It’s Anzac day today on both sides of the Tasman, a day of remembrance that strikes to the heart of national sentiment in Australia and New Zealand.
All of which belies the humble origins of the term.
Anzac began as a straight-forward acronym, a simple description of the combined Australian and New Zealand Army Corps formed under Lieutenant-General William Birdwood in Egypt in early December 1914. They were a lash-up. The two formations had been on their way to Britain, via the Mediterranean, to join the fighting on the Western Front. When war broke out with Turkey, they were dumped in Egypt as a hedge against possible Turkish intrusion from Palestine.
That acronym gained enduring life when it was turned into a rubber stamp, “A.&N.Z.A.C.”, by two staff sergeants, A. T. Little and Millington, to frank incoming mail. Apparently this was in use by early January 1915, and the Corps became known by the acronym – which was more euphonious than the alternative ‘NZAAC’.
The Gallipoli operation was proposed a little later, using the ANZAC Corps largely because they happened to be in Egypt at the time. Birdwood’s staff – ensconced in the Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo – began casting around for a formal military code name for the unit. After several false starts came up with the idea of using ‘ANZAC’.
Exactly how that happened, though, has been a matter of versions – the documentation varies, underscoring the difficulties of pursuing historical detail down to its ‘quantum uncertainty’ level. Depending on which account you believe, the idea was either proposed by Lieutenant A. T. White, or somebody else on Birdwood’s staff. In 1936, Little wrote to the RSA newsletter claiming that he had the idea and put it to White. But Little’s account seems to conflate this moment and the stamp-making idea, months earlier.
It remains one of those awkward issues flowing from inadequate and contradictory source documentation. But the fact that we don’t know the exact conversation in that room in the Shepheard’s Hotel doesn’t reduce the fact that ANZAC as a military code name emerged from those people and that room – one way or another – and that Birdwood liked it. So ANZAC became the code name for the force.
The acronym soon became a word, starting with ‘Anzac Cove’ as a nickname for the bay south of Ari Burnu where the Australians and Kiwis landed on 25 April. It was embodied in the “Anzac Book”, written later in 1915 by the Anzacs at Gallipoli. The name was perpetuated in 1916 when the two main Australian and New Zealand formations on the Western Front, in France and Belgium, became 1 Anzac and 2 Anzac Corps.
By this time it was also in common usage as a word back in Australia and New Zealand – not just as the nickname for the oatmeal biscuits being sent to the men at the front, but also to identify the memorial services that began, almost spontaneously, on the first anniversary of the landings.
By 1920 the term was well ensconced, a neologism to conjure with on both sides of the Tasman – as, indeed, it still is today.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014