OPINION: How ANZAC Day has changed over the years

Danny and Leah 27/04/2021

Another ANZAC Day has gone by. 

After two years of restricted gatherings, first in 2019, following the shooting at the Mosques in Christchurch and then no Parades under Covid19 lockdown last year, it was heartening to see the numbers that came together to remember.

Thousands of Kiwis at Remembrance Services throughout New Zealand. Some gathering for the Dawn Services, others joined their communities later in the morning, while many did both. This year two of my Mokopuna, grandchildren, marched with me in our local parade. Proudly they marched, medals of their Tupuna pinned onto their chests. For a child the service was long yet there they stood, soaking it up the stories, the wairua of it all.

Since the first ANZAC Day, on April 25th 1916, this was ANZAC Day number one hundred and five, and how they have changed.

My first recollections of ANZAC Day are so different to what they are now. 

Small “clothe” poppies being sold by returned servicemen. At school we purchased paper strips with the poppy emblem on them to be pinned on our clothes. There were school assignments, often with a visit from a returned Servicemen, supported by teachers at or school that had served in WWI, WWII or the Korean War. 

On ANZAC day itself, older men in the whanau, mainly the Dads, the Uncles and Grandparents disappearing well before dawn only to return later in the day after more than a few drinks with their mates at the RSA in town. 

I have no recollections of Scouts and Guides marching with other children on ANZAC Day. In fact, ANZAC day was strictly an adult affair and most services were at dawn.

The soldiers who saw action in Borneo and Malaya never visited our school, nor our troops that went off to Vietnam who were not being recognised as “Returned Service Men” even though they served from 1963 through to 1975. 

Compared to WWI and WWII Vietnam was a very modest affair with only just over 3,000 military and civilian personnel serving. Thirty-seven of them died on active service, one hundred and eighty-seven were wounded and two civilians with the Red Cross surgical teams also lost their lives.

It was the shameing war, where the soldiers came home, on civilian flights, dressed in casual street clothes so as not to attract attention from the thousands of angry protestors that marched against our country’s involvement in what the Vietnamese call “The American” war.

That protest was carried on into the RSA clubs around the traps where the soldiers, back from Vietnam were told it “wasn’t a real war” and many were not welcome.

How that has changed. Many of our “Senior Vets” that attend the services now are Vietnam Vets. It isn’t the only thing that has changed. ANZAC Day and the way we see The Gallipoli campaign has changed as we learn the truth of that war.

Time and a revision of our history has allowed us to remove the “rose” tinted glasses and see the true horror, the huge loss, so many lives broken, the men and their families. How do you return home to a “normal” life when what you have witnessed, and been part of fits at the extreme of human behaviour?  All at the hands of an incompetent, ignorant and arrogant British command that looked down on “Colonials” treating them and their own soldiers’ lives with a level of contempt.

Day after day. Battle upon battle. Wave after wave, troops were thrown to their deaths. We know that if you do the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome, you are insane. 

At that time the military censor reshaped and hid the truth from those back home. Victories and gains of ground from the enemy were reported. The mess that our troops had been dropped into; the desperate situation they faced day after bloody day was glossed over and hidden from those back home. That truth, so horrific, was not spoken of by the soldiers on their return. What can you say when you have seen the worst of the worst.

We have now learned the truth, that thousands of New Zealand lives were thrown away in the First World War, that “war to end all wars”. To call it a “folly” is not enough. A bloody tragedy, doesn't get close. We cannot imagine what it is like to live day after day, standing on corpses, the dead. Your own and those of the enemy. The smell, the flies and disease. Contrasts of hyper thermic cold and oppressive heat, lack of water and food. Imagine running out of ammunition? Days, sometimes weeks without rest and no respite from the moment of death. Not your own but so many taken that stand right beside you. 

 “The first casualty of war is truth”,

At dawn on 25 April 1915, the ANZACs landed at a place later named Anzac Cove. (Some 20 k’s North of where the British landed.) The ANZACS were to be a diversion for a British landing further south. 

Tragically for the ANZAC’s, the generals in charge and the Naval landing party did not allow for the tidal movements along that coast. Instead of the wide open beaches and flat undulating plains, where they were ment to be landed, they came into a narrow beach at the foot of steep and precipitous ridge lines. Incredibly challenging country to climb, never mind to attack. A place so formidable, many would stay, never returning home.

Meanwhile the British forces landed at Cape Helles at the south of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Through plain stupidity and more than their share of ineptitude they too failed to advance more than a few miles inland.

Gallipoli has been treated by history as “ours. It was not. Perhaps we can take ownership of Anzac Cove, as we have and we do each time someone from here visits. But Gallipoli itself?

By the time the campaign ended, some 553,556 soldiers had been involved.

New Zealand: 8,556 served, casualties 7,473. Dead 2,721, 4,752 wounded. More died from their wounds.

Australia: 50,000 served, 8,159 deaths and 17,924 wounded. 

Britain: 410,000 served, 41,148 killed, 78,000 wounded. 

France: 79,000 served, 9789 killed, 17,371 wounded. 

India: 5000 served, 1350 died, 2700 wounded.

Newfoundland: 1000 served, 49 killed, 300 wounded.

Turkey: estimated 87,000 dead, 250,000 casualties.

By the time troops were evacuated beginning in December of 1915, more than 130,000 had died and many more would die from their wounds.

Anzac Day grew out of this pride of Nation Hood. First observed on 25 April 1916, the date of the landing, ANZAC day has become a crucial part of the fabric of national life – a time for remembering not only those who died at Gallipoli, but all New Zealanders who have served their country in times of war and peace. More recently our armed forces have had deployments to East Timor, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, Israel, East Timor, Afghanistan, Solomon Islands, Iraq, Sudan, Egypt, the Middle East, South Korea, the USA, the Cook Islands, Malaysia, Singapore, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Bahrain, Bougainville, Cambodia and Antarctica.

It has taken us over one hundred years to find the truth of what happened in Gallipoli and the First World War, perhaps we can face the truth of our more distant past. That past, like the myths and legends perpetrated around the First World War, needs to be dealt with in the same way we now face ANZAC Day. Take ownership of it and move forward together.

Ngā mihi ki a koutou.

Danny Watson.