However the other key traditions of the dawn service, the parade and the two-up were still well in evidence today. A newer tradition is the battleground service in which Australians and Kiwis combine overseas holiday with a local remembrance theme. Numbers were down at Gallipoli this year. According to the ABC it was the fault of the recession but today’s event at Lone Pine still attracted 7,500 people. Another 3,000 packed out the French 1918 battle site at Villiers-Bretonneux which rose to Australian prominence last year on its 90th anniversary.
Even though overseas Anzac Day celebration dates back to 1916, it was possibly one of the few things the well-drilled founders of the tradition probably hadn’t anticipated. Today is the 94th Anzac Day and there is a strong view that the first Anzac Day was a spontaneous event. On the 25th of April that year, Australian and New Zealand troops celebrated in England, Egypt and the Middle East and in France (where they had just arrived). Back home the excitement generated by what had occurred a year ago ensured it would not be forgotten there either.
Much of the credit for the way it captured the public imagination in 1916 belongs to the war reporting of Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and Charles Bean. Throughout 1915 their lively accounts ignited a fire which the religious institutions were quick to pick up on. By June the bodies were starting to come back from Turkey in significant numbers and they continued to arrive until the operation was called off in December. It was becoming appropriate that a national day of mourning needed to be called to deal with collective grief.
But even with the help of journalists, Anzac Day did not ignite spontaneously. The first Anzac Day Commemoration Committee was set up in January 1916. It was a Brisbane auctioneer named Thomas Augustine Ryan who decided 25 April was a good day to have the commemoration. He was a member of the local recruiting committee and the father of a soldier who survived the Anzac operation. Ryan suggested the idea to TJ Ryan (no relation, as far as I’m aware) the then-Labor Premier of Queensland. Premier Ryan quickly convened a meeting of local luminaries on 10 January 1916 and allowed a high profile Anglican priest Canon Garland to draw up an agenda.
David John Garland was a remarkable political operator. He was a true missionary and an organiser with a fierce reputation for getting things done. He was the perfect man for the Anzac job. Born in Dublin he emigrated to Queensland in 1886 aged 18 to follow a career in law. But he fell under the influence under a Toowoomba Anglo-Catholic rector who employed him while he prepared for ordination. Garland was a chaplain in the army prior to the Boer War and spent ten years in Western Australia he had successfully changed the rules to allow religious education in state schools. He then came back to Queensland where he did the same as well as winning a referendum to allow bibles in state schools.
Although the 10 January meeting was initially organised by the Queensland Recruiting Committee to get more men onto the frontline, it didn’t take long for Garland to get an Anzac memorial on the agenda. It was he who got a motion passed to “make arrangements for, and carry out the celebrations of Anzac Day”. The Brisbane Courier reported a day later that Garland said the war was teaching people that “their duty to God in a degree would compensate for their neglect of God in the past” and that defeat at Anzac was no disgrace.
Garland made sure the ADCC council was ecumenical and top-heavy with influential people. He used the fact he was a Dubliner to win over what would otherwise been a highly suspicious Roman Catholic hierarchy. However as Anzac emerged as an issue that did not compromise religious belief, all religions wanted to be a part of it. Together, they would ensure Anzac Day always had a religious as well as secular charter.
It was no surprise that the co-ordination should start in Brisbane. The first troops ashore at Anzac were the Queensland 9th Battalion of the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade. The Ninth were the first to return home in coffins from Turkey in large numbers. As 1915 progressed a culture of commemoration began to grow in the city. But Brisbane was quick to get other Australian and New Zealand cities involved. Garland also arranged for marchers to get free public transport from Queensland Rail.
But his stroke of genius was overcoming the anti-ecumenical Catholic suspicions about Protestant commemorations. Garland’s solution was to include a two minutes silence which allowed everyone to quietly pray to their own God. There would also be time for speeches, hymns, the Last Post and God Save the Queen. It would be followed by a march of returned service men. The ADCC wanted the day to have a similar feel of solemnity to Good Friday (which it was very close to on the calendar – in fact in 1916, it was just four days before Anzac Day). No cinemas, racecourse, hotels or sporting venues were allowed to open.
The ADCC was helped by royal support. King George V attended the 1916 Anzac Day two minutes silence at Westminster Abbey. There he issued a rare message direct to Australians: “Today I am joining them in their solemn tribute to the memory of their heroes who died in Gallipoli. They gave their lives for a supreme cause in gallant comradeship”.
But even with royal imprimatur, it would take another 14 years for the idea of Anzac Day to be institutionalised across Australia. Garland worked assiduously to ensure that the day would keep its religious dimension. From 1921 onwards, he lobbied the Prime Minister of the day to declare a uniform celebration across the Commonwealth. New Zealand declared it a day of solemn remembrance in 1920, Queensland followed a year later and WA in 1923. Initially businesses and hotels were required to close until 12.30pm to allow for services and the march and it would take another seven years for Queensland to get everything shut down for the entire day. By now the federal government had taken over ownership of Anzac Day from Garland’s ADCC and they laid the Inauguration Stone at the National War Memorial in 1929.
At the June 1929 Premier’s Conference, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce (who was to lose the election and his seat a few months later) invited all church denominations to hold memorial services the following year and asked the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) to arrange meetings of remembrance. But there still wasn’t total agreement. Unlike the churches, the RSSILA could not decide if it wanted the tone of the meetings to be solemn or jubilant. It decided on both: solemnity in the morning and carnivals in the afternoon allowing the opening of sporting venues and bars.
Most states went with the RSSILA (now RSL) model. However Garland’s own Queensland went it alone with the “sacred day” approach. It closed bars all day until 1964 when the Anzac Day act was modified to allow the opening of hotels, racecourses and other places of amusement. Australia finally had a nationally sanctified and consistent Anzac Day that appealed to both the spiritual and the worldly side of the nation’s psyche.