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Anzac Day: A brief history

Published: 1:04PM Saturday April 21, 2007 Source: ONE News

It was an act of ultimate sacrifice on a windswept peninsula a long way from home.

On April 25 1915, New Zealand and Australian soldiers, fighting together with British and French allies, landed on the Gallipoli peninsula.

The aim was to defeat the Turkish soldiers that held the area and capture the Dardanelles, a strait between Europe and Turkey. It was argued that if the operation was successful it would encourage some of the neutral Balkan states to join the Allies.

What ensued was an event which would define New Zealand's involvement, and ultimately its losses, in World War I.

Lord Kitchener, who was leading the Gallipoli campaign , made plans to send in the experienced British 29th Division to join Anzac (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) and French colonial troops.

The British Navy had made some progress in the months prior to the assault on Gallipoli by driving Turkish forces from the outer Gallipoli forts. However, it was decided that the peninsula could not be captured without the help of the army.

Kitchener opted to send 70,000 troops, despite being advised by the Greek army that he would need more than double that number.

Before dawn on April 25, Allied troops began landing from boats that were firstly towed in by steamboats and then rowed ashore.

But Turkey's commander General Liman von Sanders had been warned of the assault, and had lined the coast where he expected the Allies to come ashore with around 84,000 troops.

Most of the soldiers were still in their boats when Turkish sentries on the peninsula fired the first shots. Many were killed and wounded in the boats while others managed to make it ashore. It became clear that the troops had inadvertently landed about a mile to the north of the beach where they had intended.

Of the approximately 16,000 Anzac troops who landed on the first day, there were over 2,000 casualties. But despite initial heavy losses, the Allied forces fought on until January 1916 when the peninsula was evacuated.

According to Australian records, by the end of the campaign, the Allied forces had suffered over 141,000 casualties, including 44,000 dead. Australia had over 28,000 casualties, including over 8,700 killed and New Zealand suffered 7,500 and 2,700 dead.

Anzac troops also served on the Western Front on battlefields such as Passchendaele and the Somme.

Women also played a role with over 500 Kiwi nurses - about a quarter of the nursing workforce during that time - serving overseas as members of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service.

Today, Anzac Day not only commemorates the fateful Gallipoli landing but is a time to remember all New Zealanders who have served in war. It was first marked in 1916 and is commemorated in New Zealand and around the world.

Why World War I?

World War I, also known as the Great War , started in 1914 and ended November 18 1918. However, it did not officially end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles peace declaration six months later.

The war was the result of a crisis in Europe following the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie on June 28 1914. It set in motion a chain of events and confrontations between the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Franco-Russian alliance.

However, it was not until August 2 1914 ,when Germany invaded neutral Belgium, that Britain became involved. Britain's aim was to make sure that Germany did not dominate continental Europe. King George formally declared war on Germany on August 4 1914.

It became an international war fought as far away as the Middle East, between the Allied forces (The United Kingdom and Ireland, France, Russia, Italy and the United States) and the Central Powers, which also included the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and Bulgaria. As a member of the British Empire in 1914, New Zealand formed part of the Allies along with Australia.

New Zealand enthusiastically responded to Britain's call to arms in 1914 although conscription was introduced in 1916 through the Military Service Act to bolster New Zealand's contingent.

Around 10% of New Zealand's population went to war (120,000 Kiwis enlisted which included 2,688 Maori and 346 Pacific Islanders). Of those who served, 18,500 died and nearly 50,000 were wounded.

Overall, World War I claimed the lives of more than nine million soldiers and millions of civilians.