Families at Anzac Day

The borders between veterans’ commemoration and families’ commemoration have always been fluid—and contested.

First World War (1914-18), Second World War (1939-45), Vietnam War (1962-73)
Army, Air Force, Navy, Peacekeeping operations
David and Krisanda White march to the Shrine 1967, photographer Peter Lane

Anzac Day has been commemorated since 25 April 1916, the first anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli. In that year, ceremonies and Marches were held on the Western Front, in London and Egypt as well as in various locations throughout Australia. Members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and a handful of nurses were the only participants in the Marches. In that same year, 25 April was officially named ‘Anzac Day’ by the acting Prime Minister George Pearce.

In the early 1920s, the tradition of the Dawn Service ceremony followed by Anzac Day Marches began in Australia and New Zealand. Veterans of the Great War marched with surviving members of the units with which they had served, while their families lined the route. It appears that few other people were in attendance in these early years. While families were welcome as spectators, it seems that there was no place for children or families to participate in the March. Despite this, the importance of the day increased. By 1927 all states and territories had legislated for Anzac Day to be a public holiday and spectator attendance grew over the following years.

This year would have marked the 89th annual Legacy Anzac Commemoration for students. This event was originally created to enable children to commemorate and remember those who had served in the Great War and, as was reported in 1938, ‘all schools are expected to attend’. Student representatives of the schools in attendance laid wreaths on the ‘Rock of Remembrance’ and a pilgrimage to the ‘inner Shrine’ was made. After this had occurred, the parents of the children and the public were welcome to come into the Shrine.

While many years later it is impossible to be certain, it appears that the attendance of children and families on Anzac Day was not welcomed. In April 1940, the State President of the RSL, made an appeal ‘to returned soldiers not to take their children with them in the Anzac Day March’. Even more troubling, and a demonstration of the social mores of the era, he also ‘made a request to women not to attend the dawn pilgrimage at the Shrine’. It is probable, therefore, that the Legacy Anzac service was created to ensure that children and families could still participate in the commemoration, even if not on Anzac Day itself.

Many of the original Anzacs were fathers, and more became so in the years following the war. Thus, the story of Anzac Day and the March has always involved families in one way or another. The borders between veterans’ commemoration and families’ commemoration have always been fluid—and contested. It is too simple to say that in the past veterans marched and families and their communities watched. What can be stated is that today far more children and families participate in the March, rather than simply as observers of veterans marching past. The experience of Graeme Dobell, who in the 1950s and 60s, remembers standing with his mother on St Kilda Road clapping ‘loudly for my father and his revered and raucous 9th Division mates’ of the Second World War as they ‘swaggered again’, was the more traditional and accepted role of families in that period.

But as the images in this article suggest, while it may not have been as regular, or as accepted as it is today, veterans have had their children or grandchildren march with them for many decades. The photo of four-year old Krisanda White marching in the 1967 Anzac Day March holding her Second World War veteran father David White’s hand, clearly shows that some ex-service personnel did take their children with them. In a time of great social change and upheaval, maybe this was not regarded as an out of the ordinary happening?

In 1987, the noted Melbourne photographer Rennie Ellis captured the image above of a Second World War veteran marching with a young girl, possibly his granddaughter. There are not many images like these, so it is probably safe to say that they were an unusual occurrence, but they were obviously not unique.

Anzac Day March 1987, photographer Rennie Ellis, Rennie Ellis collection, SLV

What we can say is that today many more veterans march with their families. Vietnam veterans Robert Joyce and Michael Masliczek both bring their granddaughters to the Shrine on Anzac Day, carrying them on the March. Many recent conflict veterans attend Anzac Day services, and the March, with their children. The image opposite shows two married recent conflict veterans with their baby daughter on the steps of the Shrine soon after the Dawn Service. In 2019, David Wilson, who was deployed as a combat engineer to Afghanistan twice, said that when he marched on Anzac Day ‘it’s the cries of the little ones in the crowd that make it so special to me’ and he encouraged veterans and others with families to attend.

Although change is clearly happening and marching with your children or grandchildren is more normal today than in previous decades, not everyone accepts that children should march on Anzac Day—whether they march with current or ex-service family members or in place of relatives long deceased.

Prior to Anzac Day 2018, the President of the RSL in Canberra wrote to all members stating that ‘the March is for veterans and current serving members of the ADF’ and that while they would not ban children or other relatives, their stance was that they ‘should not march’. In 2010 in Queensland, the reaction was similar, with one reporter stating that ‘children should not march on Anzac Day’ and the descendants of deceased veterans were placed at the rear of the March. In 2017 Victoria made the same decision.

No one today would suggest banning children from attendance at the Dawn Service or viewing the Anzac Day March, but their participation in the March appears to still be problematic for some people. Issues such as this are emotive and will continue to cause discussion, probably for as long as there are Marches on Anzac Day. What is beyond dispute is that families are welcome to attend the Dawn Service and the March which follows.


Dr Adrian Threlfall has been a member of the Shrine Education Team since 2011 and is a regular contributor to Remembrance. A military historian, he is currently working on a book about the combat operations of the Australian Army during the Cold War. Adrian’s first book, Jungle Warriors: From Tobruk to Kokoda and Beyond is for sale in the Shrine bookshop. His second book, Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero, is also available.

Reviewed 18 June 2020

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