Thursday, April 25, 2013


This post originally appeared on April 27, 2009 and is re-posted here with slight modifications. 

Today, April 25, is ANZAC Day. It is sort of an Australian version of Memorial Day. But only sort of.

April 25 is significant because it marks the date, in 1915, when Australian and New Zealand troops (ANZAC = Australia New Zealand Army Corps) began their prolonged and costly assault on the beaches of Gallipoli alongside their Allied counterparts. The campaign in this part of the world was an attempt to break the stalemate that was already occurring in the entrenched lines of the Western Front, or at least to divert attention from it with an Allied victory. The initial ANZAC assault was marred by poor planning, which in turn led to flawed execution, at huge cost of life. The casualty rates are gruesomely familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of First World War history: nearly 45,000 Allied troops, of whom 8,700 were Australian.

Gallipoli has assumed iconographic status in the historical memory of Australians. The death tolls of those days in 1915, horrendous as they were, would be surpassed in later years in pivotal battles at the Somme and Amiens, but Gallipoli was the first: Australia’s coming of age in war. And every year, at the same dawn hour when the ANZAC troops began their amphibious attack, Australians gather, in small towns and big cities all over the country, to honor not only their service and sacrifice, but also the contributions of all Australian veterans.

Since I’ve been in Australia, I’ve visited the national Australian War Memorial here in Canberra, and also the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, both of which were originally constructed to honor the dead of the First World War. After having lived in England, I was familiar with the awesome and lasting impact of this war on generation after generation, but it was only in coming here that I have fully grasped the importance of such physical memorials: how Australians in particular, far removed geographically from where their loved ones had died, and with little prospect either of having a body to bury or of traveling to a distant grave, poured the energy of their grief into communal memorials, as a tangible reminder and commemoration of those they had lost.

I don’t think most Americans even know that Memorial Day originally existed to remember the dead of the American Civil War, and any communal celebrations that still take place are more likely to be of the parade variety. For most people, the only thing Memorial Day commemorates now is the first barbecue or weekend away of the summer season. And there’s plenty of that here, too, for ANZAC Day. But I admire a country that, more than 90 years after the fact, makes the time to reflect quietly upon patriotism, soldiering, and sacrifice: for those who were at Gallipoli, all those who have served since, and for every individual, military and civilian alike.

ANZAC Biscuits
These cookies are an Australian icon in their own right. The recipe was devised to create a biscuit that would survive the long journey to Australian troops stationed overseas, arrive intact, and still taste good when the homesick recipient opened his package. You can find commercially produced versions of them in every shop, and the biggest producer, as standard practice, donates a portion of the profits to veterans’ charities. They’re good out of a package—they do indeed keep forever—but, as (nearly) always, they’re better homemade. I haven't made my own (yet!), so I direct you to an online authority instead. For my first attempt, I definitely want the real thing that someone's gran was baking back when.


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