Britishness, Empire and the First Anzac Day

On the first anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli, a new invented tradition took place in Australia and New Zealand: Anzac Day. Marches by returned men, religious services and civic meetings were organised across the country. These were an expression of grief and of pride in sacrifice and service in far distant lands, as well as being an opportunity to renew the ongoing recruitment drive. In Queensland, there were also evening meetings that discussed an identical patriotic resolution. The resolution noted the “unswerving loyalty of the people of this state to the throne and empire of His Gracious Majesty the King,” their “admiration of the magnificent heroism, self-sacrifice, and endurance of the soldier patriots of Australia and New Zealand,” who had “laid down their lives for the Empire.” “Through that sacrifice, [Australia] retain[ed] the blessings of liberty enhanced by a fuller sense of nationhood and closer and stronger union with the other portions of the British dominions.”33 In wartime, the growth of nationhood within Australia was seen as entirely compatible with being part of the empire.

These sentiments were echoed elsewhere. Further down the coast in Lismore, New South Wales, the Anzac Day editorial of the Northern Star compared the future longevity of the memory of Gallipoli to that of Thermopylae. The deeds at Gallipoli, it argued, were comparable:

For on the 25th April 1915, our young sons, many of them mere boys, achieved in their successful landing at Anzac bay, amidst an imperishable blaze of glory, what the best qualified experts pronounced the impossible. These heroes, comparatively speaking untrained men, proved in the most practical manner possible, and before the picked troops of the finest army of the British Empire, the truth that is enveloped in our proud vaunt to the nations, ‘Australia the best of everything.’34

Here pride in the nation and its troops’ achievements was measured against a yardstick provided by the empire. In Sydney, where at 9 a.m. on 25 April 1916 the traffic stopped for cheers for “the King, the Empire and the Anzacs,” an interesting battle between existing and new identities played out that evening.35 The Town Hall had long since been booked for the evening for a celebration of Shakespeare’s Tercentenary, and the governor-general had agreed to attend this quintessentially British event. When plans for Anzac Day subsequently emerged, a dilemma became apparent: which allegiance was more important? Ultimately, the organising committee for the literary gathering agreed to cooperate with the Returned Soldiers’ Association and it was resolved: “That the predominating sentiment be the celebration of the Australian national event of the landing at Gallipoli, and that the net proceeds be handed to the Returned Soldiers’ Association.36 Anzac had trumped Shakespeare.

In New Zealand, Anzac Day was inspired, at least in part, by news of Australian plans in late January 1916.37 What followed was a similar array of parades and memorial services in the daytime, and concerts or patriotic meetings in the evening. Yet there were discernible local differences in emphasis. In New Zealand, speeches and editorials on Anzac Day featured religious sentiments much more prominently, and there was a greater propensity to recognise the role of other countries in the campaign. Unlike in Australia, there were several acknowledgements that it was unfortunate that Anzac soldiers had overshadowed the role of other imperial forces in reporting.38 New Zealand MP T.M. Wilford even proposed that Britain should be incorporated into the famous acronym, so that it was referred to as “Banzac.”39 New Zealand was also much more likely to frame the endeavour in its imperial context. For example, gatherings of schoolchildren ahead of Anzac Day were described in the New Zealand Herald thus:

Everywhere the keynote of the proceedings was the same—the growth of the Empire, the lesson of the British flag, of the loyalty with which Young New Zealand had gone forth to another hemisphere to do battle for both, shoulder to shoulder, with their cousins from all quarters of the globe, and of the valiant deeds wrought in Anzac Bay.40

Meanwhile in Britain and Ireland, the nature of imperial relations and of Britishness meant that the commemoration of Gallipoli had some unexpected aspects. The first is that in London, it was the campaign’s Antipodean identity rather than its local Britishness that was emphasised. Thus, on 25 April 1916, two thousand Australian and New Zealand troops marched through London towards a service at Westminster Abbey attended by the King and Queen. One of the soldiers later recalled the celebratory atmosphere of the day:

The thousands cheered us till they were hoarse; they broke through the cordon of police. Girls hugged us, and I don’t remember the number of kisses that we received. From the windows of the different buildings flowers were showered on us as well as cigarettes, flags, handkerchiefs, and other little articles. The Strand had the appearance of a carnival.41

The London Times described the occasion as “Anzac Day” (not Gallipoli Day), thereby implicitly excluding the service of men from Britain and Ireland.42 If we return to Krishan Kumar’s argument that at some point in time Englishness had been submerged within Britishness so as not to dominate it, it appears that what was happening here was the English submerging themselves within imperial Britishness, the better to enable unity within the empire. This is comprehensible within the conception of the empire as a family of nations. In an editorial after Anzac Day in 1919, the Times celebrated this idea:

[I]f one had to single out the distinctively British achievement amongst the Imperial nations ofhistory, it would be this power of giving birth to new nations, bound to us by the closest of bonds yet with marked individuality of character, enriching the parent stock by its differences as well as by its similarities.43

Nonetheless, outside of the imperial capital, local English connections to the campaign were commemorated, and the promotion of the Anzacs at Westminster Abbey was noted with disappointment. On the Sunday following Anzac Day 1916, Bury, home of the Lancashire Fusiliers, remembered those who had fought in the campaign. In his sermon, the Rector of Bury, John Hill, paid tribute to the Anzacs, but noted the unequal treatment of the British participants:

If they [the Lancashire Fusiliers] did not find mention in the Abbey, at least they shall find it here, for they are ours, our brothers and our flesh, and the record of their deathless deeds is the heritage of our country and of our town for all time.44

More remarkably still, no trace has been found of Irish commemoration in Dublin in 1916, nor even in the north of Ireland in the recruiting area for the Inniskilling Fusiliers who had landed at X beach a year previously. Instead, in Dublin the Easter Rising was underway, an armed insurrection against the British. This was the key moment where Ireland began decisively to throw off its Britishness.

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