Anzac: a tale of two nations

Apr 25, 2021

National days are usually – by their nature, you might think – exclusive. No one but the USA celebrates 4 July. Even when nations share a date (as Australia and India share 26 January) they are not the same occasion. 25 April – Anzac Day – is perhaps the only national day celebrated in common by two nations.

You might assume that Australia and New Zealand mark the day identically, but they don’t, and never have. The differences between the two ‘Anzac’ nations are worth noticing.

While Australian and New Zealand troops formed part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, their experience of the first day of the invasion of Gallipoli became one of the significant differences between the two. Australian brigades landed at dawn, and their commanders immediately compromised the invasion by failing to advance inland, thereby allowing the defending Ottomans to hold the invaders on the ridges less than a kilometre inland. The New Zealand brigade landed later on the first day, immediately plunged into bitter fighting. New Zealanders also observe a dawn service, but they do not share the same memory of the dawn landing. This is one way that Australia has largely appropriated the day and indeed the very name ‘Anzacs’ for their soldiers. Australians often assume that New Zealand’s memory of Anzac Day are identical; wrongly.

The differences which run through the supposedly shared Australian and New Zealand military history do not begin in 1915. They go back to the conflicts which marked the British conquest and settlement of the two countries.

The British settlement of Australia saw from 1788 a century of intermittent conflict with a succession of Indigenous nations, from Botany Bay to north-west Australia. The extension of settlement across the continent met Aboriginal resistance. Sometimes the European combatants were British soldiers, often colonial police forces (both European and Aboriginal), and often they were stockmen or squatters – those who would benefit directly from the dispossession of the land’s original inhabitants.

For Australia, this conflict, though accepted by colonial populations as inevitable, became a matter of denial and shame, part of the ‘great Australian silence’. Only in the past thirty years have Australian historians begun to expose frontier conflict to scrutiny, and many Australians decline to accept its reality and significance. The Australian War Memorial, despite its mandate to commemorate and interpret Australia’s war history, still refuses to acknowledge it in its galleries, still less to commemorate the 20,000 or more Indigenous dead of these wars.

By contrast, New Zealanders have long accepted the reality of what they call the Land Wars – an acknowledgment of what the conflict was really about – the possession of the land of Aotearoa. Waitangi Day, the day on which the nation reflects on the still contentious implications of the war for New Zealand and the nation’s acceptance of bi-culturalism as a core of its national identity exposes the two nations’ very different attitudes to the memory of war. The New Zealand Army Museum and major museums such as Te Papa in Wellington fully acknowledge the extent and import of these wars.

The service of Australian ‘Waikato Militia’ and the Victorian colonial warship Victoria in the New Zealand wars in the 1860s is both unknown in Australia and not a part of what Australians call the Anzac legend. As with the frontier wars, Australia has a highly selective memory about what it remembers and ignores.

Australians will assume that because Anzac troops served on Gallipoli together they have the same memory of Anzac; again, mistakenly.

While Australians and New Zealanders both served the empire on Gallipoli, in the Middle East and above all on the Western Front, their experiences were often dissimilar. On Gallipoli, New Zealanders remember the tragic failure on Chunuk Bair in August rather than the (equally failed) April landing. On the Western Front the two nations’ divisions actually rarely served alongside each other (the ‘First Anzac Corps’ actually included no New Zealanders at all). This means that some names so evocative in Australia (such as Pozieres) mean little in New Zealand, while Le Quesnoy (New Zealand Division’s final action) is unrecognized by Australians. For Australians, the climax of the Great War is the formation in November 1917 of an Australian Corps – after which New Zealand fades from Australian histories.

The Second World War also saw profound differences between the two nations’ war experience. Although both volunteered to serve the empire, and an ‘Anzac Corps’ existed again (briefly, in the disastrous Greek 1941 campaign), the two nations’ forces had different experiences. Both served in the North African campaign, but while Australians remember the siege of Tobruk, the New Zealanders remember the ‘Crusader’ battles fought to end the siege. Both served at El Alamein in 1942, but not alongside each other – their memories of heat and sand may be similar, but neither recognises much of the detail of the other’s story.

The great separation between the two came, of course, after Japan’s entry into the war. Early in 1942 Winston Churchill sent two of three Australian divisions back to what he called the Far East to meet the Japanese threat. Prime Minister John Curtin, desperately worried that the Japanese would invade, lobbied (at Douglas MacArthur’s instigation) to have the 9th Australian Division return home. The New Zealand government, less concerned at the Japanese threat, allowed the 2nd New Zealand Division – New Zealand’s main fighting force – to remain with the Eighth Army, to fight in Italy. The two nations’ memory of the Second World War remains profoundly different. For New Zealand the big battle is Cassino, in Italy; for Australia it is Kokoda.

After 1945, both countries contributed forces to the west’s Cold War – in Korea, the Malayan Emergency, in Vietnam – firmly part of the British and American-led alliance against what they saw as the advance of world communism in Asia. New Zealand, however, contributed much smaller forces (in Vietnam, an artillery battery and an infantry company), with correspondingly less profound implications for New Zealand’s relationship with conflict.

While Australia has strengthened its alliance with the United States (allowing American bases and forces to be based here) New Zealand’s decision in 1984 to ban visits by nuclear armed or powered warships signalled that the two had very different approaches to potential conflict. While New Zealand’s estrangement from the ANZUS alliance later softened (so New Zealand special forces served with Australians in Afghanistan from 2001), the easy assumption that Australia and New Zealand must share experiences, attitudes and memories is unjustified.

Australia and New Zealand are arguably as close as any two nations in attitudes, cultural mores and ways of life. Their defence forces naturally collaborate closely – both, for example, are committed to peace-support operations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. But there remain profound differences between the military history of the two, and on Anzac Day it would be fitting if Australians especially would remember the ‘NZ’ in Anzac and reflect on what it has meant, and means, to both of us.

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