It’s September 11th, 1914 in German-controlled New Guinea; less than two months after the start of World War I.
Lieutenant Thomas Arthur Bond of the Australian Navy’s Volunteer Reserve Forces guides his men out of a thick rainforest onto a steep, open road.
Thomas and his troops are on a mission to cripple German communications in the area. In the distance, Thomas sees his destination: a German wireless station. But before he and his troops can arrive… they're discovered. Enemy soldiers appear… and open fire.
Thomas shouts over the noise, ordering his men to advance up the road where nearly immediately, two of Thomas’s soldiers are hit, another is killed; still, Thomas presses ahead. He and his remaining men finally overwhelm their German attackers and force them to surrender. Thomas leaves a group of soldiers behind to secure the area and hold the prisoners. Then he and the rest of his men continue their advance.
But the sound of hooves pounding on the road behind him tells Thomas that he's not captured every single German. He wheels around and spots an enemy rider trying to deliver a warning message to German soldiers further up the road. Thomas and his men act fast, dashing in different directions and cutting off all possible routes of escape for the German rider. Surrounded, he surrenders.
With the help of a translator, Thomas discovers that there’s only one small group of German troops left standing between him and the wireless station. So with renewed confidence, Thomas leads the way up the road. When he’s about a thousand feet from the station, the last of the Germans emerge from a nearby building. But they're only armed with pistols.
He orders a few of his men to fire warning shots.
The Germans are startled and confused and know they are outnumbered and outgunned. Thomas and the rest of his soldiers move in fast and encircle the Germans. One by one, Thomas snatches their revolvers from their holsters as they put their hands in the air. Soon, with their new prisoners in tow, Thomas and his men take possession of the German wireless station.
The raid in New Guinea marks Australia’s first major military action in World War I. But it won’t be the last. Before long, Australian troops will join forces with soldiers from New Zealand who’ve been carrying out similar actions across the region. Their combined forces will come to be known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp, or ANZAC.
ANZAC’s involvement in the war will be long, bloody, and brutal. But its soldiers will be heralded for their bravery and sacrifice, a reputation they cement in another battle, seven months later, when they will land on the Gallipoli peninsula and begin their heroic military campaign on April 25th, 1915.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 25: Anzac Day.
Act One: Russia asks Britain for aid against Turkey
It’s January 2nd, 1915 in London, England in the office of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty.
As Churchill paces the room, he chomps on a cigar and leaves a trail of ash on the floor. Churchill is the political head of the British Navy, and he’s waiting to receive news from his allies in Russia.
In early 1915, Allied forces led by Britain, France, and Russia are struggling to win the war. Russia is battling Germany along its western borders, and at the same time, trying to fight off Turkey from the south. Churchill knows Russia needs help; and if he doesn’t give it to them, then Russia succumbs; the entire war could be lost.
Soon, Churchill hears footsteps outside his door. He stops pacing and turns to see an aide walk in the room. The aide tells Churchill that Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, has received a telegram from Grand Duke Nicholas, the Commander in Chief of the Russian army.
As Churchill listens to the contents of the telegram, he sees clearly that the Grand Duke shares his fears that Russia is fighting too many battles on too many fronts. At the end of the message, the Grand Duke calls directly on his allies for aid directly and asks England and France to attack Turkey. The Russians hope a full-scale assault on Turkish soil will pull Turkey’s military away from Russia, which will bring the Russians relief in the south and allow them to focus on fighting the Germans.
Taking just a moment to digest the contents of the telegram, Churchill then springs into action. He sends the aid back to Lord Kitchener with a clear message: England and France must answer Russia’s call.
Later that same day, Lord Kitchener arrives to speak with Churchill himself. They discuss the Grand Duke’s telegram and weigh their options. Both men agree they need to help, but they don’t yet know how.
Kitchener leaves Churchill and sends a message back to the Russian Grand Duke. The reply gives no specifics, but the British do promise to take action, reading: “Please assure the Grand Duke that steps will be taken to make a demonstration against the Turks.”
Over the next several days, Churchill, Kitchener, and other political and military leaders discuss the possibilities of moving against Turkey. When Churchill has the floor, he turns the conversation to one possible point of attack: Gallipoli, a peninsula on the southern part of European Turkey.
Churchill gives an impassioned argument for seizing Gallipoli and its nearby strait, the Dardanelles. He says a Gallipoli campaign will provide Russia the aid they desperately need, but also reminds the room that Gallipoli is the heart of Turkey; a hub for Turkish resources, troops, and weaponry. Churchill suggests that if Britain and France can win in Gallipoli, they will eliminate Turkey from the war entirely, and bring the Allies one step closer to total victory.
But Churchill faces immediate pushback from several military leaders. They contend that committing resources to fight Turkey will diminish their current military efforts throughout Europe. They remind Churchill that the Allies are fighting on multiple fronts too. They then tell Churchill they don’t have the men, the money, or the weapons to spare an attack on Gallipoli. But Churchill stands his ground, and eventually, wins enough support to move from those in the room to move forward. But the exact plan is still unclear.
Throughout the first weeks of January 1915, Churchill consults with French and English military leadership. Strategies are conceived, dashed, and then reconceived. But in the end, the Allies decide they will move on Gallipoli in April, launching their campaign from Egypt, where they already have a military force training in Cairo; a combination of Australian and New Zealand forces known as the Anzac.
Soldiers from Australia and New Zealand first set sail from their homes in November of 1914. Many of them believed they were headed to Europe. But when Turkey entered the war, Anzac troops were rerouted to Egypt to protect Allied interests in the Middle East. Since they arrived, the young, mostly inexperienced Anzacs have been working hard to transform themselves into a battle-ready force.
But the battle will come sooner than most of the young men expect. On a peninsula of Gallipoli, the Anzacs will be outmanned and outgunned. To survive, these young soldiers will rely on their training, camaraderie, and bravery.
Act Two: Anzac troops train in Egypt
It’s February 1915 in the desert outside of Cairo, Egypt.
Private James Charles Egan, an Anzac soldier, forces his aching legs through the ankle-deep sand. Charlie, as he’s known to friends, is in the middle of a six-hour training hike. He’s hot, tired, and hungry, but somehow, he’s still enjoying himself.
At the time the war broke out, Australia had only gained its independence from Britain thirteen years earlier, and New Zealand was still decades away from earning national sovereignty. Many people in both countries were conflicted about supporting Britain’s war. But by and large, young men in Australia and New Zealand greeted the call to arms with enthusiasm. Most, like Charlie, saw volunteering for the armed forces as a chance for adventure.
So now, as Charlie trudges through the sand with his fellow trainees, each step a labor, he still takes a moment to gaze up at the two large pyramids looming nearby. The majestic, exotic sight helps him muster the strength to make the final push. When he and his company arrive at base camp, they collapse on the ground, their legs and lungs burning. But they're still in good spirits enough to laugh, share a cigarette, and contemplate a game of Cricket in the sand before they head off to the mess hall for a much-needed meal.
The Anzacs have spent the last two months of Egypt honing their skills as marksmen, building their stamina, and practicing the different roles they’ll be required to play when they go into battle. But they’ve also spent time building and maintaining the camp, which now functions like a small city. They’ve shared meals, and gone exploring together. And this camaraderie is one of the keys to their training in Egypt. The Anzac officers, and their Allied commanders, need to turn this group of predominantly young and inexperienced soldiers to a cohesive, deadly fighting unit.
And by early spring of 1915, that goal is within reach. The Anzacs look ready for war. One young Australian soldier writes a letter home, “There is no doubt about Australian fellows for soldiers… We’re like one big machine now.”
In London, Churchill, Kitchener, and British leadership coordinate with the French and prepare to strike at the heart of Turkey.
In mid-April, roughly 16,000 Anzacs leave Cairo and head for Gallipoli where they will sync up with British and French troops already on the ground. At dawn on April 25th, 1915, the first wave of Anzacs land at a small inlet on the Gallipoli peninsula that will come to be known as Anzac Cove. Many of the young soldiers believe a quick victory is at hand.
But as the Anzacs climb their way from the shore up a craggy hill, they’re met with fierce resistance from Turkish forces. The Anzacs take significant losses. And soon, it will become clear to Allied leadership that they’ve badly underestimated the Turks. And the Anzacs will understand that victory will be far from quick and easy.
Act Three: Anzac legacy
It’s 11:00 AM on April 25th, 1915 in a rowboat off the shore of Gallipoli.
James Jackson of the New Zealand Medical Corp keeps his head down as shrapnel explodes in the sky above his boat.
The battle at Gallipoli has been raging for hours. The Anzacs are pinned down and overwhelmed by Turkish forces, but they’re holding strong. James is part of an Anzac medical unit that’s been sent in to help the wounded.
When his rowboat makes it to shore, and James steps out onto the sand, he is stunned by what he sees: enormous numbers of Anzac dead and wounded lie on the beach. James doesn't know where to start first. He is momentarily paralyzed by the scope of suffering. But he forces himself to focus and starts pulling the wounded to safety. He and other medical staff will work well into the night.
By the end of the first day, close to 2,000 Anzac soldiers are killed or wounded.
The Turkish defenders are able to stop any Allied advance, and quickly the invasion turns into grueling trench warfare, another deadly stalemate dug into the ground, just as in Europe.
The Gallipoli campaign will stretch on for months and conditions were terrible for all sides as summer comes, the heat causing exhaustion, spoils rations, and bakes the corpses of the fallen. New assaults are planned and launched, but each one fails to advance the Allied lines. And finally, an evacuation is ordered in December 1916.
For the Allies, the Gallipoli campaign is a failure. But over time, stories of the bravery and sacrifice of the Anzacs will become a source of pride for Australia and New Zealand. Some writers will even suggest that the Anzacs helped define the national consciousness of both countries.
Then as the one-year anniversary of the Anzac landing approaches, groups in Australia and New Zealand call for a day of remembrance. In Queensland, Australia, the Anzac Commemoration Committee sets out to organize a day of somber reflection in honor of the men who gave their lives so bravely. In Auckland, New Zealand, soldiers returning home from the war also push local leaders to honor those who bravely fought and died on the first day of battle at Gallipoli.
These groups help give rise to the first Anzac Day which was held on April 25th, 1916. Over time, Anzac Day takes on even greater significance and becomes a day to honor all Australian and New Zealander soldiers who have given their lives in combat.
Every April 25th, annual services are held at dawn. Australians and New Zealanders gather to hear stories and poems that speak to pride and remembrance:
"READER: Saluteby Sydney Napier: The wearying years toll onward, and the ways of the world are wide. But you who have lost remember, though these whom you loved have died, neither deaths nor the years can part you, nor the width of the world divide, and today as you stand to salute them, they too will be here at your side."
Anzac Day continues to honor all Australians and New Zealanders who paid the ultimate price; but the day’s traditions remain deeply rooted in honoring the Anzacs who landed on Gallipoli on April 25th, 1915.
Next on History Daily. April 26th, 1986. A safety test goes wrong at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, causing the worst nuclear disaster in history.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.