As we gear up for the centenary of the landing at ANZAC Cove this Saturday, NEALE TOWART uncovers how trade unions in Adelaide created the first ANZAC Day parade.

THIS year we are being swamped with ANZAC bluster, patriotism and tragedy.

But World War One was far from Australia’s first exposure to conflict in far off lands.

Australian governments have always been keen to send “our boys” to fight other peoples wars, fromthe Sudan in 1885 onwards.

Burnt into our memories by stories from relatives, from school and from the vast marketing campaign around Gallipoli launched by Bob Hawke for the 75th anniversary and ramped up by John Howard, the landing at ANZAC Cove is promoted as the forging of a nation in blood sacrifice.

Trade unions have always argued about the merits of wars, and many, many unionists do enlist as volunteers.

A counter history of the ANZAC myth

Many fine historians have been challenging what has become an official narrative of the ANZACs ever since the story of Simpson (a larrikin and radical unionist) became part of folklore in the 1960s. That he was a unionist and was fiercely opposed to the bosses was written out of the first biography and was only reinserted by Peter Cochrane some years ago.

Similarly, with “the last ANZAC”, Alec Campbell. John Howard claimed he embodied what Australia was as a nation, hoping no-one would notice that he was a railway union leader and close associate of left-wing ALP politician Bill Morrow.

Even Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, one of the most popular books ever, pointed to the grim times that many of the volunteers left when they joined up.

Australian male larrikinism saw the First World War as a big adventure, especially when you consider the working conditions of many. Unemployment was high and the working classes roamed the bush and towns in casual labouring jobs.

This was fertile ground for groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World who dismissed labourites as the bosses’ lackeys. Despite the hostilities between workers, especially the IWW and the AWU, they united in opposition to conscription, whilst both being concerned at the welfare of the troops who returned injured.

The IWW was hounded out of existence by Billy Hughes, but the members were supported against the oppression by many unionists who certainly did not support their apparent “extremism”, just as unions did not let down their “mates” despite the opposing positions on the war.


Australian troops prepare to land at ANZAC Cove, 25 April 1915. Photo: Australian War Memorial


Unions stood against conscription

The strong opinion of the labour movement in World War One was opposition to the conscription of men once the initial rush of volunteers declined and the cold, hard, bloody reality of the slaughter in the Middle East and in France and Belgium became apparent.

The split in the ALP, with Prime Minister Billy Hughes becoming the most bellicose of politicians (even in comparison with many European leaders) is a long story.

The unions strongly opposed conscription, but supported the many soldiers who did volunteer.

Many faced a difficult return especially when injured. Approximately 50% of all who enlisted were injured. The government did not provide any sort of war pension; this does not include the many women who served in many roles including nursing and ambulance driving.

Trade unions were established to provide security and sickness benefits for members, and the drive by unions to help returning service personnel stemmed from this long tradition.

Sydney Trades Hall, for example, provides free lodging for the family of the Trades Hall caretaker, Arthur Price, who was killed at Gallipoli on 29April 1915 after volunteering. Price was a veteran of the British army from the 1880-90s and he enlisted in the AIF in 1914.

Many of the servicemen who were fighting on the Western Front during the conscription referenda voted against conscription. The Victorian Trades Hall honours these people with a plaque in its foyer to this day.* 

VTHC conscription

The anti-conscription message displayed on the Victorian Trades Hall building in Melbourne.


The trade union movement opposed conscription, despite Billy Hughes’ attacks on free speech using the War Precautions Act, and his attacks on unions, including the one he founded − the Waterside Workers Federation.

Unions and unionists who refused to volunteer were not hostile to the workers who did volunteer. They were their mates for the most part, whilst differing strongly with them in the attitude to war.

The Trolley, Draymen and Carters Union in 1915 at the Sydney Eight-Hour Day parade reflected strongly the “For King and Country” sentiment, with Hughes, as president of the union proudly leading the float.

Eight-Hour Day becomes the first ANZAC Day

Adelaide workers had a other ideas.

Their Eight-Hour parade was turned into a Gallipoli commemoration in October 1915, and it was not a sombre remembrance.

The unearthing of the conduct of the parade and carnival came from research by Gareth Knapman, who has since been publishing and speaking about Australia’s development of the ANZAC tradition and its place in our society.

Liam Mannix reported on Knapman’s find in the InDaily in April 2013.

In 1915, 13 October was celebrated as Labour Day. Union members traditionally walked along the street displaying their union banners.

But in 1915, a year into World War I, many of the men who would normally have marched for the unions found themselves on muddy battlefields throughout Europe. A few months earlier, some had landed on a craggy Turkish peninsula called Gallipoli.

Many had already returned to Australia as the war wounded. At that time the government didn’t offer a war pension, so wounded soldiers got little support.

For that reason, the trade unions decided to co-opt their traditional event in support of the returned veterans and they called it “ANZAC Day”.

The celebration was built on the traditional union members’ march, which was converted into a veterans’ march – a precursor to today’s tradition.

“The emotional centerpiece of the march came next – the wounded soldiers from Gallipoli,” Mannix wrote.

“Similar to the later invalid and aged and incapacitated ANZACs of marches from the 1920s onwards, these veterans travelled in automobiles. Following the heroes, and probably with trepidation, were 2000 new recruits who had been training in camps on the outskirts of Adelaide.

“Following … was a series of trade-orientated floats, bands and fundraising endeavours that extended for two miles. Many of the floats had a Gallipoli theme, such as the one for the Operative Painters and Decorative Employees of Australia, which hosted a background painting of Gallipoli’s hills with the painters dressed as solders occupying the foreground, at the ready to clamber-up the painted escarpment.”

Unlike today’s reverent Anzac Day, the 1915 event was billed as a celebration rather than a commemoration.

There were two reasons behind this. First, with the war still raging, the veterans themselves wanted a celebration of their deeds, rather than a remembrance of those who didn’t make it.

They didn’t want to feel ashamed of what they’ve done; they wanted people to cheer for what they had done.

Second, the event was designed to raise money to support injured veterans. The organisers needed a bit of colour and movement or the crowds might not show.

The highlight was a staged tram car crash, with timed explosions making it a pretty exciting show.

The funds raised all went to veterans. Perhaps Andrew Bolt needs to go back to the history books before criticising unions for being involved in this year’s commemorations.


The Honest History site has much current discussion on the ANZAC myth and tradition.

Kyla Cassells does a very interesting job in comparing ANZAC and Eight-Hour Days and the competing political agendas of ex-services associations, the ALP and the Victorian Trades Hall in Politics and meaning: Melbourne’s Eight Hours Day and Anzac Day, 1928-1935.

* The plaque reads:

1. The Melb. Trades’ Hall Council Nov. 14. 1918. Resolved To Commemorate The Action Of The People Who Voted Against The Introduction Of Conscription Into Australia.

Referendum Oct. 28. 1916
For Conscription 1,087,557
Against “ “ “ 1,160,033

Referendum Dec. 20. 1917
For Conscription 1,015, 1591
Against “ “ “ 1,181,747

2. The Melb. Trades’ Hall Council. Nov. 14. 1918. Decided To Place On Record Their Appreciation Of All Those Australian Soldiers Who Whilst Fighting Abroad Voted Against The Introduction Of Conscription Into This Country



First posted on Working Life :


Add your comment


Brett Campbell
commented 2015-04-30 19:11:35 +1000
Another great article from Neale, thank you for sharing this important information with us.
shay deguara
commented 2015-04-23 00:29:12 +1000
The women’s advocacy groups whilst supporting their brothers and sons in the war fought against conscription and against the locking up of anti conscription, anti war and Wobblies, as well as censorship hiding the true futility of the war.