New Zealand Embassy Tokyo, Japan

Commonwealth War Cemetery and ANZAC Day

The Significance of ANZAC Day

ANZAC is the acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, the formation created in December 1914 by grouping the Australian Imperial Force and New Zealand Expeditionary Force stationed in Egypt under the command of Lieutenant-General William Birdwood. Initially the term ‘Australasian Corps’ had been mooted for this force, but there was reluctance among both Australians and New Zealanders to lose their separate identities completely.

The acronym itself was probably devised at Birdwood’s headquarters by a New Zealand clerk, Sergeant K.M. Little, for use on a rubber stamp. Some time later it was taken on as the telegraph code word for the corps. Consisting of the 1st Australian Division and the New Zealand and Australian Division (under Major-General A.J. Godley), the corps made its operational debut at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. The small cove where Australian and New Zealand troops landed was quickly designated ‘ANZAC Cove’, and the word was soon being used to describe all Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought on the peninsula.

From the Allied perspective the eight-month Gallipoli campaign was a costly failure. During the campaign the Turkish forces grew to match the size of allied forces. Neither side gained an advantage. The ANZACs stood strong until it was realised that they could not take the peninsula and it was decided to withdraw the forces in mid December 1915. Unlike the landing this was done without any casualties over two days.

There were more than 100,000 Allied casualties at Gallipoli. Of this, Australia suffered 26,000 casualties including 8,709 fatalities and New Zealand 7,500 casualties including 2,721 fatalities (or one quarter of New Zealanders who landed at Gallipoli). In defence of their homeland it is estimated that the Turks suffered as many as 250,000 casualties including 87,000 dead.

The men who served on the Gallipoli Peninsula created a legend, adding the word "ANZAC" to the Australian and New Zealand vocabularies and creating the notion of the ANZAC spirit. For the Turks it was the beginning of a process of national revival. The Turkish hero of Gallipoli, Kemal, would eventually, as Kemal Atatürk, become the founding President of the Turkish Republic and embrace those who lost their lives at Gallipoli on both sides (see Atatürk’s Ode).

ANZAC Day was first celebrated in 1916 with memorial services throughout Australia and New Zealand, commemorating the lives lost in the 8 month period spent by ANZAC forces on the Gallipoli Peninsula. Pressure was brought to bear by returned soldiers and their organisations, and the day became a public holiday in both countries in 1921. Although the term "ANZAC" only officially referred to those who fought in WWI it was later decided that the day should also officially remember those who served in WWII. These days it also incorporates the men and women who served in later wars such as Malaya, Indonesia, Korea, Vietnam and the Borneo Conflict; and those who have served since in actions such as "Desert Storm", and peacekeeping and support operations around the world.

The 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1990 attracted immense interest in Australia, New Zealand and Turkey. Official delegations from Australia and New Zealand, including Gallipoli veterans, serving men and women from the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces, and a host of Australian and New Zealand tourists attended an emotional ANZAC Day dawn service at Gallipoli. Since that time many Australians and New Zealanders have made the ‘pilgrimage’ to Gallipoli for ANZAC Day. Once regarded by many as an implicit glorification of war, ANZAC Day is now almost universally seen as a repudiation of war and a celebration of our national identity.

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