Commemorating the first Anzac Day October 13?

Australia’s first commemorative Anzac Day was not 25 April 1916, but rather 13 October 1915 and occurred in Adelaide–replacing the traditional eight-hour holiday. This first quirky Anzac Day was more of a carnival than a solemn ceremony of commemoration. However, many of the later Anzac Day commemorations have their origins in this first Anzac Day. Initially termed the ‘Patriotic Procession and Carnival’, the committee made a public appeal for a new name for the day. This renaming established the name Anzac Day over the name Gallipoli Day in Australia. Most importantly, coverage from the time argued that Anzac Day filled a void in the national narrative of Australia, transcending class boundaries and becoming a new and unifying focus in a time of war.

The object and mood resembled a mardi gras mixed with Harvey Norman’s Australia Day sale. On the morning of Anzac Day, the advertiser awkwardly pontificated: “All must pay the price of Empire. If all may not lay their lives upon the altar of their country, at least all may dip deeply into their pockets and contribute a portion of their resources to meet the needs of the living victims of the red gods.” Despite high rhetoric, obviously most people were not about to pay the ultimate price. In reality, Anzac Day was a public holiday, a day of leisure and shopping.

The first Anzac Day march was headed by a reserve unit, the Royal Australian Naval Brigade, which marched with fixed bayonets accompanied by the Brigade Band. The returned wounded soldiers were followed by the 2000 new recruits bringing up the rear. After this came the traditional union march. However, even that was unique for the day. Many of the floats had a Gallipoli theme, such as one for the ‘Operative Painters and Decorative Employees of Australia’, which hosted a background painting of the Gallipoli hills with painters dressed as solders at the ready to clamber up the painted escarpment occupying the foreground.  Displays of imperial patriotism were also a facet of the day, with numerous floats representing historic heroes of the British Empire and imperial mascots, including John Bull and Britannia. Another float consisted of a giant effigy of the Kaiser skewered by a sword. The banner read, “The Kaiser wants Copper, hit him with some.” The purpose of these floats was to raise money, with patrons hurling pennies at the floats.

After the parade, the celebrations moved to Adelaide Oval. A group of people dressed as prehistoric animals chased by cavemen circled the oval. This was probably not an indigenous people parody. Instead, the visual style, captioning and promotion all related to a satirical image of prehistoric Europe. For weeks, the papers had covered the build up to Anzac Day, particularly the preparations for the ‘tram-car crash’. Described as an ‘American novelty’, the event was highly choreographed and reportedly attracted a crowd of 15,000. Two obsolete horse-drawn trams were mounted on a track raised at both ends. With gravity powering the trams to a speed of 16 miles per hour, the impact of the collision was made more impressive with timed explosions bursting the wreck into flames upon impact. An eyewitness described it as ‘watching two tramcars melt into a shapeless mass of twisted iron and splintered wood. The flames completed the total destruction’. Other events included a display of air balloons and military kites (the precursors to the aeroplane). In addition, a mock arrest of cabinet members from the South Australian Government, who pretended to be common thieves, was staged.

The day was a fundraising success and reported in newspapers across the country. The idea was copied in Victoria, with the Lord Mayor’s Button Day committee selecting 17 December 1915 as Anzac Day and the issuing of a remembrance button. Yet in Ballarat, the city council decided to depart from Adelaide’s lead and hosted the day on 14 January 1916. These Victorian events were also published throughout Australia. In Queensland, the Anzac Day Commemoration committee was formed after a public meeting on 10 January 1916 that proposed Anzac Day be commemorated on 25 April. This was adopted throughout the country and the eight-hour day from 1916 reverted to its traditional format.

By Gareth Knapman