In Depth

Anzac Day: what happened at Gallipoli?

Harry and Meghan lay wreath at Hyde Park in dawn service to commemorate fallen soldiers

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have attended a dawn service at Hyde Park to commemorate Anzac Day, a national holiday in Australia and New Zealand to honour fallen soldiers.

Prince Harry laid a wreath of red roses with a handwritten note that read: “For all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of our freedom. Thank you. Harry.”

A further service of commemoration and thanksgiving will take place at Westminster Abbey later today, which the royal couple will also attend.

Anzac Day was originally created to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand armed forces who fought in the disastrous battle at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

An estimated 44,000 Allied soldiers were killed, and tens of thousands more wounded, in the bloody clashes on the Gallipoli Peninsula, now part of Turkey.

Although the campaign was unsuccessful and had very little impact on the outcome of the War, it played an important role for Australia and New Zealand in fostering a sense of national identity.

“The military campaign is seen as marking Australia and New Zealand's post-colonial emergence on the international stage,” says the BBC.

Here's what happened 100 years ago and why its commemoration still causes controversy today:

What happened in the Gallipoli campaign?

Troops from Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, France, India, and Newfoundland were dispatched to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula. Success would give the Allies control of the Dardanelles Strait, a vital stretch of water connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Winston Churchill, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, hoped to use the strait to capture the Ottoman capital Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the War. “The Gallipoli Peninsular was key, as whoever controlled it controlled the Dardanelles straights, and the route to supply Russia via the Black Sea,” says Dr Gerry Oram, Swansea University’s First World War expert.

Led by Lieutenant-General Sir Ian Hamilton, the Allies launched their invasion on 25 April 1915. But they had badly underestimated the capacity of the Turkish forces. Despite securing footholds on the peninsula, the fighting degenerated into trench warfare, with the Allies forced to endure heat, flies, the stench of unburied bodies, insufficient water, dysentery and disease.

Following a failed offensive in August 2015, the British government began questioning the value of persisting at Gallipoli given the need for troops on the Western Front. Oram tells the BBC that by December 1915, it was clear that Gallipoli had been a “spectacular disaster”, and attention turned to evacuation.

So why does it have such great significance?

By 1915, Australia had been a federated nation for 14 years and the new government was eager to establish its reputation among the nations of the world, explains the Australia War Memorial website. Participation in the war was seen as a test of its nationhood.

“Merely hanging on in the face of determined Turkish attacks was triumph enough,” says Dr Peter Stanley, a military historian. The “minor, failed” campaign fulfilled a need “felt by many Australians to connect with or express their national identity” and has become a “symbol of Australia’s national identity, achievement and existence”. New Zealand also saw the campaign as a nation-defining moment in history, in which its soldiers showed bravery, tenacity and comradeship.

Out of this pride, grew Anzac Day - in memory of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, known as Anzacs.

How is Anzac Day marked?

In 1916, Anzac Day was held on 25 April for the first time, and later became established as a national day of commemoration in the 1920s. It has become one of Australia and New Zealand’s most important national days, and now commemorates those who served and died in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations - similar to Remembrance Day in the UK.

Each year a dawn service is held along with commemorative ceremonies in both countries and their territories. 

Why is it controversial?

Critics have argued that Gallipoli has been exploited as a touchstone of nationalism and that Anzac Day now glorifies war. The day declined in popularity in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War, but picked up again in the 1980s.

Others have accused the Australian government of using the commemorations to justify military involvement in 21st century wars.

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