Anzac Day: what are we celebrating?

Australian soldiers in East Timor: the Anzac myth plays a major role in legitimising this sort of imperialist military intervention

Every year we are told that the young men whose lives were snuffed out at Gallipoli died gloriously for our freedom. We are told that the “liberties” we supposedly enjoy in New Zealand today exist only because of the sacrifice of these soldiers. The message is that the soldiers’ deaths were worth it, and that the cause they died for was just.

There is no nice way to say this: it’s all lies.

War about territory, not freedom

In 1914, war broke out between the major imperialist powers of the world. They divided up into two blocs. On one side, the Allies, primarily made up of France, Russia and the British Empire, as well as the smaller countries allied to them and their countless colonies throughout the world. The ruling classes of New Zealand and Australia took this side. On the other side, the Central Powers, primarily made up of Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, along with a number of smaller countries and the various colonies they controlled.
The imperialist powers of the world were squabbling with each other over who would have the right to control the world’s territory, who would have the right to exploit the world’s resources and the world’s people, and which group of rich capitalist countries would be top dogs over everyone else.
That’s what the war was about. It was not about defending democracy. It was not about defending free speech. It was not a battle to defend the world from the nun-murdering, child-raping armies of German aggression. It was a brutal and senseless conflict in which both sides were equally bad.

Strategic importance of Gallipoli

What was the Gallipoli invasion all about? The Allied High Command ordered the invasion of Gallipoli for several reasons. The Ottoman Empire, an Islamic empire stretching from Turkey in the North right down into the Middle East, had aligned with the Central Powers in the imperialist war.

The Allies wanted to open a supply route to Russia, strengthening its armies and in doing so relieving German pressure on the Western Front. The Russian government, a brutally repressive monarchy led by Tsar Nicholas the Third, was the same one that, a decade earlier, gunned down hundreds of unarmed workers who were protesting the inhuman conditions they had to live and work in.

As well as this, since late 1914 the Western Front in France and Belgium had effectively become fixed. The Allied imperialist generals desperately needed to open a new front and try and move the war into a new stage. Also, the Allies hoped that an attack on the Ottomans would draw Bulgaria and Greece into the war on the Allied side.

Army of conscripts

The New Zealanders at Gallipoli had no choice about whether they went or not. Unlike Australia, New Zealand conscripted soldiers. You got a letter in the mail telling you to report for duty, and you either made your way to the local recruitment office, or you went to jail. Early in the war there was huge social pressure to sign up, and it was considered an act of cowardice not to. According to New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey, “the state comes first” (before conscience) and that “if they won’t do their duty they must be driven”.

Some New Zealanders stayed true to their principles anyway, and refused to fight. Peter Scott Ramsey, President of the Christchurch Anti-Conscription League, was sentenced to 11 months jail with hard labour for telling a public meeting:

To hell with the consequences. I have the courage of my convictions. I have been a member of the peace movement since I was 14 and a half, and I am not going to give up the principles for which I have fought for so many years for the class to which I do not belong.

Apart from the fact that most of the soldiers heading off to Gallipoli hadn’t volunteered but were in fact conscripts, they weren’t actually told about where they were heading. The Allied High Command purposefully let them believe they were heading off to France to fight the Germans. They figured that the soldiers would be more willing to fight on a front that they saw as defending Britain, than they would be to invade a country that a lot of them had probably never heard of, let alone considered a threat to them.

Maori resistance to Pakeha war

There’s much propaganda about Maori participation in WWI; it is often suggested that young Maori men joined up eagerly in great numbers to fight in the war and thus earned the respect of their Pakeha brothers, who linked arms with them before they marched off together in racial harmony and equality.

In fact many Maori were fiercely opposed to fighting in the war, and were some of the strongest fighters against conscription, along with Christian pacifists, communists and trade unionists. Of 552 Maori called up in conscription ballots, only 74 joined.

Tuhoe leader Rua Kenana was the most celebrated Maori objector. He was arrested at his Tuhoe settlement at Maungapohatu and charged with sedition. Rua’s “seditious” argument was that Maori should not fight for a pakeha king and country when Maori ancestral lands had been taken by a pakeha government 50 years before in the confiscations in Taranaki, Waikato and Bay of Plenty that followed the New Zealand wars.
Waikato Maori were particularly resistant to conscription. In traditional fashion they performed whakapohane (baring of the buttocks) to insult the government envoy Maui Pomare who came to plead with them to join the war. Forty-four Maori were arrested but refused to wear the military uniforms they were given. Six were court-martialled and sentenced to two years hard labour at Mt Eden jail.

Disproportionate losses

The New Zealand ruling class sent no less than 10% of our population to fight overseas and invade countries that had never threatened us. We were further away from the war than anybody else, but we sent more troops as a percentage of the population than any other country in the world. Of those 10%, half became casualties and of those, 18,116 died. That means that 5% of New Zealand’s population were killed or injured in the First World War.

Anti-imperialism Day?

I don’t oppose Anzac Day. While I’d prefer to call it “Victims of Brutal Senseless Imperialist War Remembrance Day”, I think we need at least one day a year to sit back and remember the young Kiwis whose lives were thrown away all those years ago.

But we go about it totally the wrong way. Rather than using this day to ask, “What was this all for? How could we have let this happen?” and pledging never to allow anything like this ever to happen again, pledging to oppose ALL imperialist war, Anzac Day has instead become a day where war is glorified.

If we truly wished to avoid a repetition of the horrors of 1914 to 1918, we would use Anzac Day to teach this basic truth: Do not believe what you’re told. War is never glorious, and the soldiers who bled to death in the Belgian mud died for nothing.


  1. From the website of the Socialist Party (Australia)

    The Anzac Day holiday this year has once again prompted pages and pages of articles in the capitalist press claiming to ‘honour the bravery and sacrifice’ of the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC).

    Rudd, like all of his predecessors, claims the day is about the celebration of ‘wonderful values’ including mateship and decency. Whilst Rudd and other establishment figures like to talk about mateship and decency really they stand for nothing of the sort. The question is why are they so keen for us to celebrate the Anzac tradition?

    Anzac Day commemorates the events at Gallipoli on the Turkish coast during 1915. Because of a navigational error, the Anzacs came ashore about a mile north of the intended landing point. Instead of facing the expected beach and gentle slope they found themselves at the bottom of steep cliffs. This put the Turkish troops in an ideal defensive position. As the Turkish troops saw it, they were defending their homeland from an unprovoked invasion and they put up a strong fight.

    The Anzacs maintained their position but found it impossible to advance. After almost nine months of stalemate, they finally withdrew. During this time Australian and New Zealand casualties reached 8587 killed in action and 19,367 wounded in the line of duty.

    At home the war was not exactly popular in October 1916 and again in December 1917 the Australian people voted against conscription. In Australia there was no conscription to the First World War. This was not because the government didn’t want conscription but because of a massive campaign waged by the labour movement.

    As a reaction to this campaign the government held the first Anzac Day march in 1916. This was an attempt to stem the growing tide of revolt against conscription and to divert the anger of returned soldiers away from the government who had sent them to war. The Anzac myth was used by the establishment to promote nationalism and ensure returned soldiers did not move into the arms of the labour movement.

    For many years it seemed as if Anzac Day had almost died away but in the mid 1920s it was revived. The RSL (then called the RSSILA) was suffering from a loss in membership but it managed to rebuild on the basis of building RSL clubs and giving financial support to ex-soldiers. This was important at the time as it was perhaps the only thing that kept many ex-soldiers going during the depression.

    During the Vietnam War Anzac Day was extremely unpopular and was often the target of anti war protests. After Vietnam, Anzac day again almost disappeared. It was re-revived in the 1980s by the Hawke Labor government. Again it was used by the government to promote nationalism and divert workers attention away from the class issues of the time such as wage cuts, job losses and cuts to social spending.

    Rudd’s intention today is to continue to instil this sense of solidarity with the government and the establishment therefore cutting across all of the current class issues including the dark clouds gathering over the economy.

    It is no coincidence that the establishment has pushed for the revival of Anzac Day in the past ten years. Nor is it any coincidence that this revival has coincided with attacks on the living conditions of ordinary people.

  2. Great article Alastair.

  3. Cheers bro!

  4. Those are aussie soldiers , not kiwi.

  5. They all died for a cause that no one believed in. They are the unsung hero’s who never will be truly commemorated. They died for a country that will never truly acknowledge their supreme sacrifice. They died in a land that, before they arrived, didn’t even know the name of. They were the innocent who died for a peace that was never stable, that many knew would never last.
    “It is not right to glory in the slain.” –Homer
    “How vile and despicable war seems to me! I would rather be hacked to pieces than take part in such an abominable business.” –Albert Einstein.
    “It is pitiful to see men, not long ago strong and healthy, now with drawn faces and staring eyes, struggling towards the firing line. Most of them should be in hospital. They are cheating death but only just. They are the walking corpses – the ghosts of Gallipoli.” –Joe Murray.
    The words ring true. They are the fear and the pain left in the hearts of those who remember them. The empty hole left only by the dead.
    Peter Scott Ramsey had the right idea, fighting of his beliefs in the face on unimaginable adversity. I wish there had been more like him and less like the government lackeys who decided who should die and who should live.
    “Name an emperor who was ever struck by a cannonball.” –Charles V of France.

  6. John Edmundson says:

    Jess wrote:
    ““Name an emperor who was ever struck by a cannonball.” –Charles V of France.”

    Napoleon came close. Apparently before the battle of Waterloo s British artilleryman spotted L’Empereur doing a bit of forward reconnaissance, as he was renowned for doing. The gunners were expecting to have a shot at him when their commanding officer informed them that it was not the duty of an officer to fire upon another officer. The triumph of class over all!

  7. steve devantier says:

    shame on you for pulling apart a day used to remember young men that have passed, regardless of wether they wanted to fight or not they died! ive lost friends in afghanistan who wanted to be there and anzac day celbrates there sacrifice aswell! new zealand needs to put its contribution in “other countrys’ conflicts” to keep our security

  8. steve devantier says:

    also the picture at the top of this page is of australian soldiers

  9. I’d argue that the history of Anzac Day and its role in New Zealand consciousness is a lot more complex than either those who dismiss or deify the occasion would concede. I deployed Kendrick Smithyman against WPNZ on this subject a couple of years ago:

  10. They died not for new Zealand but for the glory of the Pommy bastards who exploited New Zealand. The British Empire needed men so it looked to its colonies and dominions for manpower. Now what do we have…the same story except our US bootlicker PM is forced by the (this time around) american pigs to send troops to afghanistan, Iran or whereever theres a US-Led war or risk the “we aint your friend anymore new zealand” response. Its like the schoolyard bully victimising his supposid friend into “hand over your lunch money or im not your friend anymore” or “you walk into that shop and steal that ipod over their or i beat you up and we are no longer friends” or something in the lines of that rhetoric. Just Proves that AMerica is not New Zelaands (or australia, or britians) real friend, a true friendly country respects the others decisions not threaten them with trade sanctions, or worse still, a “your siding with them so we attack you” threat

  11. Please change either the picture or the caption to the photo. I am offended that you speel on about history and how every one else made mistakes and we don’t live in a better place because of their efforts yet you cannot honor us the serving by even knowing who we are, what we look like and how we do our jobs, the Aussies have a bad rep and that photo shows it, Kiwis do a fantastic job and it shows in the faces of the locals. Shame on you for choosing this day to talk politics ANZAC day is to honor the fallen. Yes we have learnt from the mistakes of the past… thats why we have the book of “why”, it serves a reminder to us as to why we dont do stupid stuff anymore. Peace be the norm.

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