Anzac: a word of humble origin

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.

Anzac beach, Gallipoli.  Hampton, W A, fl 1915 :Photograph album relating to World War I. Ref: 1/2-168790-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Anzac beach, Gallipoli. Hampton, W A, fl 1915 :Photograph album relating to World War I. Ref: 1/2-168790-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, 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.

My photo of soldiers' graves at Tyne Cot, 2004.
My photo of soldiers’ graves at Tyne Cot, 2004.

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



10 thoughts on “Anzac: a word of humble origin

  1. Oy, Gallipoli. What a disaster. I believe that was Churchill’s idea as well. Not a good beginning for the First Sea Lord. I suppose someone had a to try a landing sometime. Some hard lessons were learned at the cost of much blood.


    1. I wrote a book some years ago detailing the way the British botched it including the internal arguments – leading to the ANZAC stalemate. Maybe the most surprising part is the way that this dismal military debacle was turned into a great victory back in New Zealand – a complete transformation which as far as I can tell was engineered by the Archbishop of Auckland of the day. By the first anniversary in April 1916 the campaign had become New Zealand’s great sacrifice for Empire, a triumph of duty that transcended the fact that it was a total military defeat. That entanglement with national dream and sentiment remains – suitably transformed of course – the key reason why we mark it today. I find it ironic because with Australia we’re the only nation to have a Memorial Day based on a botched invasion-and-defeat…everybody else marks it at war’s end.


      1. War is funny like that. A defeat, though one fought with courage and bravery, is often perceived as a moral victory. Such interpretations go all the way back to the Celts, the Romans, and even the Greeks (“Come back with your shield or come back ON it”). It’s sometimes necessary for national pride to find a positive within a defeat.

        One of my favorite military stories is the Battle off Samar, where Kurita’s powerful Center Force stumbled upon Taffy 3, a collection of lightly armored escort carriers defended by tiny Destroyer Escorts. Taffy 3 got hammered, badly. In many regards this was a terrible failure (especially since Halsey wasn’t covering them when he should’ve been), but on the other hand it’s often treated as a triumph of courage.

        War is just funny like that.


        1. Just need to look at the British handling of Dunkirk. I well remember beginning my subscription to the partwork “Images of War: and reading about it for the first time. It was quite a struggle to reconcile the narrative of what sounded like a humiliating withdrawl and the contemporary newspaper included which trumpeted the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, a discourse which continues.


          1. In New Zealand’s case just about all our legendary actions got that treatment. Crete was another. I am inclined to put it down to the intersection between events and the national psyche.


    2. Meant to add – yes, it was definitely a Churchillian debacle. Followed his effort to land the Royal Naval Division in Belgium some months earlier – they had to leave with tail between legs. Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealander, was with the RN Division on both occasions. Much later, as GOC of 2 NZ Division in the Second World War, he was ordered to join the battle for Greece – another of Churchill’s ideas. I found a document, here in NZ’s National Archives, that Freyberg wrote basically saying that he’d so far been involved in all three of Churchill’s military adventures…and maybe this Greek one might work. It didn’t, of course.


      1. Oh my. I just love the knowledge you possess. This is great stuff. Poor Freyberg. I’ll bet Churchill was not high on his list of military planners. At some point did Freyberg say, “Cripes! Not that Churchill bloke again!”


        1. They were actually quite good friends – though that got strained after the battle for Crete where Freyberg ended up being put in command of the island, told Middle East Command that it couldn’t be held with what they’d given him, but was told to hold it anyway. Freyberg was, of course, quite right – the island fell, and for the reasons he’d given. But Churchill always blamed Freyberg for it, and the rift wasn’t really mended until about 18 months later when Churchill visited Freyberg’s command post in the Western Desert for lunch.


  2. I really enjoyed reading your account of ANZACs formation. History is fun to learn from, and this innocuous meeting making a decision in a hotel room is still being celebrated today – not for the name of course – but for the courage shown of a new thrown together force of Australian’s and New Zealanders. Thanks for sharing!


    1. It’s an amazing story because it shaped the word that means so much to us today on both sides of the Tasman – and yet at the time it was a mere expedient, a decision so minor it was given to junior staff officers and never properly remembered. But, of course, that’s always the way with history – and the people of the time can’t know how their futures will pan out. In early 1915, Gallipoli was meant to be a quick campaign, over in a few days – a brief interruption to knock Turkey out of the war before the Australians and British continued their own interrupted journey to France.


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