What is an Anzac button?

by Amanda Laugesen

Nested in an entry for Anzac in the Australian National Dictionary (AND, 1988) is a list of terms such as Anzac biscuit, Anzac march, and Anzac overcoat. Included in this set of terms is Anzac button. As I am currently researching Australian words from the First World War, this was one of the more intriguing terms to research.

Replica of Australian WWI uniform trousers

Anzac button is not specifically defined in AND; rather, the 1919 quote provides the explanation. The quote comes from W.H. Downing’s 1919 dictionary of Australian First World War words, Digger Dialects: ‘Anzac button, a nail used in place of a trouser button.’ Downing compiled this dictionary, at the request of a Melbourne publisher, so the story goes, over a weekend. Undoubtedly, Downing knew many, if not all, the terms that he included in his dictionary. However, evidence for many of the terms in Digger Dialects remains frustratingly elusive. The only other piece of evidence for this sense of Anzac button is a quote from Patsy Adam Smith’s book about the First World War, The Anzacs. In it, she quotes a stretcher-bearer, Jim McPhee of the 3rd Division Field Ambulance, saying ‘We had some silly sayings. An Anzac button was a nail in place of a trouser button.’ However, while McPhee may well remember the term from the war, he may also have read it subsequently in books like Downing’s. So far no more primary evidence for this sense of Anzac button has turned up.

A search of the digitised newspaper collections of the National Library, Trove, throws up a different meaning for Anzac button. This sense refers to a badge or button that is bought as a means of fund-raising and demonstrating support for soldiers and/or returning soldiers. A notice in the Bendigo Advertiser on April 27, 1917 was as follows:

The boom in Anzac buttons to-day promises to be a record one. The secretary (Lieut. Clegg) was yesterday besieged by ladies desirous of helping to raise funds for our soldiers so much that the supply became exhausted, and that an extra 2000 had to be ordered from Melbourne. … Judging by this, the fount of charity in the hearts of the Bendigo people may still be tapped, especially when the cause is one so dear to the hearts of all—the welfare and comfort of out brave boys at the front. (p. 8)

In much of the early wartime evidence, before Anzac Day became the established term for the day commemorating the landing of the Australian soldiers at Gallipoli, Anzac Button Day was also commonly used.

Anzac buttons continued to be sold into the first years of the 1920s, but then disappeared. However, they can now be found as collectables.