Anzac Day was first proclaimed by Acting Prime Minister, George Pearce, soon after the first anniversary of the landing of ANZAC troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915.
In the early 1920s all Australian States designated Anzac Day as a public holiday. In the 1940s, Second World War veterans joined parades around the country. In the ensuing decades, returned servicemen and women from conflicts in Korea, and Malaya, Indonesia, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, together with veterans from allied countries and peacekeepers, joined the parades.
It was initially a day of solemn commemoration for veterans and Australia shut down for the day as a mark of respect.
The Vietnam War broke the cycle of remembrance as it had been observed until then. Radical protestors from the left saw the ceremony as a glorification of war and did their best to mock and denigrate it. Rather than vent their collective spleens against the political class that committed us to the conflict they attacked the soldiers, sailors and airmen who were dispatched to fight on their behalf. It was the first time returning veterans had been so openly betrayed by their own countrymen.
During this time left-wing teacher federations and unions ignored Anzac Day in many schools and numbers attending annual commemorative services dwindled. The decline was arrested with the production of Peter Weir’s epic film ‘Gallipoli’. It captured our imagination and transformed Anzac Cove into a sacred place for increasing numbers of Australians motivated to learn more about the roots of our Anzac tradition.
Since then public interest in our wartime history has inspired pilgrimages to the Western Front, North Africa, the Middle-East, Crete, South East Asia and the South West Pacific. It has also inspired a plethora of books by academics, military historians and commentators. Not all ‘pilgrims’, nor all of the books, do justice to the solemnity of the pilgrimage but the greater majority are humbled by the experience.
The upcoming Centenary of Anzac is sure to generate much debate about Australia’s role in international conflicts, our political subservience to Britain and the United States, our national identity and the various campaigns our veterans fought in. The quality of the debate, which should include the good, the bad and ugly from the left, right and centre, will be a good indicator of our national maturity.
The future relevance of Anzac Day for generations who, hopefully, will not experience conflict on the scale of the last century will be an important component of that debate.
The Anzac Dawn Service will survive as it is now part of our national DNA. But the relevance of the annual march beyond the life-span of our veterans poses a greater challenge. We can’t rely on today’s Australian Defence Force to fill the void as their combined numbers won’t even fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
If we wish to commemorate the spirit of Anzac forged on distant battlefields such as Gallipoli and Kokoda we need to define that spirit. If we conclude that it represents courage, personal sacrifice and service to our nation in times of adversity then these qualities are reflected in two traditional volunteer organisations – the Rural Fire Service and the State Emergency Service.
Whilst we hope we will not have to commit to any future wars on foreign soil we can be assured that our RFS and SES volunteers will continue to be called upon to protect us from the ravages of fire, flood and other natural disasters. Many will put their lives at risk to carry out their assigned missions.
They are worthy custodians of the spirit of Anzac and many a town in rural Australia would welcome the resurrection of their local Anzac march with the consent of their local RSL members.
The tradition is too important to die with the passing of our last veteran.