Anzac Day: Reflecting on Australia’s Diverse Experiences of War

Small plaque set in a boulder in a natural landscape.

On a walking track across the road from the Australian War Memorial is this memorial to Aboriginal people who have served in Australian defence forces. Find your way to this simple place of reflection on Canberra’s Mount Ainslie via the Creative Spirits website.

I have written several posts over the years about the origins of Anzac Day from the Anzac Day celebration in South Australia in 1915 and the solemn commemoration in Brisbane on 25th April 1916 marking the first day that the Australian and New Zealand troops, together with large numbers of troops from other countries in the Allied forces attacked the Ottomans on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula.

I have written about the strong Christian history of Anzac Day that still permeates our Anzac Day ceremonies today (see, for example the 2016 national Anzac Day order of service – pdf), and the early observances of the Anzac Day silence – a reverent, respectful pause to remember the wreckage wrought by war. In another post I wondered about how respectful Australians really are when I found Anzac logos emblazoned on some rubbish bins.

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of Anzac Day and the 101st anniversary of the landing of Allied troops at Gallipoli. This anniversary is an opportunity for deep reflection about how this day can continue to reflect the ongoing history of Australia and our society’s needs both now and for the future.

It is understandable that the effects of World War I and the second part of this maelstrom which was World War II continue to reverberate today. Anzac Day focuses on the Australian and New Zealander contribution to these horrific conflict, so much so that we might forget to reflect on the enormity of these wars on a global scale. Statistics on World War I are hazy, but one estimate suggests that 65 million troops were deployed in the War, over half of whom were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The impact of World War I on Australia was significant, and so it was in many other countries throughout the world.

In my Anzac Day post last year I wrote about how the fighting at Gallipoli was not simply between the Ottoman forces and the soldiers from the Antipodes accompanied by a few, much maligned British officers. The Allied forces were represented by men and women from both the British and the French empires. It was a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual combined effort. In that post I focused on the too often forgotten contribution of Indian soldiers in the battles of the Gallipoli peninsula.

Australia today is very different to Australia one hundred years ago. The 2011 census showed that 1 in 4 Australians were born overseas and 43 percent of Australians had at least one parent born overseas. While people born in Britain continue to dominate these figures and nine percent came from New Zealand, the 2011 census showed that six percent of Australians were born in China and 5.6 percent were born in India. There were people born in China and India who lived in Australia one hundred years ago and some served in the AIF during World War I, but by any account Australia has a more diverse population now.

Does today’s Anzac Day reflect the fact that many Australians had no forebears living in Australia one hundred years ago? A few days ago historian, Carolyn Holbrook observed that Anzac Day is so powerful that marginalised groups in Australia seek to be linked to this national day. “These groups do not criticise Anzac for its militaristic, colonial or racist connotations”, Holbrook observed. “Rather they seek to be embraced by it.” Yet many Australians would find it difficult to successfully weave their stories into the Anzac Day legend. Continue reading