The story of ANZAC Day

RSL Queensland 25 April 2018

As the sun rose on 25 April 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers rowed towards the shores of Gallipoli and into history itself.

The landing at Gallipoli was anticipated to be a quick action that would remove Turkey from the war. Instead, it escalated into an eight-month battle with heavy casualties on both sides. More than 8,700 Australian soldiers lost their lives and another 19,441 were wounded.

The first major military action fought by Australian forces during World War One, it sent shockwaves through Australian society that are still felt today. 

As the sun rises every ANZAC Day, hundreds of thousands of Australians gather across the nation to remember their legacy, and the legacy of all those who have followed their example. 

Who were the ANZACs?

The word ANZAC was used in various books and telegrams as early as 1915 as an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. One of the earliest references is in the appendix to the 1st Australian Division War Diary from 24 April 1915 – the day before the Gallipoli landing. It is, without doubt, one of the most significant words in Australian military history. 

The ANZACs were young men who came from around Australia to defend the honour of their country, and their loyalty to their young nation would lead them to brutal battles on foreign soil. Many would never return home. 

The Gallipoli landing and the losses and casualties of other battles resonated throughout Australia, uniting the people of a newly formed nation.

Burial plots at Shell Green cemetery, Gallipoli, 1915 (State Library of Queensland)

The birth of ANZAC Day

ANZAC Day was officially recognised in 1916, only one year after the Gallipoli landing. These first ANZAC Day marches and ceremonies gave the country a chance to collectively mourn the loss of their young men.

Marches were also held in London where a newspaper headline referred to the ANZACs as ‘the knights of Gallipoli’. In true Australian fashion, the Australian camp in Egypt had a commemorative sports day to remember their fallen mates.

But the man credited as the Architect of ANZAC Day – laying out the order of service that is still observed today – was an Anglican priest from Brisbane. Canon David Garland created the framework for a non-denominational commemoration to honour the fallen, which incorporated many aspects we’d recognise: the march, the wreath-laying, and one minute’s silence to allow attendees to say a silent prayer in line with their own beliefs. 

Canon Garland, known as the Architect of ANZAC Day (State Library of Queensland)


As WWI continued, Australians in every corner of the world stopped on ANZAC Day to remember the sacrifice made by their mates and fellow countrymen. Parades were held in towns and cities across the country, and the day became our most solemn day of commemoration.

After intense lobbying by the Queensland branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) – now known as RSL Queensland – Queensland Parliament passed an amendment to the ANZAC Day Act 1921, which finally recognised ANZAC Day as a public holiday in 1930.  

Over the past century, ANZAC Day has become a day to reflect on the sacrifices made by Australians in all wars and peacekeeping operations in which we have been involved.

The Dawn Service

Dawn Services are public commemorative ceremonies, usually conducted by the RSL with involvement from the three arms of the Australian Defence Force – Navy, Air Force and Army.

As the name suggests, these ceremonies begin just before dawn, with the sun rising as they draw to a close. Many of the cenotaphs where Dawn Services are held are in beautiful locations, which adds to the poignancy of the occasion. 

But why dawn? 

An Australian battalion held a dawn service on the Western Front on the first anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, and Dawn Services began to be observed around Australia in subsequent years. The timing is likely based on the fact that the ANZAC forces started the landing on the Gallipoli peninsula at dawn. 

The Dawn Service is wreathed in protocol and tradition, and every element has significance:

  • The Ode of Remembrance is the fourth stanza from For the Fallen by English poet Laurence Binyon. It has been used in commemorative services since 1921:

    They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; 
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
    We will remember them.
  • The Last Post is a traditional military bugle call that signals the end to a soldier’s day. It is played at ANZAC Day ceremonies after The Ode is recited and before the minute’s silence.
  • A Minute’s Silence is always observed at ANZAC services. It is a moment of solemn reflection and a gesture of respect to our fallen soldiers. 
  • The Reveille is traditionally sounded just before daybreak to wake sleeping soldiers. At Dawn Services, the minutes’ silence is broken by the Reveille, as the flags are raised to the masthead from half-mast.

    At all other commemorative services, the minute’s silence is broken by The Rouse, which traditionally calls soldiers to their duties.