HISTORY

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History of Anzac Day

Anzac Day 1916-22: The making of a holy day

25 April 1922 was a day of mourning throughout New Zealand. In cities and towns a sombre and almost surreal stillness reigned unlike any other day of the year. Government offices and banks, shops and factories, theatres and hotels were closed. Sportsgrounds remained deserted. A day dedicated to remembering the dead. Anzac Day 1922 was a holy day. This remarkable tribute was largely the making of the RSA.

25 April 1916: The first Anzac Day

For the very first Anzac Day in 1916 the NZRSA had not yet been formed and only a few local returned soldiers’ organisations existed. Nonetheless, Christchurch RSA, formed in December 1915 (and later affiliated to NZRSA), had formed an “Anzac day [sic] sub-committee” as early as February 1916 to consider how best to commemorate the first anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign. By the following month, Christchurch RSA had decided upon a “commemoration service for 11 a.m. … & also to write to the Canterbury Jockey Club asking them to postpone the commencement of racing until 1 p.m. in lieu of 12 noon”. Similar calls for a day of remembrance arose spontaneously from amongst returned soldiers and civic leaders throughout the country. It was a civic delegation in Wellington, in fact, which persuaded the government to gazette on 5 April 1916 a general half-day holiday for 25 April.

Anzac Day, 1916Anzac Day, 1916

The government suggested church services together with recruiting meetings as an appropriate means of commemoration. Returned soldiers viewed a service similar to those held at the front as more appropriate. At a meeting held at the Auckland Soldiers’ Club, for example, the sentiment expressed was that “the boys don’t want to be split up among twenty or thirty different churches on Anzac Day, and it is certain they don’t want to go to a meeting to hear people who haven’t been there [to war] spout and pass resolutions”. Instead, returned soldiers preferred a simple combined service conducted by one of the popular army padres. Some clergy found that their religious principles would not allow them to join such gatherings, indeed Roman Catholic clergy would exclude themselves from combined services for the next fifty years. The fact that most towns accepted combined commemorative service testifies to a widespread public belief that the soldiers had earned the right to speak on such issues.

1916-20: The RSA’s emergence as guardian

Three days after the first Anzac Day observance, the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association was founded in Wellington. The RSA quickly assumed the guardianship of Anzac Day. It was a role that required considerable vigilance as over the next five years the observance of Anzac Day revealed problems which required resolution before the day would be acceptable to returned soldiers as well as the wider community. The RSA began by successfully lobbying government to protect the word “Anzac” from being used in connection with commercial purposes (Order-in-Council on 31 August 1916), and later to withhold totalisation licenses for race meetings on Anzac Day. It was the beginning of the sanctification of the word and the day.

In 1917, however, 25 April had already been set aside for municipal elections in many parts of the country. With legal advice that the elections could not be changed, the government officially suggested that Anzac Day be transferred to St. George’s Day on 23 April. The NZRSA regretted this situation but acknowledged the difficult position of the government and advised local RSAs to observe Anzac Day as best they could. The fact that a large number of communities observed 25 April reveals the aura of sanctity that the actual date had gained by 1917. The RSA justifiably viewed this result, together with the fact that the government had agreed to take steps to prevent a similar recurrence in the future, as a victory for the influence of returned soldiers.

It is from 1917, in fact, that the RSA began actively to secure control of the public observance. In a two-pronged approach, the NZRSA Dominion President, Dr Ernest Boxer, urged local RSAs to secure control of their public commemoration while the national body lobbied to have Anzac Day legislated as a “close” holiday, similar to Good Friday or Sunday. At the local level, RSAs preferred to cooperate with civic authorities and in any case their opinions were deferred to on most matters. Despite constant RSA pressure, central government hesitated to act, initially preferring to wait until after the war when it then suggested to the British Government, one commemorative day for the whole empire. While sympathetic to the idea, the RSA believed that the first priority was recognition of the special place of Anzac Day. “Anzac Day is a New Zealand Day, a National Day”, declared the RSA’s publication Quick March. In the end, New Zealand would observe two days of commemoration for the war dead: Armistice Day (11 November) shared with the empire, Anzac Day belonged to New Zealand (and Australia).

As a consequence of the government’s inaction, Anzac Day in 1918 and 1919 were marked by considerable confusion as some businesses remained opened, believing that Easter, St. George’s Day and Anzac Day were too close together. For returned soldiers this was another reminder of the selfish commercialism they found on returning from the war. On Anzac Day 1919, irate Auckland returned soldiers identified offending firms as they marched down Queen Street, reported Quick March under the heading “Anzac DAY — ‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’”.

Anzac Day 1920, despite this unsatisfactory situation, was widely considered the most solemn and impressive yet held. By this date the overwhelming majority of New Zealand soldiers had been repatriated, thereby swelling the numbers of returned soldiers at ceremonies. Auckland had the additional attraction of the presence of the Prince of Wales, symbolically representing the link with Britain on the day that the majority of New Zealanders proudly believed marked New Zealand’s “coming of age” in the empire. Most importantly, the day fell on a Sunday and was observed in a manner that the RSA was lobbying to secure by legislation. The solemness of the observance was enhanced with the adoption in many centres of the RSA’s new suggested form of service.

The “Boxer Service”

In a move intended to secure uniformity in the manner of observance throughout the country, the NZRSA Dominion President promoted a model Anzac Day service, based on the ceremony in Dr Boxer’s hometown of Hastings. The service represented a symbolic reenactment of a burial at the front, complete with a solemn parade of returned soldiers behind a gun carriage accompanied by a uniform bearer-party which later formed a catafalque guard, with bowed heads over reversed arms, around a symbolic bier consisting of wreaths and a soldier’s hat. The chairman, a returned soldier, ensured that speeches were confined to mourning and remembrance. The marches and hymns were also deeply mournful, including Chopin’s “Funeral March”, the “Dead March” from Saul, and “Nameless Grave”. The climax came with the burial service conducted by a padre during which a pause symbolised the committal. The service concluded with a three-volley gun salute, followed by the sounding of the Last Post.

Boxer was effectively choreographing a ritual of mourning and he stressed that the essential aspect of the service was “to get the audience in the right mood for its sacredness”. Participants, for example, were to be requested not to applaud during the service. While the ceremony was run by the RSA, therefore, it was one appropriate for the thousands of New Zealand families who had been deprived of the solace of funerals for loved ones lost overseas. Boxer acknowledged that returned soldiers “may not feel this” but that the relatives “certainly will”. Returned soldiers would have ample opportunity to remember in their own way within the confines of RSA clubrooms later in the day.

Many centres, such as Dunedin and Timaru, adopted the entire “Boxer Service”, as it was known, while others incorporated parts of it into the service that they had developed over the preceding years. More than the form, however, it was the sentiment — one of deep symbolic mourning — that was universal throughout New Zealand. It was an appropriate mood during the immediate postwar period. The legacy of the “Boxer Service”, although reformed in later decades, is that it established the solemn mood of Anzac Day observances in New Zealand, and one in stark contrast with the more celebratory nature of the observance in Australia.

1921: A “muddled holiday”

By 1920 it was apparent that most New Zealanders wanted Anzac Day observed as a sacred day and later that year the government finally introduced the Anzac Day Bill with the purpose of legislating the day as a “close” holiday. The bill passed all of its readings with bipartisan support, but at the third reading Prime Minister William Massey removed the words “and in all respects as if Anzac Day were a Sunday” and amended the bill so that only hotels and race meetings could not operate. The impact of this change, according to Quick March, was to make Anzac Day 1921 a “muddled holiday”. While most businesses closed, some theatres and picture shows had remained open. The day had to be strictly one of sombre mourning, with any form of entertainment being viewed as disrespectful to the dead and their families.

1922: A holy day

In response to renewed RSA pressure, Minister of Internal Affairs William Downie Stewart, an RSA member himself, successfully introduced the Anzac Day Amendment Bill in October 1921. He argued that it would answer “a very widespread demand for the reinstatement of the original request of the returned soldiers — namely, that the day should be treated as a holy day, as a Sunday”.

Anzac Day 1922 was observed throughout New Zealand as a full statutory holiday; for most people, however, it was a holy day. Another symbol of remembrance — the red poppy — also made its appearance for the first time this year as a result of the RSA’s successful inaugural Poppy Day Appeal on 24 April. After five years of relentless pressure, the RSA could finally herald the day as a “worthy” tribute to the memory of the dead. The sanctification of Anzac Day had been completed. In pressing this issue the RSA had kept faith with the families of the dead and expressed the feelings of the majority of New Zealanders.

The Returned Soldiers’ ritual

The solemnity as well as sombreness of Anzac Day 1922 was a far cry from the almost celebratory observance by soldiers in Egypt on the first Anzac Day back in 1916. After a commemorative service that had included the playing of the Last Post, followed by a holiday, including the playing of football. What had happened in the intervening years? The RSA was keeping faith with the war dead and their families, who required a special day of remembrance. This was the public ritual of Anzac Day promoted by the RSA, but it also oversaw a private ritual of its own members later in the day. The soldiers’ ritual centred on Anzac Day reunion dinners or more informal gatherings in RSA clubrooms. The themes of comradeship and remembrance permeated this ritual. The soldiers’ ritual was not sombre nor greatly spiritual like the public ritual but then returned soldiers did not share the public’s mythology of war; only its reality. The talk turned to past mates and wartime events, some of which were best left untold to family and friends. For the returned soldiers themselves, however, these gatherings were just as important as the public ritual was for grieving families, to enable them to remember on this their “one day of the year”. What both rituals shared in common was remembrance.

Source: RNZRSA Historian Dr Stephen Clarke

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