The first Anzac Day didn’t include a dawn service or the wearing of poppies; those traditions were yet to begin. Instead, people gathered at town halls, schools and churches to remember those who returned from Gallipoli, and those who were left behind.
The making of the Anzacs
News of the landing of troops at Gallipoli reached New Zealand on 30 April 1915. New Zealand and Australian forces fought together as part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and the two young nations reacted with patriotic pride. Gradually reports came in indicating the great loss of life. In many instances, it was not until January 1916 that men, initially reported missing, were confirmed as killed in action.
The soldiers’ proposal for the first anniversary
As the first anniversary of the Gallipoli landing approached, many New Zealanders were considering how to commemorate the soldiers who fought as Anzacs in 1915. In Queensland, there was a movement to commemorate 25 April under the title ‘Anzac Day’. It was suggested that the idea should be an Australasian event and the name “Anzac Day” was quickly adopted throughout New Zealand and Australia.
In Auckland, a gathering of returned soldiers suggested to Auckland’s Mayor Mr J H Gunson, that they wanted to commemorate the first anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli with an appropriate memorial service. The Mayor supported the idea and a committee was formed to make arrangements for the day’s programme. Similar proposals were being made in towns and districts throughout the country and, on 5 April, the Prime Minister received a formal request for a half-holiday on 25 April.
“A memorial service commemorating the first anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli was proposed by a group of returned soldiers in February 1916.”
Schools “celebrate” early
Throughout the country, schools planned “celebrations of the anniversary of the historic day”. The timing of the anniversary posed a problem – it fell in the middle of the school holidays.
The Auckland Education Board proposed an “address” on Thursday 20 April, immediately before students left to go on holiday.
“The following subjects should be referred to in the address: The British Empire, the flag ‘and what it stands for, the British Navy, self-government within the Empire, the “loyalty of the colonies and Overseas Dominions, our allies, why we are at war, and the freedom and liberty of the Empire.” New Zealand Herald, 12 April 1916, page 9
Newspapers reported that the significance of Anzac Day was “strongly impressed upon the minds of the children” after events were held throughout the country. Children from the Auckland city schools (Beresford Street, Napier Street, Nelson Street and Wellesley Street (Normal) Schools) attended a gathering at the Auckland Town Hall where they saluted the flag and sang the National Anthem before an address from the Mayor.
Schools all over New Zealand assembled for similar events featuring patriotic addresses from local mayors, principals and returned soldiers.
25 April 1916
In Auckland, a number of events were planned for 25 April. The Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist churches scheduled special memorial services.
At 2pm, thousands of residents lined Queen Street to view a procession of about 300 soldiers who had been discharged due to injury or illness. The parade began at Quay Street, passing “eager spectators” and buildings “gay with flags”, before reaching the Town Hall where the soldiers reunited with former comrades.
“The pace at which the march was taken was not rapid, and the men passed through crowds who were for the more part silent. Cheers there were, and applause, but an air of solemnity marked the occasion.” New Zealand Herald, 26 April 1916, page 4
The returned soldiers entered Auckland’s Town Hall through a guard of honour for a public service at 3pm.
After commencing with the National Anthem and the Lord’s Prayer, the Anglican Bishop of Auckland Dr Averill spoke of the achievement of the Anzacs – the spirit of courage and noble determination during the landing and the eight months of occupation.
“Our young men have set us a noble example of unselfish heroism and it is for us to follow that example in our everyday life.”
The service ended with the ‘Last Post’ on the bugle.
The Town Hall was also the location of a dinner and a concert given in honour of the returned soldiers that evening. The men and their relatives were joined by the Governor and the Countess of Liverpool and the Auckland Mayor and Mayoress.
A tribute to gallantry
The British war correspondent, Ellis Ashmead Bartlett, visited New Zealand in April 1916. His reports from Gallipoli were published in local newspapers during the campaign. In an interview with the New Zealand Herald (22 April 1916), Bartlett spoke highly of the courage and ability of the New Zealand troops, but pointed out that British troops also “fought and died with equal courage” and the commemoration should be known instead as Gallipoli Day.
Gallipoli historian Richard Stowers describes “our baptism of fire that established the term Anzac and led New Zealand to come of age as a nation”. He says the tragic impact of Gallipoli is clear from the records of the dead and injured.
“On the day of the first landings, later known as Anzac Day, New Zealand lost 153 killed, and many more wounded. Exactly 100 of the dead were from the Auckland Infantry Battalion, with the largest portion … hailing from Hamilton and the surrounding districts. Most of them died on the slopes of Baby 700.”
This feature originally appeared in Auckland Museum.