The Anzac legend

The Anzac legend holds a significant place in Australian history, representing the collective spirit and sacrifice of those who have served the nation. Originally coined to denote the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during the First World War, ‘Anzac’ has evolved over more than a century to encompass all individuals who have served in Australia’s armed forces.

The meaning of ‘Anzac’

Initially formed in Egypt before the Gallipoli landings in 1915, the acronym ANZAC became synonymous with both the Australian and New Zealand area of operations on Gallipoli and the soldiers who fought there. Over time, the term has evolved, and now encompasses all Australian service personnel. There is no rule or law that indicates how the word ‘Anzac’ should be capitalised. For example, DVA only uses ‘ANZAC’ when referencing the Corps itself, and uses ‘Anzac’ in all other circumstances. The Australian War Memorial (AWM) generally uses ‘ANZAC’, given its focus on historical records and memorabilia.

The First Anzacs

In 1914 Australia’s strongest cultural ties were with Britain. There was no question that Australia would support Britain and help defend the British Empire, to which Australians pledged their loyalty. With a population of less than 5 million in 1914, Australians from diverse backgrounds enlisted for reasons ranging from unemployment to a sense of duty or a combination of motivations. The first Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was formed in August 1914 to deploy overseas during the war.

Image of the Anzac soldier 

Distinct characteristics were attributed to the Anzac soldier during the Gallipoli Campaign. Said to embody toughness, inventiveness, and loyalty, they were lauded for their bravery and humour. Behind the lines, Anzacs often exhibited undisciplined behaviour, presenting a unique blend of resilience and irreverence.

Newspaper men

War correspondents played a pivotal role in shaping the Anzac legend, with Charles Edwin Woodrow (CEW) Bean standing out as Australia’s Official War Correspondent. Bean's writings were influenced by his ideals and experiences which later informed the Official Histories that he wrote or edited. During the war, Bean produced 226 notebooks recording his observations and opinions. These formed the basis of Australia's Official History of the War, of which Bean was author and editor. Bean was also instrumental in the creation of the AWM in Canberra. 

Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, an English correspondent, contributed to the establishment of the Anzac legend through his vivid accounts of the Australian landing on 25 April 1915. Ashmead-Bartlett wrote,

‘Here was a tough proposition to tackle in the darkness, but those colonials were practical above all else and went about it in a practical way. They stopped a few minutes to pull themselves together, get rid of their packs, and charge their rifle magazines. Then this race of athletes proceeded to scale the cliff without responding to the enemy's fire. They lost some men, but didn't worry, and in less than a quarter of an hour the Turks were out of their second position, and either bayoneted or fleeing.’ [Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Ashmead-Bartlett's Story, Saturday 8 May 1915, p13].

Additionally, Melbourne’s Age journalist Philip Schuler provided a humane perspective on the Anzac experience. Schuler's words acknowledged the courage of both Australians and Turks on Gallipoli. His reporting focused on the soldiers’ humanity and lent authenticity to the Anzac legend.

Anzacs from diverse backgrounds

There was a degree of cultural diversity in the AIF during the First World War. Some 1,000 Indigenous Australians are thought to have enlisted, as did men of German, Scandinavian, Russian and other backgrounds, but most of the force was of British background. 

Women and the Anzac legend

While the Anzac legend focused on men, Australian women played crucial roles in the war, as nurses, medical support personnel, and Voluntary Aid Detachments, contributing to the broader narrative of sacrifice and service. Since the First World War to today, many women have served in the Australia Defence Force, and “Anzac” encompasses their service.

Current day legend

The Anzac legend has evolved to become more inclusive, but remains a topic of debate in Australia, reflecting the nation's ongoing exploration of its history and national identity. Anzac Day serves as a day of commemoration, uniting and sometimes dividing Australians. In the words of Charles Bean, the Anzac legend stands as a testament to the ‘great-hearted men’ whose stories, both good and bad, form an enduring monument to Australia's history.

Facts and figures

  • By the end of the First World War, 416,000 Australians had enlisted to serve in the armed forces.
  • During the First World War, over 330,000 Australians served overseas and some 60,000 Australians lost their lives.
  • Around 156,000 Australians were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner during the First World War.
  • More than 103,000 Australian military personnel have lost their lives in wars, conflicts and peace operations. 

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