22 Apr 2024

Explainer: Why do we commemorate Anzac Day?

1:49 pm on 22 April 2024
ANZAC day poppies

Anzac Day marks the first big military action by Australian and New Zealand soldiers in Gallipoli in 1915. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

On April 25 each year, New Zealanders at home and around the world mark Anzac Day. The date marks the first big military action by Australian and New Zealand soldiers in Gallipoli in 1915.

From dawn services to parades and ceremonies at RSAs, people will gather to reflect on the atrocities of war, remember those who died, and honour the contributions of returned service personnel. But how did Anzac Day come to be?

Why is it called Anzac Day?

Anzac stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, so the day is called Anzac Day in recognition of the soldiers who fought together at Gallipoli.

Soldiers landing horses at Gallipoli, 1915. Photo: Supplied / Alexander Turnbull Library

What happened in Gallipoli?

Gallipoli is a narrow peninsula of land in modern-day Turkey. In 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed on its beaches at dawn to seize Gallipoli from the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), but they were met with strong resistance. Fighting dragged on for eight months before the Allies were evacuated from the peninsula.

More than 130,000 men died during the Gallipoli campaign, including 2779 New Zealanders and more than 8700 Australians. Many more were injured and endured grueling conditions.

Dawn service at the ANZAC Commemorative Site in Gallipoli. 2018 marks the centenerary of New Zealanders returning to Gallipoli to pay their respects to their fallen for the first time.

Dawn service at the Anzac Commemorative Site in Gallipoli, 2018. Photo: NZDF

Why is Anzac Day commemorated?

Although the goal of seizing Gallipoli and advancing towards Constantinople (now Istanbul) wasn't achieved, the grit and bravery of the soldiers who fought in the war is acknowledged on Anzac Day. It's seen as a time to express sorrow and peace, rather than glorify war.

New Zealand and Australian soldiers landing at Anzac Cove

New Zealand and Australian soldiers landing at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. Photo: Supplied / Alexander Turnbull Library

When did we start commemorating Anzac Day?

The first Anzac Day was observed as a half-day holiday on April 25, 1916. Crowds gathered for local ceremonies and memorial flagpoles were erected around the motu. Race meetings were postponed, and cinemas stayed shut until late afternoon.

The day became an official public holiday in 1920, in "commemoration of the part taken by New Zealand troops in World War I, and in memory of those who gave their lives for the Empire".

After World War II, the day's focus expanded again to recognise New Zealand service men and women who played a part in that war, as well as World War I and the Boer War (which took place in 1899-1902). Anzac Day from then on aimed to recognise "those who gave their lives for New Zealand and the British Empire or Commonwealth of Nations".

Anthony Wareham - the ex-commanding officer of the fifth Wellington, West Coast and Taranaki Battalion - at Anzac Day commemorations in Wellington, 2015. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

What happens at an Anzac Day ceremony?

The Anzac Day ceremony is rich in tradition and ritual, and it generally comes in two parts: the dawn service and the parade.

A typical service begins with returned service personnel marching to their local war memorial pre-dawn. Former veterans and current servicemen and women lead the ceremony, with members of the community joining in for prayers, hymns and the observance of a minute's silence. The service concludes with the singing of the national anthem.

Later in the day, veterans and community groups, including members of the armed forces, cadets, and the Red Cross, will wear their medals and march behind banners to the local war memorial. This service is a more public, less formal commemoration, where people can lay wreathes and pay their respects.

An Anzac Day dawn service took place at Memorial Park in Hamilton.

The phrase 'Lest we forget' predates the battle of Gallipoli by 18 years. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Why do we say 'Lest we forget' at Anzac Day?

We associate this phrase with Anzac Day but it predates the Battle of Gallipoli by 18 years. 'Lest we forget' comes from a line in Rudyard Kipling's 1897 poem 'Recessional', which incidentally has nothing to do with remembering the fallen in war. It became linked to Anzac Day after the end of World War I.

no caption

Anzac biscuits we enjoy today are nothing like the ones endured by World War I soldiers. Photo: Flickr

Where do Anzac biscuits come from?

Much like the pavlova, the origin of these wartime biscuits is contested between Australia and New Zealand. Legend has it biscuits containing rolled oats, sugar, flour, butter and golden syrup were made by women at home and sent to Anzac troops at Gallipoli, but historians historians dispute this story. Soldiers were more likely to have eaten square-shaped, 'ship's biscuits' with a reputation for being so hard that they broke teeth.

The first recorded Anzac biscuit recipe appeared in a community cookbook in 1919.

Anzac Day 2023 commemorations in Wellington.
People lay poppies at the conclusion of the dawn service.

Poppies laid by ceremony attendees following Anzac Day 2023 commemorations in Wellington. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Why do people have red poppies at Anzac Day?

This flower has become a symbol of war remembrance around the world. In Aotearoa, it is associated with Anzac Day. It's also known as the Flanders poppy, as it was one of the first things to grow in the mud and soil of war-ravaged Flanders in northern France. The meaning of the poppy was first captured in by a poem, 'In Flanders Fields', written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, and has become a tribute to the unmarked graves of soldiers.

This year is the 102nd anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Returned and Service's Association's (RSA) Poppy Appeal. The organisation, which was set up in 1916 to support service personnel and their families, sells around a million poppies in a street appeal prior to Anzac Day.