoli campaign?


  4. Have a letter from a great uncle dated 5th May 1916 making mention of his attendance at the Anzac March. “We had a lovely march on Anzac Day. It was worth going a long way to see. A pity Tom didn’t stop down for it. There was an awful crowd in Queen Street. Just room to to get down the middle of the street. I don’t know how they fared in the crowd, it was hot enough marching and they were packed like sardines”. A month later he left with the 42nd never to return to Australia.


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