This year, because of the COVID-19 restrictions, Australians are being asked to commemorate Anzac Day differently. The ABC will broadcast the dawn service from the Australian War Memorial, and people are encouraged by the RSL to ‘Light up the Dawn’ at 6am by standing at the end of their driveways, in their living room or balconies and follow along with a digital recording of the Dawn Service. You can even download an app with an eternal flame and a synchronised playing of the Last Post.
Research consistently shows that Anzac Day is the preeminent day in the national psyche, reinforcing ideas about what it means to be Australian.[i] This is despite the fact that while continuing to honour Service, Anzac has been through periods of varying community popularity,[ii] and has been problematised in academic and public commentary for being gendered, racialized, and linked to narrow range of ideal national characteristics.[iii]
Yet Anzac persists as a preeminent feature of Australian collective identity, and its importance extends beyond reflecting on historical events and lives lost in conflict. Anzac Day is an opportunity to reinforce the bonds of shared identity between those of us in the present, as well as linking us to the past.[iv] Traditionally, these identity bonds are reinforced through a focus on places and rituals of commemoration, especially ceremonies at local war memorials and parades or marches.[v]
There is no need to be concerned that Anzac will lose relevance and that Australian national identity will be undercut and compromised because people cannot attend Anzac Day events in person this year.
Feelings of belonging and connection can be created through a shared sense of purpose and activity, even in time and space- separated ways. A recent example of this was the 5000 Poppies project, which grew from a small personal tribute to a commemorative effort that inspired nation-wide poppy making during the Anzac Centenary. The desire for people to connect with others and express a commemorative sentiment, resulted in almost one million poppies being contributed to the project over its lifetime, and its final event, the Honour their Spirit exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the end of WW1, showcased 62,000 poppies made by volunteers.
But perhaps the alternative commemorative practice we are most familiar with, and one that is strongly tied up with contemporary Australian cultural identity is baking Anzac biscuits.[vi] The origin of the biscuit – something which could be sent overseas to soldiers in WW1 - has nostalgic and caring overtones, that are reinforced in the present through the domestic contexts of baking and eating. Indeed, the Anzac biscuit is so iconic as a form of social practice and shared tradition which crosses generational divides that adding the recipe to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list has even been suggested![vii]
While it may be an adjustment or feel inauthentic to commemorate in different ways, it is not unprecedented. Australians have a long and complicated relationship with Anzac, and more unstructured, informal, private or personal forms of Anzac commemoration are means through which people connect to and generate meaning around Anzac. Indeed, commemorative actions that take place outside of official contexts may even be more inclusive and meaningful, as a wider range of people are able to consciously and intentionally engage with Anzac.
Recent research by Tom Sear has explored the ways that Australians are expressing Anzac sentiment via social media. Sear argues that online commemoration’s success is based on developing and sustaining connections through clicks, links and comments, rather than requiring a physical presence.[viii] He has found that participation in and with online commemorative activities that collapse time and space, creates a sense of emotional connection and belonging.[ix]
Attending a service or having a structured engagement at a war-grave site, such as the European or Gallipoli battlefields, is also not an essential requirement to have a meaningful commemorative experience.[x] Bruce Scates’ research on Gallipoli pilgrims has also found that visitors critically reflect on, and often reevaluate their perceptions of Anzac and the stories and the experiences of soldiers, and that experiences of visiting graves and sites of conflict enhance feelings of belonging and connection to other pilgrims, as well as the nation.[xi]
Don’t fret about not being able to attend a formal Service to commemorate Anzac Day in person this year. Even at the height of Anzac fervour in 2015, when crowds exceeded expectations, only a small proportion of Australians (an estimated 1.2%) attend official Anzac Day ceremonies and events,[xii] and Anzac as a national ideal remains strong.
There are plenty of commemoration options out there. No matter what you do, it is the meaning and intention that you put into the commemorative act which gives it significance and meaning.
Emma Wensing is a Sociologist and Managing Director at Rapid Context. She is also a PhD student at the Australian National University where her research explores the meaning and impact of alternative Anzac commemorative practices.
[i] Ashton, P., & Hamilton, P. (2010). History at the Crossroads: Australians and the Past. Ultimo, NSW: Halstead Press; Donoghue, J., & Tranter, B. (2015). The Anzacs: Military Influences on Australian Identity. Journal of Sociology, 51(3), 449-463; Hamilton, P., & Ashton, P. (2003). At home with the past: initial findings from the survey. Australian Cultural History, 23(27), 6.
[ii] Bongiorno, F. (2018). Remembering Anzac: Australia and World War I. In A. Maerker, S. Sleight, & A. Sutcliffe (Eds.), History, Memory and Public Life: The Past in the Present (pp. 183-207): Routledge.
[iii] Bongiorno, F. (2014). Anzac and the Politics of Inclusion. In S. Sumartojo & B. Wellings (Eds.), Nation, Memory and Great War Commemoration (pp. 93-109). Bern: Peter Lang.; Brown, J. (2014). Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession. Collingwood, VIC: Redback; Lake, M., Reynolds, H., McKenna, M., & Damousi, J. (2010). What's Wrong with Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History. Sydney: UNSW Press; Scates, B., Frances, R., Reeves, K., Bongiorno, F., Crotty, M., Knapman, G., . . . Soutphommasane, T. (2012). Anzac Day at home and abroad: Towards a history of Australia’s National Day. History Compass, 10(7), 523-536.
[iv] Clark, A. (2017). The Place of Anzac in Australian Historical Consciousness. Australian Historical Studies, 48(1), 19-34
[v] Inglis, K. (1998). Sacred places: War memorials in the Australian landscape. Carlton South, Vic: The Miegunyah Press; Mayes, R. (2009). Origins of the Anzac Dawn ceremony: spontaneity and nationhood. Journal of Australian Studies, 33(1), 51-65.; Seal, G. (2011). ‘… and in the morning…’: adapting and adopting the dawn service. Journal of Australian Studies, 35(1), 49-63
[vi] Supski, S. (2009). Anzac biscuits—a culinary memorial. Journal of Australian Studies, 30(87), 51-59.
[vii] Cobley, J. (2016). Should we safeguard 'the idea of the Anzac biscuit recipe'? Women's Studies Journal, 30(1), 62.
[viii] Sear, T. (2016). Dawn servers: Anzac Day 2015 and hyperconnective commemoration. In B. West (Ed.), War memory and commemoration (pp. 69-88): Routledge.
[ix] Ibid.; Sear, T. (2016). Uncanny Valleys and Anzac Avatars: Scaling a Postdigital Gallipoli. In R. Frances & B. Scates (Eds.), Beyond Gallipoli: New perspectives on ANZAC (pp. 55-81). Clayton, VIC: Monash University Publishing.
[x] Winter, C. (2009). Tourism, social memory and the Great War. Annals of Tourism Research, 36(4), 607-626
[xi] Scates, B. (2002). In Gallipoli's shadow: pilgrimage, memory, mourning and the Great War. Australian Historical Studies, 33(119), 1-21; Scates, B. (2006). Return to Gallipoli: Walking the battlefields of the Great War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
[xii] Beaumont, J. (2015). Commemoration in Australia: A memory orgy? Australian Journal of Political Science, 50(3), 536-544.