Two sides to Anzac story

Ashley Ekins.
Ashley Ekins.

New Zealand and Australia have very different takes on the Anzac legend, a prominent historian says.

"The 'NZ' is being written smaller and smaller, in my view, into that Anzac," Australian historian Ashley Ekins told the National Press Club yesterday. "It is really a very Australian, assertive Australian nationalistic sense that we have of this story."

More than 2700 New Zealand troops fell alongside 8500 of their Australian counterparts at Gallipoli.

Despite catastrophic human losses during what Mr Ekins described as the "foolish" and "ill-conceived" campaign, the Anzac spirit has grown among Australians to represent courage, mateship and sacrifice. It is an acronym that now encapsulates all soldiers and other defence members killed fighting for their country.

But Mr Ekins, head of military history at the Australian War Memorial, said New Zealanders gaze back upon the events that began on April 25, 1915, through different lenses.

"It's not as nationalistic. It's more of a sense of loss," he said, referencing the work of historian Chris Pugsley, who compared the two countries' views of Anzac.

Citizens from both countries will head to Gallipoli for next year's official commemorations of the centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove. About 2000 Kiwis and 8000 Australians will attend the ceremony.

The Anzac story focuses on the landing of thousands of troops on the beach at Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915. But it was an eight-month campaign that told the true human cost.

"The real story is what those soldiers did, in eight months," Mr Ekins said.

"They landed, they fought to gain the heights, they lost. But against all the odds they held on in the most impossible position."

The largest battles of the Gallipoli campaign came in August 1915 when 25,000 men tried to break out of the cramped, dangerous and unsanitary Anzac enclave that had housed them for months.

"It was a very costly, and futile, attempt," he said. "The real story is a far more dramatic story, it's a far more human story of the suffering, of the long agony of staying in that."

That's why it was important to educate Australians on the whole story, and the four years of World War I that followed, Mr Ekins said. He feared this would be lost "in the large gathering tsunami of commemorative activities".

"What's going to happen is more likely going to be people will be commemorating things they don't understand well enough."

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