The date 25 April marks the landings of New Zealand troops at Gallipoli in 1915. This campaign was a complete military disaster and culminated in an Allied retreat in December. Anzac Day does not therefore commemorate a military triumph, and it was a tragic waste of human life for all involved. Far more New Zealanders – over 12,000 – died on the Western Front than at Gallipoli, so why is it not Passchendaele or the Somme that is forever etched in the collective memory of the nation?
Ormond Burton, a hero of the First World War who subsequently became a leading pacifist, believed that 'somewhere between the landing at Anzac and the end of the battle of the Somme New Zealand very definitely became a nation'. Others have described events at Gallipoli as New Zealand's baptism by fire. Exploring the role of war in general and this campaign in particular is one way that Anzac Day can be incorporated into your teaching programme.
The First World War highlighted attitudes that many New Zealanders today might struggle to appreciate, such as 'fighting for King and Empire'. But other attributes – bravery, tenacity, practicality, ingenuity, 'mateship' – are all recognised as qualities that have helped New Zealand define itself as a nation.
For many who lost loved ones in war, such matters are of little significance, and for them the day remains one of commemoration. For New Zealand, with a population of around one million in 1914, the First World War was a hugely traumatic event; 58,000 casualties out of a force of 100,000 equated to one in every three men aged between 20 and 40 being killed or wounded.
There has been a noticeable resurgence of interest in Anzac Day commemorations in recent years. A growing number of young New Zealanders are attending the various ceremonies that are a feature of this day. Some students in your classrooms will have relatives who fought at Gallipoli or in the other international conflicts of the 20th century in which New Zealand has participated. They may not be aware of this, or their knowledge might be confined to old photographs hanging on a wall, showing great-grandfathers or other relatives in uniform.
For others Anzac Day is no more than another holiday. Some students, especially recent immigrants to New Zealand, might have no family connection to these events at all. While the depth of knowledge and awareness about it may vary, Anzac Day marks a very important episode in the history of New Zealand and its people.
Anzac Day is not just our story. While 25 April gave birth to the Anzac tradition and formed the basis of the close ties with Australia that continue to this day, soldiers from many other countries also fought and died there. Repelling foreign invaders led to the emergence of modern Turkey. Consider the following statistics:
NZHistory.net has a number of features that teachers and students will find useful in exploring some of the themes associated with Anzac Day, the Gallipoli campaign and New Zealander's experiences of the First World War in general. These include:
In addition, the site Anzac.govt.nz is essential reading.