The story of ‘Anzac’

by Bruce Moore

What's their Story? gives a detailed account of many of the iconic words in Australian English.

What’s their Story? gives a detailed account of many of the iconic words in Australian English.

Bruce Moore is a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, who is currently editing the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. The following is an extract from his book What’s their Story? A History of Australian Words (published by Oxford University Press Australia, 2010).

Anzac is a central word in the expression of Australian attitudes and values, and it carries its history more overtly than any other Australian word. It had humble beginnings: it is an acronym formed from the initial letters of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, originally used as a telegraphic code name for the Corps when it was in Egypt in 1915, just prior to the landing at Gallipoli. It first appears in writing in the Australian war historian C.E.W. Bean’s Diary on 25 April 1915: ‘Col. Knox to Anzac. “Ammunition required at once.”’1 Two weeks later Bean writes: ‘Anzac has become the sort of code word for the Army Corps’ (6 May).2 It was eventually to become ‘a sort of code word’ for Australia and its beliefs and values.

Anzac Cove in Turkey

Anzac Cove in Turkey

Soon after in 1915 Anzac was used as the name for the place where the troops landed at Gallipoli—‘Anzac Cove’, often abbreviated to ‘Anzac’. The term was also used more generally to refer to the Gallipoli campaign, and even in the earliest references there are signs in the language of the tradition that the word would later define and evoke: (1916) ‘The whole nation brooded over these young men, guardians of Australia’s honor, and waited anxiously for them to wipe out this slur. That explains Australia’s pride in “Anzac”. It meant for us not merely our baptism in blood—it was more even than a victory—for there, with the fierce search-light of every nation turned upon it, our representative manhood showed no faltering.’3 It was also in 1916 that the term Anzac was first used to refer to a member of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who served in the Gallipoli campaign: ‘Lord Mayor Dick Meagher has decided to entertain returned Anzacs at luncheon at the Town Hall’;4 ‘The children unborn shall acclaim / The standard the Anzacs unfurled, / When they made Australia’s fame / The wonder and pride of the world.’5 By 1918 the term Anzac was being extended to refer to any Australian or New Zealand soldier or ex-soldier: ‘Anzacs are pouring in—an endless stream of tattered bloody figures—night and day.’6

Anzac biscuits

Anzac biscuits

During the war the term Anzac was used in various compounds: an Anzac button (first recorded 1919) was ‘a nail used in place of a trouser button’, Anzac soup (1919) was ‘shell-hole water polluted by a corpse’, Anzac stew (1919) was ‘an urn of hot water and one bacon rind’, and an Anzac wafer (1918) was ‘a hard biscuit supplied to the AIF in place of bread’. W.H. Downing (1919) adds to the definition of Anzac wafer: ‘One of the most durable materials used in the war.’7 It was inevitable that most terms of this kind did not survive their wartime contexts, although the Anzac wafer survives transformed into the Anzac biscuit (or called, as in the first record of it in 1923, simply Anzac). This is the 1923 recipe:

Anzacs: 2 breakfast cups John Bull oats, 1/2 breakfast cup sugar, 1 scant cup plain flour, 1/2 cup melted butter, 1 tablespoon golden syrup, 2 ditto. boiling water, 1 teaspoon carb. soda. Mix butter, golden syrup and soda together, pour boiling water on, then add dry ingredients. Put on oven sheet or scone tray with teaspoon. Slow oven till browned.8

The name Anzac is protected under Australian law, and can be used only with the permission of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. There has been some controversy over the recent use of the term Anzac cookie (with its strong American overtones) rather than Anzac biscuit, and the website of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs spells out the rules clearly:

In 1994 a general policy relating to biscuit products was adopted. The policy recognises that the names ‘Anzac biscuit’ and ‘Anzac slice’ have been in general use in Australia for many years, recipes appear in many cookbooks and biscuits are sold at numerous small fetes and fundraising events. It should be noted that approvals for the word ‘Anzac’ to be used on biscuit products have been given provided that the product generally conforms to the traditional recipe and shape, is not advertised in any way that would play on Australia’s military heritage, and is not used in association with the word ‘cookies’, with its non-Australian overtones. For instance, an application for Anzac biscuits dipped in chocolate would not be approved as they would not conform with the traditional recipe.

Anzac slice appeared much later than Anzac biscuit, and is made with the same ingredients but baked in a tray as a traditional ‘slice’ and then cut up.

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra

By the end of the First World War, the term Anzac was being used emblematically to reflect the traditional view of the virtues displayed by those who served in the Gallipoli campaign, especially as these virtues are seen as national characteristics: (1918) ‘The marvellous spirit and genius of the Australian and the immortal name of Anzac;’9 (1920) ‘Hundreds and thousands of heroes of the Empire … gladly come out to these smiling “plains of promise” … and multiply and prosper, and breed up a race of future Anzacs.’10 The compounds Anzac spirit and Anzac tradition appeared in 1916: (Australians in Kent responding to a Zeppelin raid) ‘The old Anzac spirit was back in a minute’;11 ‘Can we doubt that Australia will prove true—true to the great motherland which has shielded and protected her in the past, true to the great Anzac tradition which this war has already established for her.’12

The first Anzac Day parade in Brisbane, 1916. Source: National Archives of Australia

The first Anzac Day parade in Brisbane, 1916. Source: National Archives of Australia

During the war the compound Anzac Day was formed. The first Anzac Day was proclaimed by the acting Prime Minister George Pearce to be held on 25 April 1916, and some 60,000 to 100,000 people took part in Anzac Day activities in the Domain in Sydney. In Egypt, Australian soldiers commemorated the day with a religious service followed by sports and entertainments. In London, 2000 Australian and New Zealand troops marched through the streets to a service at Westminster Abbey attended by Lord Kitchener and the King and Queen. The tradition continued, with marches of troops in various cities in Australia, from 1917 on, these sometimes being called Anzac march or Anzac parade. By the late 1920s the dawn service, now such an important part of Anzac Day ceremonies, had also become established.

Anzac and its compounds are now often pressed into service in a variety of ways. The Anzac spirit can infuse a football match: (2000) ‘On a day when the Anzac spirit pervaded a packed MCG the big guns in Kevin Sheedy’s unbeaten Essendon rose to the occasion against a brave Collingwood. … Hird … carried on the work in the last quarter to clinch a special medal struck for the player who best epitomised the Anzac spirit out on the field of battle.’13 It can win an America’s Cup: (2008) ‘Australia needed heroes. … We portrayed the Aussie Anzac spirit of fighting with our backs to the wall, from 3-1 down. It surpassed a yachting event, it surpassed a sporting event.’14 It can save a dying Murray River: (2008) ‘This situation is not acceptable and as Australians in the true Anzac spirit we must act to reverse this environmental, social and economic disaster.’15 And it can help us prevent superbugs invading our hospitals: (1998) ‘Australia is part of a new global war and it’s going to take more than a good dose of the Anzac spirit to keep this enemy at bay.’16 This all bears testimony to the continuing strength of the Anzac tradition and the power of its central word.

Anzac button

Anzac Day badge. Source: State Library of South Australia


Diary, p. 67

Diary, p. 33.

3 R.H. Knyvett, ‘Over There’ with the Australians (New York, 1918), p. 113.

Truth (Sydney), 9 April 1916, p. 8.

5 ‘The Men of Anzac’, The Anzac Book (London, 1916), p. 95.

6 A.C. Stephen, An Australian in the R.F.A.: being Letters and Diary (Sydney, 1918), p. 84.

Digger Dialects (Melbourne, 1919), cited from the edition of J.M. Arthur & W.S. Ramson (Melbourne, 1990), p. 8. The preceding definitions are also from Downing.

8 H.W. Shaw, Six Hundred Tested Recipes (Melbourne, 1923), p. 54.

Huon Times (Franklin, Tasmania), 11 October 1918, p. 3.

10 J.N. MacIntyre, White Australia: the Empty North (Sydney, 1920), p. 191.

11 Sydney Morning Herald, 16 May 1916, p. 9.

12 Sydney Morning Herald, 28 October 1916, p. 12.

13 West Australian, 26 April 2000, p. 135.

14 West Australian, 20 September 2008, Metro Supplement, p. 10.

15 Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 10 August 2008, p. 17.

16 Sunday-Mail (Brisbane), 10 May 1998, p. 4.