The History of Anzac Day

The History of Anzac Day - By Gordon Isaacs

The 25th day of April every year is celebrated world-wide to commemorate the landings of Australian and New Zealand land forces at Gallipoli in what is now Turkey. It has greater poignancy this year on the anniversary of its centenary.

Russia was an ally of the western countries but was finding its supply lines in Europe blocked by the Germans and their supporters. The supply lines through the Mediterranean were also blocked by the Turks whose artillery effectively controlled the Dardanelles – the only way for shipping to get through to the Black Sea and Russia.

Winston Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty and got approval from the War Cabinet for a naval bombardment of the area to take place, putting the Turkish guns out of action and gaining access to the shipping straits. With French support this took place but failed miserably to achieve the objective.

Many ships were sunk through enemy gunfire or by hitting mines, so a land invasion was ordered. On 25th April 1915, two months after the initial naval attack, the landing took place at Anzac Cove, in the region around Cape Helles, but because the Turks had had time to prepare their defences and command the high ground the British made little progress. This standstill caused political in-fighting in London. The Liberal government was replaced by a coalition and Churchill was removed from the Admiralty although remaining in the War Cabinet. 

Despite everything and in sweltering heat and disease-ridden conditions the deadlock dragged on well into the summer. In July the British reinforced the bridgehead at Anzac Cove and landed further up the coast at Suvla Bay with the intention of seizing the heights and cutting Turkish communications. This offensive and the landings again proved ineffectual as the well-prepared enemy repelled any advances with waves of costly counter-attacks. The War council hummed and ha’d until late 1915 when it decided to end the nugatory campaign and the withdrawal from Suvla Bay virtually ended that part of the war. 

The Turks lost about 300,000 men and the allies around 210,000 many of whom died from wounds or disease. The whole military campaign was a complete disaster ranking alongside other great cock-ups like the Crimean War and the battle with the Zulus at Islandwana, where Lord Chelmsford was outwitted by a Zulu warrior king.

Despite all this a great memory remains of the stoicism of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and their staunch efforts which were reflected in the awards of nine Victoria Crosses to Australians and one to a New Zealander named Cyril Bassett. He survived the conflict and lived until January 1983, by which time he had become the last surviving Gallipoli VC. His comments when he was awarded the medal were that he was disappointed to find he was the only New Zealander to get one … “All my mates ever got were wooden crosses”. 

One of the Aussies to win the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy was Alfred Shout who is remembered in Australia as the most decorated soldier in their history. In an early action at Anzac Cove he won a Military Cross, got wounded, returned to the battlefield later and then won his Victoria Cross in the Lone Pine trenches at Suvla Bay, where he was again wounded and subsequently died on a hospital ship and was buried at sea. He had served in the Boer War and in all he was the proud possessor of ten other medals in addition to the MC and VC.

 Strangely enough he was a New Zealander, born in Wellington, who initially served with the NZ Army but later moved to Australia. His story does not quite end here as fairly recently his grandson put up Alfred Shout’s VC for sale and it was bought by the Return Services League along with a wealthy businessman and is now displayed in the Australian War Memorial at Canberra. 
Oh, by the way, this bit of metal originally taken from captured Russian guns at Crimea was sold for a record equivalent of £487,000