ANZAC Day: What are we celebrating?

This article by Alastair Reith was originally published here in 2008.

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. Please do a little research before writing an article like this. Conscription was introduced in 1916, a year after the Gallipoli campaign so every New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli was in fact a volunteer..

  2. CMT (Compulsory Military Training – a form of conscription) was first introduced in New Zealand with the Defence Act of 1909. It applied to all males from 14 to 21 years of age throughout New Zealand.

  3. Compulsory Military Training did not mean you were forced to fight overseas though. This article claims that the all soldiers at Gallipoli had been forced to go to Gallipoli, whilst they actually all volunteered to go. Military training (usually completed at school) did not make you a member of the army. Granted all young men were required to have completed military training, no one was formally conscripted (CMT was not considered conscription at the time) into the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZ’s contribution to WW1) until 1916, a year after Gallipoli. I do of courseagree that CMT is a type of conscription though. My issue was with the article’s false claim about the ‘army of conscripts’ at Gallipoli since all men there had willingly gone to fight for King and Empire, a message that was drilled into them at school. Many of course would not feel so jingoistic and patriotic when they returned home.

  4. Alastair Reith says:

    @ Dan: I did more than a little research when I wrote this, but clearly not enough. I was only 17 at the time, but still, a mistake is a mistake, and this is a significant one.

    I should have double checked the contents of this before dredging it up and sharing it round Facebook this year. Lesson learned!

    I take full responsibility. If an edit could be made or a correction inserted, whatever the website admins feel appropriate, that would be great, but let’s have it on record that I accept this one is my bad.

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