ANZAC: celebration or commemoration

Anzac cove wreaths 2015

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fervently brushing up on my Gallipoli and WWI history in preparation for my trip. Admittedly my knowledge of the subjects was basic at best. One of the great things about working at a university is that you have access to an abundance of resources. In a short space of time, I’ve managed to make my way through some books, an excellent online learning course, multiple articles and websites.

During this process, the most striking theme that stood out to me was the different ways in which Australia and New Zealand mark the event. I stumbled across a 2014 article written by Prof Mark McKenna of the University of Sydney who argues that “New Zealand commemorates Anzac Day while Australia tends to celebrate it”.

McKenna says that the reason behind this is that over the years Australia has come to signify ANZAC as the founding event in their national history, whereas New Zealand views ANZAC as one of the significant events in their history. This has led to somewhat of a cultural clash between those who wish to solemnly commemorate their war dead and those who wish to celebrate their war heroes and national identity. When the Australian government wanted to have John Farnham sing at the 2005 Gallipoli Dawn Service, it was New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Helen Clarke who told them that she viewed it as inappropriate.

The comparison between how ANZAC is viewed is interesting. Even the acronym ‘ANZAC’ is contentious. ‘Anzac’ in lower case is now commonly used to describe Australians and New Zealanders who fought together in the First World War and successive wars; and the upper case acronym ‘ANZAC’ is used to describe the actual Army Corps unit. However some organisations such as the Returned Services League, favour tradition and will only use the upper case version. To this day I still use the upper case version by default, partly because this is what I was taught in my Aussie school as a kid, and from having parents who served in the New Zealand forces who preferred the upper case version.

On a more unsettling note for New Zealanders, I’ve noticed that in Australia the ‘NZ’ component in ANZAC is being acknowledged less and less. I picked up Australian historian Caroline Holbrook’s, “Unauthorised History of Anzac”, which gave an in-depth and interesting insight into Australian military history and the First World War, but barely made mention of New Zealand. I guess that the factors leading to the dropping the ‘NZ’ are debatable – Australia’s search for its own significant founding event; the changing relationship between Australia and New Zealand following the break down in the ANZUS treaty and Australia’s closer relationship with the United States. Then there are the Iraq and Afghanistan wars where Australia chose to serve actively whereas New Zealand played a peacekeeping role.

That the changing face of ANZAC is a sign that the two countries are either growing apart or outgrowing one another remains to be seen. This Saturday I’ll be among 8000 Australians and 2000 New Zealanders on the Gallipoli Peninsula, coming together to both commemorate and celebrate the fallen, each in their own way.

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