‘From 1915 the word ANZACs was applied to military formations – at first ANZAC meant a man who had served on Gallipoli, and later acquired broader applications. It generated many slang terms in the first Australian Imperial Force and has become a part of the Australian language’ – the term ‘ANZACs’ (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) represents so much more than the army group; it represents a new nation emerging into the 20th century and beyond.
After losing thousands of men and fighting thousands of miles away from home as part of the British Empire (an Empire in which Australia arguably did not hold any power or political independence) it is important to understand how the ANZAC’s helped to shape Australian national identity and create the legend which is still celebrated today.
In the late summer of 1914 WWI commenced, spiralling out of control, and due to an un-necessary web of political entanglement the number of countries who rose in arms propagated. Countries declaring war joined one of two sides (One formally known as ‘The Allies’ and the other formally known as ‘The Central Powers’). Modern machinery and weaponry rather than politics would dominate this new war. However, outdated contractual and political agreements still remained, whereby if certain nations were invaded or entered into war, then so too did another to support its allies, such as Britain, and therefore Australia. Other nations such as France and Russia held similar pacts also committing them to war, known today as the ‘entangling alliances’.
With the British Empire entering the war, all of the countries within the British Empire also declared war ready to engage in battles across the world. Men from all races and nationalities rose up for the cause and fought gallant, heroic battles which changed their nations, their people, the world and the British Empire forever. India, Canada, South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia amongst others formed their armies and called up young men ready to fight for their personal freedom and to protect the Empire.
The Battle for Gallipoli
400,000 Australian men volunteered to fight for the Empire. Of this, 60,000 died and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. Many of these deaths came in the battle of Gallipoli, arguably the place where the ANZAC legend was created. On 25 April 1915 members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) landed at Gallipoli together with troops from New Zealand, Britain, and France. The objective was to secure the peninsula and relieve their Russian allies to the east, but this began a bloody and gruesome failed campaign that ended with the evacuation of troops on 19-20 December 1915. Varying objectives could not be met and seven months of solid fighting ended in defeat and thousands of British, French, Australian and New Zealand deaths.
The Gallipoli battle itself started with seaborne invasions with three attacks. The British and French attacked the most southern peninsula of Gallipoli. Their advance was minimal as they were pinned down on the beaches and coastal hills struggling to move forward. Further north on the westerly coast of Gallipoli the Australian and New Zealand troops landed with slightly better success, but again they were pinned down by the Turks in various coves and offshore hills. To the Ottoman Empire, ‘The Turks’, the battle was make or break, they needed to repel the allies and to protect their western shores so close to their capital of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul).
The initial attacks were disastrous for the Allies – British plans proved ineffective as they sent more and more ANZAC’s into battle. This led to a long drawn out battle, synonymous with WWI. As the British and French could not advance north they left the ANZAC force to endure the worst in the most reinforced area of the island. This abandonment and failure of British plans would never be forgotten by the Australian people as their men died in great numbers. The battle raged for months with little to no advances from the Allies and strong defensive fighting from the Turks, with the British plan to link all three fighting forces not achieved. Even as small advancements were made, the Turks snuck in and took their positions back under moonlight – months of arduous fighting achieved nothing. The ANZAC men started to feel betrayed; they felt they had no support, and they were right.
British Command: Gallipoli and WWI
Throughout the Gallipoli campaign and generally in WWI, British commanders typically held the higher positions within military ranks and dictated where and how the colonised nations would fight. So when considering how WWI shaped Australian national identity, one of the most important observations is that perhaps these controlling British commanders – commanders that dictated ANZAC fighting which often lead to many deaths – were a main reason for Australians to set themselves apart and to move towards independence in future wars.
An ironic illustration of this is early war propaganda which encouraged Empire troops to fight. One poster from the British government, issued in 1914, read ‘The Empire needs men! Australia, India, Canada, New Zealand, All answer the call. Helped by the Young Lions, the Old lion defies its foes. Enlist now’. The British Empire called for its ‘young lions’, and symbolic propaganda such as this, a poster showing a strong lion standing tall on the highest rock (symbolic of Britain’s power, dominance and strength) with four smaller lions standing closely behind and below (the Allies), was used throughout the Empire, perhaps to show the power Britain held within the world and within its Empire, but also to show importance of countries such as Australia, who were to play a vital role in the war.
This relationship between Britain at the top and Empirical nations proved problematic. Throughout the Gallipoli campaign, to many Australians it seemed they had been sent to their deaths for a piece of pointless land, in an unnecessary war for the British. Feelings and concerns grew ideologically as the battle took more Australian men – meanwhile the stories of war heroics told about even the most insignificant victory continued to grow and be spread throughout communities back in Australia, but with less belief and trust from the people who were beginning to understand the truth.
The feeling of distrust toward the British and the ever-mounting feeling of Australia for Australia grew. The two ideals gathered more pace as the months dragged on. This feeling gained political and official backing as further battles throughout WWI reinforced and highlighted the problems. In WWII this same precedent of British commanders ruling Australian men into battle was not applied; Australians gained more power and fought independently and successfully under Australian commanders alongside, rather than under, their American and British allies throughout the Pacific and Europe. Stories such as the ANZACs at Gallipoli were remembered to prevent falling back into similar circumstances, helping to secure their new path towards a stronger Australian army, and Australian mentality which would return to the mainland as Australian sentiment grew further from that of the British Empire, making the ANZAC legend about more than the soldiers.
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