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War history: Why they cross the globe to honour Anzac heroes of First World War

13:11 28 April 2014

The iconic slouch hat of the Australian soldier - like many of the men that wore it - was actually British. The hat was Army issue during the Boer War.

The iconic slouch hat of the Australian soldier - like many of the men that wore it - was actually British. The hat was Army issue during the Boer War.

Archant

This weekend I will be on the battlefields of the Somme with a group from Australia and New Zealand. The most important part of their programme will undoubtedly be attendance at the dawn service at Villers Bretonneux. The service takes place every year at first light on April 25, a day known to Aussies and Kiwis as Anzac Day.

The Australian experience of the Somme is as important to the national identity as it is to the British. The campaigns of 1916 and 1918 loom large in our shared memory.The Australian experience of the Somme is as important to the national identity as it is to the British. The campaigns of 1916 and 1918 loom large in our shared memory.

The date marks the anniversary of the first landing of Anzac troops (it stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. Even at the time in April 1915, this amphibious landing on the beach at Anzac Cove had huge national significance for Australia in particular. The landing of national units was viewed then, and even more so today, as a gigantic step toward Australian nationhood. Every year since the first landing, Australians have commemorated this momentous event across the world. Major dawn services take place in London, Gallipoli, Ypres and at Villers Bretonneux. When you read this I will already have attended the 2014 service at Villers Bretonneux, close to the French city of Amiens.

I always look forward to being there; the gathering has a unique atmosphere. Thousands turn out in the darkness and pre-dawn chill of the Somme, regardless of the weather conditions. Although remarkable in itself, what makes it so special is that the majority have journeyed all the way from the southern hemisphere to be there. Each individual or family has come to make their own private battlefield pilgrimage.

The typical Anzac visit to the Western Front usually includes all the battlefields synonymous with the Australian and New Zealand experience of the First World War − Ypres, French Flanders and the Somme feature prominently. However, the dawn service is the primary reason for the long trek across the globe to France.

Significantly, the entire event, along with the main service held at Gallipoli, is broadcast live in Australia and New Zealand, where similar services are also held. Anzac Day has a prominence akin to our own Remembrance Sunday; it is a national event that dominates that date every year without fail.

Lowestoft man Sergeant Claud Castleton had left Suffolk for Australia in 1912. He was posthumuosly awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery while serving with the Australian Imperial Force on the Somme in 1916.Lowestoft man Sergeant Claud Castleton had left Suffolk for Australia in 1912. He was posthumuosly awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery while serving with the Australian Imperial Force on the Somme in 1916.

This may all seem very interesting but little to do with East Anglia and our own experience of the war. It is worth considering just how many British people have close family bonds with Australia and New Zealand. So many of those Anzac men were born and bred in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex. When the war engulfed Europe, many returned home to join British regiments or enlist in the Royal Navy.

However, much larger numbers rushed to join the new home-grown armies that were destined to make up the Anzac Corps. So many would never return to either their new or mother country. We should not forget that they came, and should always remember their sacrifice alongside those who served in more familiar county regiments.

This weekend, spare a thought for the Anzacs and consider the words etched into the memorials marking the battles of the New Zealand Division and commemorate their many dead:

From The Uttermost Ends Of The Earth

Deep below the French town of Arras the efforts of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company are commemorated.Deep below the French town of Arras the efforts of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company are commemorated.

Mike Peters is Galloway’s resident military historian and chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides

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