Australian identity and the First World War

Every 25 April, ANZAC day, Australia pauses to remember and pay tribute to those who lost their lives while serving Australia in war. It has been observed that, in recent times, this observance has become more pronounced, with younger people participating in greater numbers, many making the trip to Gallipoli, Turkey for the remembrance ceremony at ANZAC Cove.

While ANZAC Day now commemorates all Australians who served in war, the first ANZAC commemoration was held in London in 1916, during the First World War, by Australian and New Zealand soldiers, who sought to commemorate the battle and lives lost at Gallipoli, in April 1915.  

Australia’s participation in war has become part of its national identity. Indeed, the First World War generally, and Gallipoli specifically, has been seen by some as central to Australia’s coming of age as a nation, as it defined the nation in a very dramatic fashion on the world’s stage. Much of the ‘Australian character’, as it is popularly imagined, was first observed by the official war historian C.E.W. Bean, whose portrayal of the physical fit, casually competent soldier, suspicious of pretentions and airs, who countered authority with a democratising cynicism and deprecating humour, has become an enduring national image.  

This unit will lead an investigation of how Australia’s participation in the First World War, or the Great War, impacted on its growing sense of itself, and how it continues to influence the national imagination and identity. The exploration will consider:  

Focus Questions

  1. How was Australia’s national identity defined at the time of the First World War?
  2. In what ways was it challenged and changed by the experience of war?  
  3. How much of Australia’s contemporary identity is compatible with the ANZAC past?


For the teacher | Background | Introductory activity | The origins of the First World War | Convincing Australians | Forging an identity | The conscription debate | ANZAC in contemporary Australia