ANZAC Day has been commemorated in Australia and New Zealand since 1916. It commemorates those who fought and died during the various wars the two countries have been involved in.


The term ANZAC comes from the Australia New Zealand Army Corps which fought in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915 and, later on, on the Western Front during the First World War.

The reason ANZAC Day is celebrated on April 25th is because it's at dawn on April 25th, 1915, that the ANZACs landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The aim was to knock the then Ottoman Empire out of the First World War by marching on Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Due to incredibly poor planning (it was said that the British used tourist maps to plan it) and endured one of the most bloodiest and incompetently planned and executed military campaigns in modern military history. The deaths of so many Australians and New Zealanders during that campaign helped foster the national identities of both countries.

The first ANZAC Day ceremonies were held in 1916 in certain Australian states and by the end of the First World War they had extended throughout Australia and New Zealand. The ceremonies vary from place to place but, for decades, services have been held at dawn followed by parades of uniformed services including veterans, the military and the police. They have been a rallying point for patriotism, commemoration and reflection.

They have also come to serve as a time to reflect upon the general futility and mindless slaughter of war in general. Protests have been a feature of some services.

Anyone who has travelled throughout New Zealand cannot help but notice how many war memorials are dotted all over the country. Even the tiniest communities have them. In 1914 New Zealand had 1.1 million people and around 15,000 soldiers were killed. Around 7,000 of them were killed in the Gallipoli campaign. With so many communities having lost loved ones in just one war it’s little surprise ANZAC Day has become so poignant.

But the uncomfortable question that needs to be asked is why did so many of our soldiers go to war on the other side of the world in the first place?

There is no easy answer to that one.

A surprisingly large number of soldiers joined to get out of a country they viewed as a provincial backwater and to see the world. Soon enough they got to see the world but much of it was the mud, blood, shit and filth of trench warfare in Gallipoli and the Western Front.

Many joined because they feared being labelled as cowards or traitors if they didn’t join the military and head off overseas.

Others joined because they genuinely believed that they were fighting for God, King and Country as well as freedom.

But the majority went because they were ordered to go.

The ANZAC tradition always ignores the fact that not only did the soldiers who fought in the First World War have differing motives to join but that the majority of people who went to war had no choice in the matter.

Unlike the Second World War the First World War was neither planned nor wanted. Various imperialist powers made promises to help one another in the event of war breaking out between themselves and powers in other power blocs. A local War between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia quickly spiralled out of control as Germany leant it’s support to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia backed Serbia. France supported Russia and the United Kingdom supported France.

Before long Russia was attacking Germany. Germany was attacking France via Belgium. The British were lending support to France and the Ottoman Empire was supporting the Germans.

It wasn’t until the war had ground to a stalemate on the Western Front that the British began to make promises of self determination for various national groups, especially in the Middle East and eastern Europe, if they supported the Allied cause. The Balfour Declaration was just one example. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points was another. In most cases those declarations proved to be false.

The former Ottoman Empire was carved up between France, Greece and Great Britain. Much of the former Russian state was carved up by their former allies in the name of “self determination”. The colonies of Germany were divided between Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Belgium, Japan and Great Britain. They lost territory to France, Belgium, Denmark, Poland and Lithuania. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist.

Was this division of the spoils of war between the victors of the First World War what New Zealand soldiers went to war for? Is it appropriate to label the mass slaughter of so many people on the various battlefields of the First World War heroic or a noble sacrifice? Was a war that quickly degenerated into a land grab really a war worthy of fighting? These are all uncomfortable questions that need to be answered.

Those who fought in the Second World War had no doubts what they were fighting against: totalitarian dictatorships based on ethnic nationalism in which those who didn’t belong to the favoured race were either exterminated or enslaved. While they were, on the whole, less willing to go primarily because of the horrors they heard about from those who had fought in the First World War they went to fight nonetheless.

By the 1970s people began to question the very point of ANZAC Day. The Vietnam War led people in both Australia and New Zealand to ask whether the ANZAC tradition invoked on ANZAC Day was more of a myth aimed at rallying people for wars that were increasingly about the securing of resources, fighting the ideological bogeyman of Communism or just something to distract the masses from more pressing matters at home such as poverty, unemployment, the growing wealth gap and the running down of essential social services such as health care and education rather than a genuine remembrance of those who fought and died in the various wars Australians and New Zealanders have fought in.

Ultimately, the truth is that most of the claims made about the people whose names decorate the war memorials throughout New Zealand are, at best, half truths. Their sacrifices were very much in vain and we have been very quick to forget that they didn’t die so they would be put on a pedestal but, as one veteran of WW2 who fought in the Maori Battalion told me, so people can talk whatever bullshit they want without being sent to a prison camp or shot.