Commemoration and the First World War

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about this week, but I was inspired by Thomas’ post last week about the Great War.  In going to comment I realized I had a lot more to say about the issue of commemorating the war than I thought.  With that in mind, I’m going to compare my experiences at Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada with attending Anzac Day (April 25) this past year in New Zealand (Anzac refers to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).  As two Commonwealth countries that fought on the same side in the same war I expected their commemorations to be very similar, but to my surprise there were enough differences to change the tone.

My Remembrance Day Experiences

Growing up in small town Canada, I’m familiar with the small town Remembrance Day ceremony.  Please comment if your experience was different, but this meant an 11 o’clock parade with RCMP, sports teams, and scouts marching to the cenotaph downtown.  There were some speeches, the last post was played, and an endless number of identically decorated if differently sized wreathes were laid by businesses, organizations, and societies.  In school we were encouraged to think about, “what soldiers gave up for us,” and there was an annual poster and writing contest that we were encouraged to enter.  My favorite part of Remembrance Day was when one of the vets came into our school and told stories.  They were never happy stories, but they were interesting.  The First World War was just another war that we were supposed to remember.

Gallipoli and Anzac Day

This last year (2015) I had the good fortune to be in New Zealand on Anzac Day on the centennial anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli.  Loosely put, Anzac Day is the New Zealand and Australia equivalent of Remembrance Day, but as they point out, there’s a reason that they chose April 25 instead of November 11.  The solemnity of Remembrance Day services aside, November 11 still commemorates the day that victory was announced and the First World War was over.  On November 11, 1918 it wasn’t wreathes being laid, but huge bonfires and celebration.

In contrast, the landings at Gallipoli on April 25 were a disaster that began a subsequent eight months of continued disaster.  Soldiers lived in horrible conditions, even by First World War standards of trench warfare, and the campaign ultimately had little impact on the overall war.  While visiting “Gallipoli: The Scale of our War“, an exhibition at The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa, I was surprised to read that when Anzac soldiers came to France from Gallipoli, they were pleasantly surprised by the conditions of the trenches there.  For the Anzacs, Gallipoli came at a very high price, and the tragedy is “often claimed to have played an important part in fostering a sense of national identity.” (1)

If this reminds you of Vimy Ridge, you’re right, but with some key differences.  The Anzac soldiers at Gallipoli continue to be a part of the national identity in a way that C.E.F. (Canadian Expeditionary Force) soldiers at Vimy Ridge simply are not.  In Canada, the First World War seems to me to have been pushed into a group of conflicts, and consequently is given much less attention that, say the Second World War.  In New Zealand, it’s the other conflicts that are remembered in light of the First World War.

In New Zealand I was repeatedly reminded about the number of casualties in the war.  There are war memorials absolutely everywhere, including the smallest of towns (and some places that are no longer towns at all).  Being curious I wanted to compare those rates with Canada.  As you can see, although enlistment rates were pretty much the same, New Zealand troops suffered significantly higher rates of death and injury.  There are theories that the physical toll of the war, including the number of soldiers who returned injured to New Zealand, has impacted the way the war is commemorated.

Anzac Day Ceremonies

It’s challenging to give an accurate impression about what Anzac ceremonies are like.   In some ways this year was special as it was the centennial anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli.   To begin with, there was the public participation.  To say that the turnout at the dawn memorial services was large this year is an understatement. Rarely are there so many people awake before dawn in New Zealand and Australia than on April 25th.

In the city of Dunedin (where I was), the equivalent of 15% of the city’s population turned out for the dawn service (18,000-20,000 people), and that’s not including people like me who went to a later service elsewhere in the city.  To give a reference, the record turnout to the Remembrance Day ceremonies in 2014 in Ottawa was about 5% of the city’s population.  Turnout in other Anzac cities was also impressive, and I should note that there is also a yearly dawn service on the beaches of Gallipoli itself with many citizens making a self-described “pilgrimage” to that event.   (As a note: in 2014 in Dunedin, about 7% of the population attended).

Some video from the dawn service in Dunedin this year.

My Experiences

It wasn’t just attendance that was a surprise.  The format of the Anzac ceremony was also shockingly (and I would argue pleasantly) different.  I went to a service put on by the University of Otago later in the day, and when we arrived we saw a large artillery gun, presumably for display.  Nope.  They fired it off.  Twice.  Of course they were blanks, but the experience of standing beside just one artillery gun as it was fired was deafening and could be felt (literally) right in the chest.  It was a powerful beginning.

Anzac service cannon blast

Anzac Service Blast.  Photo from the University of Otago, “Students step up for Anzac Service at the clocktower,” (undated)

Like in Canada, there were speeches, but they were joined by readings from a journal of an Anzac soldier at Gallipoli and a Maori song.  What struck me most though was the reading of something called Ataturk’s tribute, which I only learned about at that service.  Ataturk is the title given to Mustafa Kemal, who was the commander for the Turkish army and was on hand on the other side to oppose the Gallipoli landings.  In 1934, Ataturk wrote a tribute to the Anzacs killed at Gallipoli, which was recited in both English and Turkish at the memorial I attended.  I recommend hearing it read, but there’s a transcript as well.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

The fact that the Turkish side was acknowledged and indeed frequently mentioned during the event was very powerful for me.  As the granddaughter of a German soldier who fought in the Second World War, I’ve always been a bit touchy about why we never hear about the other side.  It also helped to change the tone from being one of sacrifice but subsequent victory (as I feel exists in Canada), to an acknowledgement of the needless suffering on both sides.

Commemoration and National Memory

The way that New Zealand and Canada have come to remember the First World War has become noticeably different, and there is an opportunity for historians to explore how different commemorative activities have impacted public memory.  We can argue about the value of placing war within a national narrative, but the fact remains that the First World War has a much larger role overseas, and their remembrance activities manage to humanize the soldiers on both sides.  People from Turkey, Australia, and New Zealand all gather at Gallipoli every year.

I will be interested to see how public interest of Vimy Ridge in Canada in 2017 compares to the interest in the Gallipoli campaign in New Zealand.  I will also be curious to see how Vimy Ridge will be framed by historians and in museums, and how that interpretation will color the overall interpretation of the war.  How would we treat Vimy Ridge if it had been an eight month campaign that ultimately accomplished very little?

(1) ‘The Gallipoli campaign’,, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 2-Sep-2014.

“Massive turn out for Dawn Service,” Apr 25 2015

“Dunedin Anzac service draws 20000,” Apr 27 2015

“8500 at Dunedin Anzac dawn service,” Apr 25, 2014

“Remembrance Day Draws Huge Crowds as national War Memorial Rededicated.”  Nov 11 2015


One thought on “Commemoration and the First World War

  1. I really enjoyed reading this piece. You had a unique angle by comparing and contrasting your experiences celebrating both days. I honestly had no idea what Anzac Day was, maybe that makes me a tad ignorant. But I’m well informed now!


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