• Michaela Selway

Mythologising ANZAC: What Are We Celebrating?

In his 2003 ANZAC address, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard stated that ANZAC Day ‘is about the celebration of some wonderful values … of courage, of valour, of mateship, or decency, of a willingness as a nation to do the right thing, whatever the cost’ [1]. Statements such as these have caused recent historians to question the current motivations for celebrating days such as ANZAC day. Many have concluded that the true essence of what occurred on the 25 April 1915 has been lost to mythology. These historians have questioned the purpose of maintaining a half-day public holiday if the understanding of the past has diverged so greatly from what actually happened. Thousands of New Zealanders and Australians attend ANZAC ceremonies every year, yet many do not know the full history of what they are commemorating. While this is a valid question to ask, arguably vital, we must also ask ourselves to what extent would we remember these events without a public holiday to remind us each year.

The idea of nationhood, particularly that of the birth of the nation, has been associated with ANZAC Day for decades. It was on this day that New Zealand and Australia became their own nations - they emerged ‘into the world by the efforts of great men’ [2]. BJ Nelson, a medical historian of Australia, stated that two facets were required for nationhood: firstly, the people wished to become a nation, and secondly, the ‘common fellow feeling’ that manifested in literature, language and history [3]. He stipulated that the ‘volunteer’ group that landed on the shores of Anzac Cove during World War I faced both triumph and tragedy, mixing both ‘inconsolable grief and mourning’ with national pride, love, and friendship which they documented in their diaries and spoke of when they returned home [4]. This amalgamation of emotion gave ‘our young nation[s] a greater common belief in itself and its place in the world’; they believed they were fighting for their own country as an independent nation rather than a colony of Britain [5]. To use the words of Bruce P Waxman, ‘our forefathers [came] of age in Gallipoli’ [6]. Marilyn Lake questioned this assumption, however, as the ANZACs were not fighting their own war overseas. This was a British war that they were conscripted into. Indeed, the majority of early recruits were European migrants to Australia and New Zealand [7]. She argues that ANZACs were not even ‘defending Australia or our way of life, but were attacking and invading the Ottoman empire’. If that narrative defines the Australia nation then, Lake posits, ‘we are defined by killing Turks defending their country’ [8].

It must then be questioned why, if not for national pride, is this day continually celebrated? Waxman contends that the celebrations endure due to tradition. On the 30 April 1915, news reached New Zealand of the landing in Anzac and ‘a half-day holiday was declared’ which continued on the 25 April each subsequent year [9]. In contrast, James Robins argues that the commemoration continues due to a rare ‘Special Relationship’ between Australia, New Zealand and Turkey [10]. This special relationship was forged through a shared experience of the atrocities of war and the achievement of these three countries to look beyond, or according to Robins deny, these atrocities in order that ‘former enemies can be reconciled’ [11]. However, the current approach does not acknowledge the full extent of what these men experienced. Robins reminds his readers that ANZAC prisoners of war witnessed the Armenian genocide, including death marches and killing fields, He compares these events to the German Holocaust, yet the Holocaust is remembered in a very different way. It is not that ANZAC day should not be celebrated, states Robins, but rather that it should be remembered truthfully.

To question the myth of ANZAC, however, is ‘to court the charge of treason’ [12]. Many find it distressing, even uncomfortable, to revise that which is ‘painful to the national feeling’. In many ways, it is easier to eliminate it entirely from memory [13]. Lake argues that the denial of this history had two great consequences. ANZAC remembrance became untouchable. ANZAC became the origin myth that gave meaning to all national history - ‘it was the ‘very lifeblood of the country, animating all national achievement’ [14]. This caused both a celebration and glorification of war that arguably advocates violence over diplomacy in the fight for ‘freedom and democracy’ [15]. Lake argues that the ANZACs did not even fight in Gallipoli for freedom and democracy but rather to support the British and Russians. Even if this was the case, Lake stipulates that this is not how ANZAC Day is remembered. It has ‘long since ceased to be a day of solemn remembrance and become a festive event, celebrated by backpackers wrapped in flags, playing rock music, drinking beer and proclaiming their national identity on the distant shores of Turkey’ [16]. Moreover, and more importantly in the case of New Zealand and Australia, to claim that ANZAC defined the birth of New Zealand and Australia as nations is to ignore the crucial and devastating histories prior to 1915. For comparison, the 2019 Waitangi Day Dawn service reached 1000 attendees whereas the 2018 ANZAC Day Dawn Service reached approximately 5000 [17]. Though this statistic should not invalidate the importance of either commemoration, it should question what histories we are using to define our origins.

The approach historians such as Lake and Robins have taken in interpreting the history of ANZAC Day versus those such as Nelson and Waxman appear on opposite ends of a spectrum. While Nelson and Waxman argue that this tradition reminds us of our origins and advocates the unique qualities of “mateship”, love, hope, and freedom that our men fought for, Lake and Robins stipulate that the focus on these qualities camouflages the true history of ANZAC, concluding that the ANZAC we now celebrate is a mere myth. It must be questioned, however, if the masses would remember and commemorate any of what occurred at ANZAC cove without a public holiday and a multitude of ceremonies held around the country. While the holiday should not be abolished and the ceremonies cancelled, perhaps it is rather the method and proceedings themselves that should be revised to include the narrative of what really occurred at ANZAC Cove over 100 years ago.


Michaela Selway is the co-founder of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying how biblical ideas on Origin Myths, Morality, Prophecies and Gender Roles were projected into Chronicles throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


[1] Marilyn Lake, What’s Wrong With ANZAC? The Militarisation of Australian History, Sydney, 2010, pp.17, 21.

[2] James Robins, ‘Anzacs witnessed the Armenian genocide – that shouldn’t be forgotten in our mythologising,’ The Guardian, accessed 24 April 2019 from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/23/anzacs-witnessed-the-armenian-genocide-that-shouldnt-be-forgotten-in-our-mythologising

[3] BJ Nelson, ‘ANZAC After 100 Years,’ Medical Journal of Australia, 202, 7, Sydney, 2015, p.343.

[4] Bruce P Waxman, ‘The Origins of the ANZAC Day Celebrations and the Contributions of Monash,’ Medical Journal of Australia, 202, 7, Sydney, 2015, p.386; Nelson, ‘ANZAC After 100 Years,’ p.343.

[5] Nelson, ‘ANZAC After 100 Years,’ p.343.

[6] Waxman, ‘The Origins of the ANZAC Day Celebrations,’ p.386.

[7] Lake, What’s Wrong With ANZAC?, p.16.

[8] Lake, What’s Wrong With ANZAC?, p.21.

[9] Waxman, ‘The Origins of the ANZAC Day Celebrations,’ p.386.

[10] James Robins, ‘Anzacs witnessed the Armenian genocide – that shouldn’t be forgotten in our mythologising,’ The Guardian, accessed 24 April 2019 from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/23/anzacs-witnessed-the-armenian-genocide-that-shouldnt-be-forgotten-in-our-mythologising

[11] Robins, ‘Anzacs witnessed the Armenian genocide.’

[12] Lake, What’s Wrong With ANZAC?, p.11.

[13] Robins, ‘Anzacs witnessed the Armenian genocide.’

[14] Lake, What’s Wrong With ANZAC?, pp.12, 15.

[15] Lake, What’s Wrong With ANZAC?, p.20.

[16] Lake, What’s Wrong With ANZAC?, p.13.

[17] Radio New Zealand, ‘Waitangi dawn ceremony draws more than 1000’, accessed 24 April 2019:

https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/381835/waitangi-dawn-ceremony-draws-more-than-1000; Radio New Zealand, ‘ANZAC Day 2019: In remembrance’, accessed 24 April 2019: https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/355927/anzac-day-2018-in-remembrance

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