Trends of popularity of Anzac Day and the Anzac Legend throughout the twentieth century

Anzac Day has been commemorated every year since the landing of Australian troops at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. The trends of the popularity of these commemorations have varied throughout the course of the twentieth century. Throughout the inter-war years Anzac Day was seen as an opportunity to remember those who served in the war and a reunion for returned soldiers. [1] Popular opinion towards Anzac Day began to decline in the post-war period and was continued until the beginning of the 1980s. In the 1950s and 1960s, this decrease was mainly attributed to ideas that Anzac Day was one for veterans to get together for a drink. [2] Throughout the 1960s and 1970s on the other hand, anti-war movements were one of the key causes to decline in interest and popularity. [3]

Additionally, throughout the course of the twentieth century the idea of the Anzac Legend was also subjected to fluctuations in popularity. In the 1940s the Anzac legend was viewed with great pride and was said to demonstrate how imperative the Australian forces were in regards to the outcome of the war. [4] During the post-war period up until the beginning of the 1980s, the Anzac legend was subjected to immense criticism due to protests against things such as the raping of women during war, and the large public demonstrations in opposition to Australia’s forces involvement in the Vietnam War. [5]

The 1980s saw dramatic changes in the attitudes and popularity towards Anzac Day and the Anzac Legend. The 1980s saw an increase in media coverage, spectators and participants of Anzac Day marches and celebrations. [6] The numbers of younger people attending and participating in marches with their families or in place of family members who were deceased or could no longer attend increased in the 1980s. [7] Additionally, the 1980s saw the release of a number of film productions concerning Anzacs and the First World War. Two of the most influential were Gallipoli (1981) and Anzacs (1985).

Gallipoli (1981) is one of the most influential films in Australian history. It is currently ranked number 16 on the All-time Australian box office record. [7] The film follows the Australian Gallipoli campaign, particularly the experiences of two young men, Archy Hamilton and Frank Dunne. The film focuses on Australian troops and officers battling with both the enemy and British officers. Gallipoli appeals to the audience in three main ways. One, the struggles experienced by soldiers. Second, the making of the Australian icon, the Anzac Legend, and lastly, it highlights the anti-British sentiments. The negative ideas towards the British were captured in the film where Frank is running in an attempt to halt a very dangerous attack authorised by the British aimed to distract enemy forces. The failure of Frank directly results in the death of his best friend, Archy, which again reinforces the idea of British incompetence.

Anzacs (1985) in contrast to Gallipoli was a television mini-series which aired on the Nine network. This series had the ability to reach a much larger audience. Anzacs followed the First World War campaign of one particular battalion from the landing on Gallipoli until the end of the war on the Western Front. The characters in this series all have their own stories and they all come from various backgrounds and represent different social classes. This production also emphasises anti-British ideas with the soldiers constantly showing disrespect towards British officers.

The release of these films during the 1980s facilitated the increasing debates surrounding the suitability of Australia Day being referred to as Australia’s ‘National Day’. These debates were centred on the idea that Anzac Day would be a more suitable day because it is the one that all Australian’s understand what exactly it is they are commemorating. [8] At the same time, Australia Day was being criticised and labelled as ‘Invasion Day’ by Indigenous people as well as many non-Indigenous people. [9]

Since the beginning of the 1980s, Anzac Day has increased immensely in popularity with Anzac Day marches and services being broadcast in its entirety on live television and increasingly larger attendance figures at specialised events. Government officials and Australian Prime Minister’s as well as large numbers of predominantly younger Australian’s frequently attend Anzac services at Gallipoli and France. It has become so popular that it is viewed as one of the most important topics to learn in the history classroom. The teaching of Anzacs and Anzac Day receives more government education funding than any other topic in the Australian history curriculum. [10]

The impact and popularity of the film Gallipoli (1981) is still evident in current Australian society. This is obvious when observing that this film is included in the Anzac section of the Australian curriculum. To demonstrate further, this film is the only form of popular culture included and it is required to be viewed and analysed as part of the curriculum.

The late twentieth century saw a massive increase in the popularity and national significance of Anzac Day. This is still evident and possibly even more significant in twenty-first century Australia.


[1] Blagg, Sub-Lieutenant Michael C. “Anzac Day.” Sabretache 47, no. 1 (2006): pp. 9-11.

[2] Thomson, Alistair. Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[3] McKenna, Mark. “Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s national day?” In What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010. pp: 110-134

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, “Fighting Tradition.” April 26, 1940.

[5] Damousi, Joy. “Why do we get so emotional about Anzac?” In What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010. pp. 94-109.

[6] Thomson, Alistair. Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[7] Thomson, Alistair. Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994.


[9] Australian newspaper 23rd April 1980 quoted in Mark McKenna, ‘Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s National Day?’ in What’s Wrong with Anzac: The Militarisation of Australian History, ed. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010): pp 110-134.

[10] McKenna, Mark. “Anzac Day: How did it become Australia’s national day?” In What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, by Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010. pp: 110-134

[11] Clark, Anna. History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2008.


8 comments on “Trends of popularity of Anzac Day and the Anzac Legend throughout the twentieth century

  1. mvirata says:

    Hi Kristy,

    An interesting article that reflects upon the influences of two pieces of public and popular portrayals of history. I wonder however, if the popularisation of the Anzac legend, particularly in the most recent decade, has had anything to do with the neo-nationalist and conservative push seen during the Howard years as a form of legitimising the policies and views on ‘protecting’ Australia.

    There was a marked change from policy and a fundamental shift away from embracing multiculturalism during the 70s and 80s with the intake of refugees and towards one again of the isolation of a ‘white’ and Western country amongst Asia during the late 90s/00s. What are your thoughts on this and do you think these films still have the same impact over the majority of Australian society or is it simply a nation-building exercise with the support of a few important backers (politicians/media outlets)?

    • kristyhulm85 says:

      Thanks for your comment,

      My essay was mainly based upon the period of the 1980s and early 1990s so the push during the Howard years was not investigated. You raised a good point regarding multiculturalism. I think that these films impacted on society the way they did for several reasons. One, the bicentenary in 1988. Two, the fact that the generation of First World War diggers were in the 1980s beginning to die out saw an increased interest in the war. The decline of Australia Day and the rise of Anzac Day resulted in people viewing 25th April 1915 as the day the nation was born.

  2. alexjobe says:

    Hey Kirsty,

    As some one who as grown up going to dawn services every year and really getting into the ANZAC Spirit i found this a really engaging article

    I think what you did really well was take such a broad period of history (from the start of WWI to modern day Australia) and presented it in such a way that it was not overwhelming.

    I think this was achieved well with the examination into pop culture references such as ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Anzac’ which i believes engages a typical reader more than just facts and statistics do. However, having said that i did find your fact about ANZAC history education being give the most funding by the government very interesting.

    As Australian history is something i really enjoy i found it interesting to think about many of the major events, such as the anti-war protests during the 60s / 70s, effected the ANZAC Legend which is a link i never thought to consider.

  3. selkadomi says:

    Hay Kristy,

    I think your blog was really interesting and brought up some relevant information. I agree that there has been a turn of interest in the ANZAC. It is clear that there are some influencing factors that have asisted in the increase of interest. I agree that ANZAC has become heavily popularised.

    I think it was a good idea that you used the movie ‘Gallipoli’ in your project. This also shows the influence ANZAC has had on popular culture.

    The increase attention politicians have had on ANZAC and the ANZAC spirit makes me question thier intentions. It seems like they are using the popularity of the ANZAC to increase their own popularity.
    I like that you have menitoned that this war receives the most funding from the government in terms of education
    Why do you think this is the case?

    • kristyhulm85 says:


      I read that Anzac receives the most funding from the government due to a hidden political agenda. I am not sure about the credibility of this claim but it is interesting.

  4. sianlimberg says:

    Dear Kristy,

    I think this topic is very interesting. I like how you have made reference to ANZAC day through popular culture to reflect the sentiments of society at that time. I find this interesting because it is a history which I can relate to. I can certainly remember watching Gallipoli in class in High School and analysing it in respect to what were told about Gallipoli in class. Of course to me ANZAC day has always been highly popularised, in they way were were taught it in High School, to news coverage of the dawn services and even the flowers left at the local War Memorial. I think it is an important tradition to keep in Australia and I therefore understand why politicians uphold the tradition, despite the destruction and horrors that occur in war, it is important to remember those who lost their lives. It was therefore interesting for me to read that ANZAC day during the post war years came under heavy scrutiny, although understandable in light of your argument about the Vietnam war around and the anti-war sentiment.

    Your topic was interesting, I have learnt about why we commentate ANZAC Day but never about the history of the reception of ANZAC Day. I think you have done a well thought out and coherent summary of what i’m sure was an interesting essay.


  5. samdavidspence says:

    Hi Kristy!

    I really enjoyed reading about your topic. ANZAC Day is a fixture on the calendar that is very close to my heart…at least 3 of my great grandfathers, and both my grandfathers fought in World Wars I and II, respectively, and I have always been proud to march beside my mother’s father, a former naval lieutenant at the Sydney parade, wearing the medals earned by his father-in-law on the Western Front.
    One thing that really irks me when ANZAC Day swings around each year is the RSL’s attitude towards descendants marching with the veterans. Every year, the top brass of the Returned Services League comes out and declares that all descendants should march at the rear of the parade. What is your view on this? I see the annual attempts to force me to the back of the queue, as it were, as an insult to the memory of my great grandfather, and I take great joy in seeing the directive ignored by the decendants every year (something that definately rings true to the ANZAC spirit!). Once again, thankyou for an enjoyable read! Sam Spence 🙂

  6. rlhungerford says:

    Well written and put together! Thank you for your work. This work is extremely valuable to the profession as it provides a clear and concise summation of where the ‘ANZAC’ fits in within Australian society. Furthermore your work coherently traces the changing nature of how the ANZAC has been understood by the Australian public over the 20th century and into the 21st century. By tracing the highs and lows of Anzac day you’ve managed to shed light on so many other areas of Australian society. I’m particularly interested in the implications of your study in terms of Australia’s changing relationship with Britain in the 21st century as depicted in films like Gallipoli. As a future history teacher I very much enjoyed the perspective you put forward. As you’ve mentioned the ANZAC is pretty embedded within curriculum to the extent that it has nearly become quite dry. For me your piece has shed light on the richness that there is in relation to the ‘ANZAC’ and have provided me with a new perspective to look into Australia’s past. Thanks Kristy!

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