By Chris O’Connor. Nearly 20 years ago I stood with thousands of others at the Australia War Memorial in Canberra as they interred the body of Australia’s Unknown Soldier. During the service the Australian Prime Minister at the time, Paul Keating, started his address to the nation with one of the most moving speeches ever made in this nation. In part he said:

We do not know this Australian’s name and we never will. We do not know his rank or his battalion. We do not know where he was born, or precisely how and when he died. We do not know where in Australia he had made his home or when he left it for the battlefields of Europe. We do not know his age or his circumstances – whether he was from the city or the bush; what occupation he left to become a soldier; what religion, if he had a religion; if he was married or single. We do not know who loved him or whom he loved. If he had children we do not know who they are. His family is lost to us as he was lost to them. We will never know who this Australian was.

Yet he has always been among those we have honoured. We know that he was one of the 45,000 Australians who died on the Western Front. One of the 416,000 Australians who volunteered for service in the First World War. One of the 324,000 Australians who served overseas in that war, and one of the 60,000 Australians who died on foreign soil. One of the 100,000 Australians who have died in wars this century.

He is all of them. And he is one of us.

I remembered this ceremony the other day as we prepare to honour all those military men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for Australia. On th 25th of April the nation will come to a halt in a manner similar to the Remember Day ceremony held each year in November. Anzac Day, is one of Australia’s most important national occasions. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.

When war broke out in 1914 Australia had been a federated nation for only 13 years, and its government was eager to establish a reputation among the nations of the world. When Britain declared war in August 1914 Australia was automatically placed on the side of the Commonwealth. In 1915 Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of the expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in order to open the Dardanelles to the allied navies. The ultimate objective was to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany.

The Australian and New Zealand forces landed on Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Turkish defenders. What had been planned as a bold stroke by Winston Churchill to knock Turkey out of the war quickly became a stalemate, and the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915 the allied forces were evacuated from the peninsula, with both sides having suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. More than 8,000 Australian soldiers had died in the campaign. Gallipoli had a profound impact on Australians at home, and 25 April soon became the day on which Australians remembered the sacrifice of those who died in the war.

Although the Gallipoli campaign failed in its military objectives, the actions of Australian and New Zealand forces during the campaign left a powerful legacy. What became known as the “Anzac legend” became an important part of the identity of both nations, shaping the ways in which they viewed both their past and their future.

Australians recognise the 25th April as a day of national remembrance, which takes two forms. Commemorative services are held across the nation at dawn – the time of the original landing, while later in the day, former servicemen and servicewomen meet to take part in marches through the country’s major cities and in many smaller centres. Commemorative ceremonies are more formal, and are held at war memorials around the country. In these ways, Anzac Day is a time at which Australians reflect on the many different meanings of war.

During the Covid pandemic the marches were cancelled and instead thousands of Australians stood in their driveways at dawn holding a candle. Australians will never forget.