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Untangling the cords of Anzac Day



This year Anzac Day promises to be a subdued celebration with local events in which people who have fought in wars and their relatives can take part. Few will be able to travel to Gallipoli to remember the invasion. The focus of the day will remain rightly on the sorrow of war and not on the heroic achievements of soldiers or on deemed distinctive Australian qualities displayed at Gallipoli. The association of soldiers at Gallipoli with footballers playing their games on Anzac Day will seem not only crass but ridiculous.

With the reality of war in Ukraine daily before our eyes we shall remember with compassion people who died and whose lives were maimed by war with sorrow, and think of war with horror, not excitement. Each day in the media we have seen the destruction in Ukraine of cities, of centuries-old centres of civilization. We see the young soldiers on both sides brought into the conflict and sent back in body bags. We see the columns of refugees leaving Ukraine and read of those forced to stay in cities that are bombed around the clock, where the dead lie frozen in the ice with the living.

As we think back to Gallipoli and the battles in Europe we rightly honour the suffering and the courage of the Australian soldiers who fought there. But we think equally of the grief that spread from the battlefield to the Australian families and rural settlements who lost sons, brothers, fathers and the hopes of growing communities. We think, too, of the families to which soldiers returned, changed for the worse by their experience and sucking joy out of their homes.

Anzac Day also invites us to reflect on the ways in which it subsequently shaped Australian life. It has often been described in grandiloquent terms as the birth of Australia, as the forming of Australian identity and as the expression of such distinctively Australian virtues as mateship, informality and endurance. Such claims recognise the enormous effects that unprecedented travel, the death and injury of so many young Australians, and the self-conscious desire of many Australians to prove their credentials to the rest of the British Empire had on society.  The high claims for Anzac Day also reflect the religious imagery in which such a momentous loss of life was described. Australia’s birth was through blood sacrificed on the altar of arms. The events of Gallipoli and the trenches in Europe therefore had a sacred value.


'Anzac Day this year is a time to meditate on war, to honour the suffering and courage of those who have been required to serve in it, to be compassionate to the those who have lost lovers and children, and to feel with those who have lost their humanity through their experience of war.'


The claims made for Anzac Day and the subsequent Australian experience in the Flanders trenches are nevertheless too large and self-serving. Australia was born from a convict fleet, grew through conquest and settlement and became a nation at Federation. The participation in war marked by Anzac Day added layers to the Australian identity, including those of division and sectarianism. In the immediate aftermath it was also seen widely as the strengthening of Australia’s links with the British Empire, not as the creation of a new Australian identity.

Anzac Day was primarily a memorial by participants of death and loss, not of life and a new identity. The risk of the high claims made for it and the derived religious language in which they were set is that war itself will appear to be a noble undertaking. Anzac Day then becomes a celebration of the warrior spirit, the highest expression of the national spirit. Even more dangerously it gives politicians a solemn sacrificial role in committing young men to war, a task often seen as a cause for pride and not as an appalling responsibility.            

Anzac Day is not simply a memorial of the past. It speaks to the present and to the world in which we live, encouraging us to attend to the sorrow of later wars in which Australians have taken part — to the divisive Vietnam War, to Iraq and Afghanistan. We see beneath the ceremonial dress, the technology and the honours of war the cost of constantly living in danger, where every farmer and grandmother might be an enemy fighter, and where Australian soldiers are seen as passing like straw in the wind. We see the hurt done to mind and spirit by war, and the cost to a rich humanity.

Anzac Day this year is a time to meditate on war, to honour the suffering and courage of those who have been required to serve in it, to be compassionate to the those who have lost lovers and children, and to feel with those who have lost their humanity through their experience of war. It is a day to swear off all the dystopias that glorify mass destruction and shut out compassion and other human responses.

Anzac is a day to pray for the dead and to grow in compassion for the wounded whom wars leave behind them.




Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image:  War veterans wearing medals march during Anzac Day service in Cooroy, Queensland. (Jimbo_Cymru / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Anzac Day, Gallipoli, Ukraine, War



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Existing comments

Beautifully said Fr Andrew.

Rob McCahill | 21 April 2022  

It is a sad fact but a truth nonetheless that more ANZACS died from syphilis than from battle. The epidemic they brought back home has never completely gone and still rages through remote communities. Lest We Forget

John | 21 April 2022  

Thank you for the article on ANZAC, it was very thought provoking. I do, however, point out that not all the colonies in this land were born of a convict fleet. South Australia was set up as a free colony, based on the best ideals of private enterprise, freedom of religion and progressive social policy. Obviously the colony did not always life up to its ideals, but it is important to recognise that Australia is much more than the Eastern States.

Gwilym Henry-Edwards | 21 April 2022  
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South Australia was as much a capitalist, classist, imperial project as NSW and Van Diemen's Land were. Access to land was limited to those with capital, those without were 'free' to labour.

Ginger Meggs | 27 April 2022  

Brilliant article. Hope it is widely read and understood.

Pamela Jones | 21 April 2022  

Thank you Andrew. I have always been uneasy about the way ANZAC day has been a source of mythmaking. For my grandfather who fought in WW1. ANZAC day was something to be avoided. From "The One Day of the Year" through the "Band Played Waltzing Matilda" there has always been a shadow over ANZAC Day. The current myth was written for political purposes and used by the AFL and the National War Memorial use for marketing purposes. Prayer, Repairation and working for Peace are proper responses to ANZAC Day. Beware flags in Church.

John Francis Collins | 21 April 2022  

Frank you eloquently express my misgivings about the ANZAC glorification over decades. My dad fought in WW1 and I can respect his courage and be grateful that he survived that conflict. Yet as a nation we have gone far too far in our attribution of the positive effects of a significant military loss on who we are as Australians. A focus on life, compassion and learning from history is preferred so that we do not continue to repeat such mistakes.

Carey McIver | 21 April 2022  

Thank you Andrew for expressing many of the thoughts and feelings I experience around this time. I remember a mate , an Areo-medic out on a "Dust Off "Mission, who was killed, attempting to save the life of a South Vietnamese soldier who had trod on a mine in the Long Hai's of Phouc Tuy, just on 52 years ago. He was L/Cpl John Francis Gillespie RAAMC (8th Field Ambulance) . Since then we have lost members to Suicide , Cancer and other wartime caused heath issues. I suffer PTSD. Anzac Day is not a good day for me and many Veterans who fought in a deeply unpopular, in the end pointless conflict. The Afghanistan debacle has once again shown up the inability of our so-called leaders to own up to their part in sending innocent men and women off to war. In my unpublished memoir, I have written how we (I was a "Nasho"), have fought two wars, Vietnam ,then the DVA bureaucracy, hamstrung by excessive red tape invented by those with no knowledge of what we had experienced.
War is a horrible business .There is no honour or glory in war. One only has to look at Ukraine to glimpse that reality, however darkly. I am always in fear of some ill informed politician, all too ready to send young men to their deaths, glorifying the 'sacrifices' of serviceman and women on Anzac Day. I continue to wonder do they ever consider the consequences of their actions? Are they ever called to account. How will they explain themselves before God?

Gavin O'Brien | 21 April 2022  

Lest we forget. But we do. Perhaps a blend of an irrational national attachment to a notion of the pride of the Diggers (which very deservedly belongs to them, not all) and some fervor to identify that same Spirit with Okker-ish larrikin-isms; a roll-your-own fairytale of an Australiana identity. The hyperbole of the sports commentary; not just a likeness, we're encouraged to witness a veritable field of gladiators in combat; or the Battle for the Ashes, players and clubs presented as "warriors", clashing. (Mate, it's just a ball.) Flames and fireworks that are somehow now necessary to punctuate every highlight; are our audiences really that impressionable? This all went sour particularly for Cricket Australia and the networks where the advertising of games was heavily suggestive of combat. After a few significant injuries and deaths directly attributed to on-field incidents CA and other associations distanced themselves very quickly from the implied entanglements of sport and warring tribes. Humans forget in small fragments, a process of attrition that eventually erodes the message. Most will enjoy ANZAC day as a holiday; the reflecting saved by a few at dawn but a wider general dissent that the pub isn't open until midday. The siren sounds for the game here and an air raid elsewhere.

ray | 22 April 2022  

Shocked to see the words, “Australia was born from a convict fleet.” Really? In this day and age? In this type of publication. Disappointing to see this as a RE educator in a Catholic secondary college. Paul.

Paul | 22 April 2022  

Thanks Andrew for providing us with such a powerful reset of the " Anzac Legend".

Mike Schell | 22 April 2022  

As far as the continuing validity of Anzac Day is concerned, if Putin didn’t exist, he would have to be invented. He could be said to be the new patron saint of Anzac Day, or the patron saint for the new Anzac Day, in which wars can be fought by nuclear powers without fearing the use of nuclear weapons, and, if that is the case, wars can be fought by anybody without nuclear weapons.

roy chen yee | 22 April 2022  
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Putin didn't invent nuclear weapons nor initiate the proliferation of them. The only legitimate Christian response is to refute and deny the possession of nuclear weapons. Full stop

AURELIUS | 27 April 2022  

'The only legitimate Christian response is to refute and deny the possession of nuclear weapons. Full stop.'

Putin the so-called Orthodox is certainly refuting their usefulness as a threat against himself. And so your point is? That we deny nuclear missiles as any part of the equation and simply send a slew of nonnuclear missiles at his invading forces from Germany, France and Britain? 

roy chen yee | 28 April 2022  

Wonderful article on the ambiguous nature of Anzac Day. My thoughts will be with one of those war episodes that gets so little attention – the Australians in Timor in 1942 – this year being the 80th anniversary of that fateful episode.
Despite tens of thousands of Japanese troops pouring into Portuguese Timor in World War II, the 700 Australian commandos who arrived in December 1941 remained the only viable Allied fighting force in Southeast Asia. That feat was possible only with the support of the loyal and courageous Timorese, whose resulting wartime death toll was at least 40,000.
Australians who have spent decades working with the Timorese are rightly appalled at the espionage to defraud the Timorese of billions of dollars in 2004 and at the shameful revenge against those who oppose it, notably Bernard Collaery. If we are so addicted to our war history, how on earth could be countenance that?
Australia’s neglect of the Pacific nations, its compliance with the creeping genocide in West Papua, the continual decline in foreign aid generally, and the willingness to defraud the Timorese make for salutary reflections on what Australia actually stand for.

Susan Connelly | 22 April 2022  
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Thankyou Father

Pamela | 23 April 2022  

Thank you Susan Connelly. "addicted to war", sadly yes.

Janet | 25 April 2022  

On the road outside my house the khaki-coloured old army vehicle have just rolled down the road for the Anzac commemoration. The airforce has just roared over. Later this morning I expect that, as usual, the ancient army vehicles will come back up the hill full of young boys waving and laughing, so thrilled to be part of all the excitement. Peter Dutton says we must prepare for war. That preparation has been going on for years, for generations really, in the minds of the young of this nation. Is there anyone who will speak about preparing for peace?

Janet | 25 April 2022  

Is the very fact that we try to find any kind of positives in military matters a problem in itself? Might we not be wiser to recognise the whole Anzac story/myth/industry as something foisted on Australia just over a century ago by the political/industrial/ media cabal who had rushed the infant Federation into war? When these (witting or unwitting) evildoers realised what horror they had committed, they, consciously or unconsciously, established “Anzackery” as a sop to the bereaved and the wounded. Every Australian generation since then has fallen for this trick. It is to be future generations of Australians will look back on the Anzac myth as a self-serving establishment fairy-tale on a par with Terra Nullius.

Gerard Hore | 22 April 2022  
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Not every generation. Remember those of us who grew up with "One Day of the Year " I was born in 1933 and always found Anzac Day problematic. My father served in WWII and had no time for it. It was a day of illegal gambling, a day to keep off the roads because of drunken drivers. I have a better understanding now of why those men needed to gamble and to drink, but they were trying to escape the horror in their heads or to seek the companionship of those who understood what they had been through

sheelah Egan | 22 April 2022  

It seems more fitting to attend a football game than to go to a Christian religious service on Anzac Day. The soldiers were probably more interested in football than religion. Simpson was an atheist, and Monash was a Jew.

David Fisher | 22 April 2022  

Thank you Andrew for your article on ANZAC Day. I have to lead the prayers on Sunday, and I was wondering how to include prayers for the war in the Ukraine at the same time as praying something that made sense about Anzac day. Your article is just what I needed. Blessings on you,
Susan Emeleus, 22/04/22.

Susan A Emeleus | 22 April 2022  

Thanks for this cousin Andrew. Anzac Day has been has almost become a sacred day. It shouldn't be. It marks the invasion of Turkey, a country that was not a threat to Australia. Our soldiers had to swear 'that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King in the Australian Imperial Force' (see the soldiers military records on the National Australian Archives website). They were fighting to protect the British Empire not our freedoms and independence. And as far as I know Australia became a nation on 1 January 1901, when the colonies federated into a nation. Not 25 April 1914.
Anzac Day has become politicised over the years. Its message is that going to war is normal - that we had to get involved in America's wars in Korea, Vietnam, etc. I reccomend reading 'What's Wrong With Anzac?' by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds. It's sub-title is 'The Militarisation of Australian History'. 

Jim Coghlan | 22 April 2022  

The original ANZACs are gone, the WW 2 generation is slowly leaving us. I wonder what future generations will make of ANZAC Day. The myths and legends may leave reality behind. Think Helen of Troy, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Ned Kelly, even aspects of Christianity. In primary school in the 1960s we learnt of brave diggers holding out against huge odds fighting for the Empire, Simpson and his donkey epitomising the ANZAC spirit. It was always reverential and uplifting, never discussing the carnage and poor leadership decisions. Maybe they didn’t want to frighten the children. The legend-building started well before John Howard got his hands on it.

On a personal level, a couple of Gallipoli veterans lived in our neighbourhood in the ‘60s. My dad would take them to the RSL for ANZAC Day. It was important to honour them, he said, because respecting them also respected the many who did not come back. You could say the same thing about his generation in WW 2 and those in subsequent wars. Respect for sacrifice and loss, not reading nation building and glory into it. This is where Andrew’s essay is so valuable.

Brett | 22 April 2022  
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‘Respect for sacrifice and loss, not reading nation building and glory into it.’

There’s no free lunch. Martyrdom is virtuous but martyrdom cannot happen unless there is a virtuous community to create the ethic of the martyr. If so, celebrate the virtue of the community.

What is the virtue in the ethic of the martyr?

It can be argued that Kaiser Wilhelm and, like him, Putin, are authoritarian rather than totalitarian, and under their despotic rules, Christians would still be free to worship. However, they would not be free to explore the full extent of their religious enquiry. Therefore, the moral difference between the Kaiser and Putin and right-wing authoritarianism in general, and totalitarian orthodox communism and the new ‘communism’ of the Chinese ‘Communist’ Party which is as totalitarian as the USSR, Maoism and North Korea towards Christian practice, is insignificant as both types prevent the Great Commission from being explored to the full.

The virtue of the ethic of the martyr is in battling that vice. And lest we forget that it is not only wars which prevent the Great Commission from being expressed, civilian suppression such as the cancel culture more often and more consistently do the same thing and also call for the virtue of the ethic of the martyr. Not to believe this is merely to elevate the stomach above the spirit, or, in scriptural terms, bread over the Word.

roy chen yee | 24 April 2022  

Wow! A great article and commentary in reply! I'll do all I can to spread this far and wide. Leaders sometimes myopically lead their country's people into wars and it continues right up until recent time in this country. It's time that at the very least, we have Parliament and independent voices within it deciding these things on our behalf, never the Executive of the government at the time.

Jim Potts | 23 April 2022  

I think any sane person 'celebrates' Anzac Day by remembering the dead; maimed and still living from every war this country has ever been involved in. It should be tinged with great sadness, but also joy in survival. Many WW 1 Australian servicemen were footballers: Rugby Union; Rugby League and AFL, so I have no problems with a football match on the day. We must also never, ever forget the nurses who added real humanity to war. Also 'the girls back home'. War is a collective thing and all of us, in some way, are survivors of these wars. The best 'Lest we forget' is a silent moment. Some feelings can only be expressed inadequately in words.

Edward Fido | 23 April 2022  

'born from a convict fleet and grew through conquest'
Yes as Andrew should have said in the last paragraph
it is right to pray for the Aboriginal people killed in the Frontier Wars trying to defend THEIR land against the invaders.

Jan Wright | 24 April 2022  

I have always found Anzac Day to be a sad day and have often been moved to tears by its ceremonies (a legacy of my Irish ancestry, I suspect - the Irish are capable of shedding tears over just about anything.) Yesterday I watched the curious combo of paganistic ritual, military inanity, nationalism and splatterings of Protestant Christianity on display at the dawn service at Gallipoli. The liturgy induced reverence, silence, and respect and the service attracted a preponderance of young Australians. I couldn't help but recognise the screaming difference of this service from the current Catholic service/Mass - no reverence, no respect, a liturgy which fails to elevate the human spirit and hardly a young Australian in sight. I was a little tearful - but this time it was not the Anzac sacrifice that moved me. Thank you Vatican II.

john frawley | 26 April 2022  

Australia was born 60000 years before the First Fleet.
It decreased through conquest by over 1 million Aboriginal people being killed.
Settlement was established through the falsehood of Terra Nullius.
Federation legitimised the White Australia Policy.
Let's do some Truth Telling when we mention the First Fleet please.

Jan Wright | 26 April 2022  

Australia was born from a convict fleet? No it wasn't. Several independent colonies eventually emerged following Euro-Christian settlement (at the expense of the existing Aboriginal populations).
'Australia' did not exist in any form at all until the beginning of Federation. Let's stick to facts, not the fabrications that were taught in our schools for many years.

Terry Cunningham | 26 April 2022  

There was the Dardanelles campaign, and there is Anzac Day. The first is a fact, and it was, as Jim Coghlan observes, all about empires, the very antithesis of defending freedom. The second a legend, and like all legends it is a construct. Legends only survive because they are periodically reconstructed. It’s pertinent then to ask by whom, in what circumstances, and for what purpose the various versions of the Anzac legend have been constructed and reconstructed and any version that is the product of a politician needs to treated with great suspicion.

Ginger Meggs | 27 April 2022  

Its part of the legend, and not entirely surrounded in myth.

If you'd read Andy's stunning reflection on Australia Day you might better appreciate the deep and profound resonance of his words, attracting responses that are equally touching, and which speak to me of an opportunity to celebrate Peace (as opposed to war).

As a former educator myself, Andy's piece - hardly a panegyric but instead a tear-arousing eulogy for all victims of war - would have to be one of the more cherished gifts to an RE teacher in search of material to frame a contemporary Australian liturgy on Peace suitable for a Catholic Secondary College.

Might you imagine your kids blowing out the candles one by one at the end of a series of reflections on the horrors of war, say, surrounding a projection of Picasso's Guernica in a darkened room or chapel, the process, depending on age, starting with opening up Andy's piece for small group discussion and concluding with Ray's powerfully eloquent post as each student places a poppy on an altar of repose?

Michael Furtado | 28 April 2022  

Wow! A great article and commentary in reply! I'll do all I can to spread this far and wide. Leaders sometimes myopically lead their country's people into wars and it continues right up until recent time in this country. It's time that at the very least, we have Parliament and independent voices within it deciding these things on our behalf, never the Executive of the government at the time.

Jim Potts | 29 April 2022  

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