Tomorrow, April 25, is Anzac Day, one of the most significant national holidays on the calendar for Australians and New Zealanders who set aside time to commemorate their war veterans. Commemorative services will be held at dawn, while ex-service men and women will march in afternoon parades through the towns and urban centers of both nations.
The Centennial of the holiday is only two years away on April 25, 2015, at which point a large-scale commemorative event will be held at Gallipoli in modern day Turkey. Some 40,000 Aussies and New Zealanders have expressed interest in attending the occasion, attesting to the power that the holiday still holds for many.
Anzac Day marks the first combat seen by troops from Australia and New Zealand (who came to be known as Anzacs – short for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) in World War I, when they stormed the beaches of Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25, 1915. Their mission: to open the Dardanelles to allied naval forces, with the ultimate goal of capturing Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Resistance from Turkish forces was fierce, however, and the invasion became a protracted eight-month battle that ended in a stalemate. More than 8,000 Australian soldiers and 2,721 New Zealand troops died in the Gallipoli campaign, which claimed a total of 120,000 lives from all sides.
Since fighting in Gallipoli, Australia and New Zealand have been involved in some capacity (whether logistical or combat) in the majority of America’s military conflicts, from World War II and the Korean War to the Vietnam War, both Iraq wars, and the war in Afghanistan where Australia deploys around 1,550 troops annually under Operation SLIPPER.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently announced that Australia’s troops will gradually be phased out of Afghanistan, with two-thirds of the nation’s troops set to return by the end of 2013. To date, 39 Australian troops have died and 249 have been wounded in the conflict, which has become deeply unpopular at home.
Meanwhile, just as enthusiasm for war has plummeted, the national identities of Australia and New Zealand – originally forged in part by Anzacs nearly a century ago – are more in flux than ever before. For almost two centuries, settlers in both nations came mainly from the British Isles. Since World War I, however, the nation’s population has quadrupled, with massive waves of immigrants coming from China, India, Italy, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Today, the “average Australian” may be born in Australia, but this reality is changing fast. At present, 26 percent of Aussies are born overseas, while only 54 percent are born to parents who were both born in Australia. This is also mirrored by an uptick in religious diversity, with Australia’s population today being 2.5 percent Buddhist, 2.2 percent Muslim and 1.3 percent Hindu, which is the fastest growing of these minority religions and doubled from 2006 to 2011. Similar trends have taken root in New Zealand.
Amid demographic change and disillusionment with the war in Afghanistan, the relevance of Anzac Day has dwindled for many. In the same way that Memorial Day has become little more than an excuse to hold a BBQ for many Americans, so too has the significance of Anzac Day been lost in translation or fallen by the wayside for many recent immigrants and young Australians (barring those in service).
Nonetheless, the ceremonies will go forward tomorrow and the contributions of veterans cannot be diminished. The holiday’s relevance may have faded for many, but history speaks for itself and demands to be honored.