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Spirit of Anzac: Remembering the birth of a national mythology

Divisional Headquarters Staff wade ashore at Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915. The officer with the spade is thought to be Major Cecil Henry Foott DAQMG (Later Brigadier CH Foott CB CMG) - (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Despite its age, Australia as a nation has always acquitted itself on the field of battle with honour, bravery and an undying sense of camaraderie – as we prepare to commemorate Anzac Day 2020, under a cloud of uncertainty, the virtues exemplified by the Diggers on the shores of Gallipoli remain a nation’s guiding light.

Despite its age, Australia as a nation has always acquitted itself on the field of battle with honour, bravery and an undying sense of camaraderie – as we prepare to commemorate Anzac Day 2020, under a cloud of uncertainty, the virtues exemplified by the Diggers on the shores of Gallipoli remain a nation’s guiding light.

Every nation has its trial by fire. For England, the Battle of Hastings in 1066; for the US, the Battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary War. Both serve as seminal moments in the forging of a national psyche and national identity. 

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For Australia, a nation at the time that was just 14 years old, the tragic, flawed and ultimately doomed Gallipoli campaign, the brainchild of future British Prime Minister and wartime hero Winston Churchill served as the nation's trial by fire, galvanising the nation behind the war effort and establishing a mythos that permeates the national identity to this day. 

Prior to Federation, each of the six self-governing colonies had individual armies consisting of full-time soldiers, militia and volunteer units. In March 1901, the Commonwealth government assumed control of defence matters, merging the colonial forces to form the Commonwealth Military Forces (CMF).

The lead up to war and birth of a nation's warriors 

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Previously, the colonial forces had participated in fighting in New Zealand in the Anglo-Maori wars, in China in the Boxer Rebellion, South Africa in the Boer War, as well as rebellions within Australia.

The process of unifying the armies was undertaken while forces were still active in South Africa, with 28,923 soldiers now falling under the banner of the new Australian Army.

Former commander of the NSW military contingent, Major General Sir Edward Hutton, became the first commander of the CMF later in 1901, returning to Australia after a five-year hiatus after serving in Ireland, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Sir Edward was tasked with structuring the new army, and oversaw the introduction of the Defence Act of 1903, which brought all the military units under unified legislation, as well as empowering the Commonwealth government to be able to call up 'unexempted' males in times of war for home defence.

However, these forces could not be used in industrial disputes and couldn't serve outside of Australia, but led to the Defence Act of 1909, which saw the introduction of the country's first universal training scheme, which required males between 18 and 60 years to perform militia service within Australia and its territories. 

This training scheme came into operation in 1911 and saw the establishment of the Royal Military College in Duntroon as well as a system of universal national service.

Males aged 12-18 became cadets, and men aged 18-26 were forced to serve in the CMF, however, when World War I broke out just three years later, a new force was required to be established due to the Defence Act of 1903 forbidding the CMF from fulfilling Australia's pledge to supply 20,000 men to support the British Forces.

The outbreak of war and the 'Pacific campaign'

Much like many of the British Empire's colonies, Australia joined the British war effort with immense haste and excitement, men from across the nation swarmed to enlist, with promises of adventure, excitement and glory on the battlefield, with the was expected to be "over by Christmas". 

With the outbreak of war with Germany, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was formed in August 1914, consisting of an all-volunteer force, with men stumbling over themselves to enlist, in a conflict that was expected to be over by Christmas.

Eventually, over 400,000 would enlist to serve in the first AIF.

While Australia's first significant involvement in the Great War was the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force's (ANMEF) landing on Rabaul on 11 September 1914, and then taking possession of German New Guinea at Toma less than a week later, followed by the neighbouring islands of the Bismarck Archipelago in October.

Six months later, nearly 104 years ago to the day, members of the AIF landed on Gallipoli in Turkey with troops from New Zealand, forming the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac).

The Middle East and towards Gallipoli 

When it became clear that the conflict would not be a short, and as the lives began to mount British High Command sought a way to cut the war short by opening an additional front through Ottoman Turkey, long-considered by the Allied powers to be the "sick old man of Europe".

Future prime minister, then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill saw the Ottoman Empire as the 'soft underbelly' of the Central Powers and ripe for a strike, which would also serve to reinforce the Russian front through access to ice-free port, with the Dardenelles, a thin strip of land providing direct access to Istanbul too tempting a target to pass up. 

Leveraging the power of the British Royal Navy, Churchill sought to punch through the Dardenelles using brute naval firepower, softening up what was erroneously believed to be light defences across the Gallipoli peninsula for a ground incursion and the eventual sacking of Istanbul and ensuing collapse of the Ottoman Empire. 

However, from the onset the campaign was doomed to fail, as faulty intelligence dramatically underestimated the strength of the Ottoman defenders both on land and at sea, as sea mines and forts, the first anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapon system, took their toll on the Royal Navy forces, leaving the landing forces dangerously exposed. 

Despite an immense bombardment, 25,000 Australian and New Zealand troops made their way ashore under the early dawn light, charging headlong into a withering barrage of fire from the heavily defended Ottoman positions and the terrain, comprised of steep cliffs and deep valleys enclosing the attackers. 

It was intended that the Anzac landings would serve as a pincer movement and surround Ottoman and German forces retreating north following similar British and French landings at the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. Over 2,000 of the Anzacs were injured or killed on the first day of the invasion.

Despite being a military failure, with the battle at Gallipoli said to have "no influence" on the course of the war, the Anzac legend was born, with the characteristics of bravery, ingenuity, endurance and mateship coming to be important and defining characteristics of the Australian personality.

Nearly two decades after, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, regarded as the "saviour" of the Turks at Gallipoli and a father figure of the country formed after the first world war, wrote a tribute to the Anzacs, saying, "Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace.

"There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well."

Your thoughts

"What we see in the honour roll is the name of every Australian who has given their life in the service of the nation, no rank, no race, no religion, they are all equal in death – and it is fitting that the memorial sits directly opposite the Parliament to remind the decision-makers of the impact and seriousness of their decisions," former chair of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson told Defence Connect. 

Established following the 'War to end all Wars' under the oversight of Australia's official World War I historian Charles Bean who conceived the idea of a memorial to Australian soldiers during his exposure to the horrors of Western Front and the battles in France during 1916  the memorial plays an important part in the national psyche. 

Dr Nelson sombrely explained to Defence Connect, "Every nation has its story, this is ours  it is at the War Memorial we reveal our character as a nation  it isn't about celebrating or glorifying war, the War Memorial is a celebration of life, family, mateship, sacrifice and the birthplace of Australia's story as a nation."

In the lead up to a dramatically different Anzac Day this year, Defence Connect will be producing a series cataloguing and commemorating the nation's military history, if you would like to help support the work of the Australian War Memorial, Defence Connect will be pleased to make introductions. 

If you would like to contribute to this tribute to Australia's veterans, please contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Spirit of Anzac: Remembering the birth of a national mythology
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