Anzac Day: the day Kiwis remember

Anzac Day – 25 April – is observed in New Zealand as a day of commemoration for those who died in the service of their country, and to honour returned servicemen and women.

The date is the anniversary of the landing of New Zealand and Australian soldiers (known as the ANZACs) on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915 during the First World War.

The devastating event was first marked in New Zealand - 101 years ago - in 1916 when a memorial cross was erected in the tiny Wairarapa town of Tinui, in the lower North Island.

Anzac Day became a public holiday in 1921, and over time the way the day has been commemorated has changed and developed with renewed interest and respect from the younger generation.

Gallipoli landings

The Anzacs were charged with capturing the Dardanelles, the gateway to the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, but the disastrously unsuccessful campaign claimed the lives of 87,000 Turks, and 44,000 servicemen from France and the British Empire.

Among the dead were 2721 New Zealanders - representing almost a quarter of the NZ troops that served at Gallipoli - and 8500 Australians.

Historians believe the Gallipoli landings signified the beginning of a distinct identity for New Zealand as a nation.

The campaign was the first time New Zealand had stepped onto the world stage, and the Kiwi troops made a name for themselves fighting hard, against the odds, in an inhospitable environment.

Today, Anzac Day is observed with sombre, ritualistic ceremonies at war memorials across the country and in many places overseas where New Zealanders gather to remember those who served their country and made the ultimate sacrifice.

The red Flanders poppy has become a symbol of the Anzacs and is worn to show remembrance.

Poppy Day

For more than 86 years, Poppy Day has been observed in New Zealand, making it one of the oldest nationwide appeals in the country.

Poppy Day is normally held on the Friday before Anzac Day when RSA volunteers stand vigil on street corners and in public places, exchanging the distinctive red poppy buttonhole flowers in return for a donation in support of their organisation’s welfare fund.

The story of how the poppy became an international symbol of remembrance for fallen servicemen and women is linked to Canadian soldier John McCrae’s poignant poem In Flanders Fields, written in 1915.

The Flanders poppy was associated with battlefield deaths as a natural symbol of resurrection and remembrance, and dates back to the Napoleonic wars when poppies were the first plant to grow in the churned up soil of soldiers’ graves in the Flanders region.

The style of the poppies sold today has changed since the first Poppy Day Appeal in 1922, but the meaning has remained the same - remembrance and welfare.

Today most people wear their poppy for several days before Anzac Day, and traditionally place it on their local war memorial or cenotaph as a mark of respect at the conclusion of a commemorative event.

A typical Anzac Day

Anzac Day in New Zealand is typically observed with remembrance services through until 1pm followed by a relaxed, holiday afternoon.

Dawn services traditionally involve members of the armed services and are of particular significance for war veterans. Dawn is when the initial landings took place at Gallipoli on 25 April, 1915 and veterans recall the routine "stand to" of their war service.

Commemoration begins with a short parade by service men and women to their local war memorial.

The dawn service is a moving experience with the symbolism of darkness breaking into sunrise, military formality, the single beat of a drum to mark the beginning of proceedings, prayers, hymns and the haunting sounds of a lone bugler playing The Last Post.

This is followed by a minute’s silence and the sounding of ‘Reveille’.

Morning services

Mid-morning services follow a similar pattern and, while they are a more public and less emotional commemoration, the sight of returned and ex-service personnel wearing their medals and marching behind flags to their local war memorial, never fails to move crowds who line the parade route and clap each veteran as they pass by.

At the conclusion of an Anzac service, wreaths are laid as poignant symbols of mourning and remembrance.

Representatives of veterans' organisations, nations, civic authorities, and youth organisations line up to place the distinctive wreaths, most of which are made by RSA Women's Section volunteers. Families also lay personal wreaths, and many people place a poppy at the base of the memorial in honour of those who have fallen.

Most Anzac commemorative services finish with the iconic fourth verse of Laurence Binyon's For the Fallen:

'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.'
 

Afternoon activities

All shops remain closed on Anzac Day until 1pm, and during the afternoon many regions hold special events that range from sports fixtures to military displays, exhibitions and musical recitals.

With formalities over, veterans gather at their local RSA to reminisce and relax. Families are welcomed on what is the RSAs busiest day of the year. The atmosphere is likened to that of a wake after a funeral.

New Zealand’s Māori Television broadcasts Anzac services live throughout the day, and most other channels show reports from throughout New Zealand and overseas during the evening, as well as relevant documentaries and films.

Anzac of the Year

Established by the RSA in 2010, the Anzac of the Year Award recognises the spirit of Anzac evident in New Zealanders today.

That spirit is embodied in the 1915 story of New Zealand Gallipoli hero Private Richard Henderson. The 19-year-old went far beyond the call of duty when he repeatedly brought in wounded men under heavy fire and with total disregard for his own life.

The aim of the Anzac Award is to recognise the efforts and achievements of an outstanding New Zealander, or New Zealanders, who have given service in a positive, selfless and compassionate manner.