Anzac Day has been a public holiday in New Zealand since 1921 when it was designated to commemorate the soldiers who fought and lost their lives in World War I. It takes place on the 25th April each year to mark the anniversary of New Zealand and Australian soldiers – the ANZACs – landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. 2779 New Zealanders lost their lives during the Gallipoli Campaign, around a sixth of those who served there.
There are now no Gallipoli or War War I veterans still alive in New Zealand, with the last soldier, Bright Williams, passing away in 2003. But Anzac Day is still celebrated each year and honours those who fought in World War II and the contribution of returned servicemen and women from subsequent conflicts.
Since 1939, the Anzac Day commemorations in New Zealand have begun with a Dawn Service, with people gathering at memorials in the pre-dawn hours to reflect and remember. These ceremonies usually include the “Last Post” being played and speeches from dignitaries and politicians. Many young New Zealanders are now attending and wearing the medals that their grandparents and great-grandparents won during the wars. War veterans and serving personnel then gather in Returned Services’ Association clubrooms to socialise, have a drink and play games that were popular during the war.
Over the years, the way Anzac Day is celebrated in New Zealand has changed, which reflects the concerns of the modern-day society. Following the outbreak of World War II, there was a heightened sense of relevance as the country again rallied around its troops going off to fight or work behind-the-scenes on the war effort. During the increased anti-war sentiment of the 1960s, the day was used for social protest to question the implications of war.
Today Anzac Day is seen as an opportunity to celebrate New Zealand’s nationhood, formally paying tribute and remembering those who have made sacrifices for the country. More than any other day in the New Zealand calendar, it is used to promote a sense of unity as people of different beliefs and political leanings can come together to show their mutual respect for those who have endured war on the country’s behalf.