An Irishman’s Diary on John Sandes and the Anzacs at Gallipoli

The ‘Anzac spirit’

 Shell Green Cemetery at Gallipoli. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Shell Green Cemetery at Gallipoli. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images


‘At the reaping and the shearing,

At the sawmill and the mine,

In the stockyard and the clearing,

At the pressing of the vine,

By the camp-fire of the drover,

By the fence with slip-rail drawn,

Men will tell the story over

Of that landing in the dawn.”

These lines from a poem called Landing in the Dawn were written by John Sandes (1863-1938) for the first anniversary of the attack at Gallipoli on April 25th, 1915.

Sandes was an Irishman who became a journalist, poet and novelist in Australia and his writings made a significant contribution to the “Anzac legend” of Australia and New Zealand. The term Anzac refers to the combined troops of the two countries and the word also denotes a place at Gallipoli. This poem contributed to the Anzac legend with lines such as these: “Lo, Australasia, roused from her deep dreaming/Turned in her sleep and sobbed and woke – a Nation.”

The “Anzac spirit” refers to the distinctive qualities of courage, integrity, manliness and intrepidity which characterised the Australian and New Zealand soldier. It was the historian Charles Bean who ensured that the word Anzac was integrated into the history books. He defined it as follows: “Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat.” Some writers now cast a more critical eye on the concept of the “Anzac spirit” and its militaristic connotations and refer instead to the “Anzac myth”.

April 25th was officially named Anzac Day as early as 1916 and was marked by marches and commemorations. Gradually through the 1920s, the Anzac legend became very important to the identity of the two young nations of Australia and New Zealand and the rituals of the day became established. The first official dawn ceremony began in Australia in 1927 and was widespread in New Zealand by 1939. Originally a simple ritual mainly for veterans, the dawn vigil is now attended by large numbers and may include prayers, readings, wreath-laying, silent reflection, rifle volleys and the playing of the Last Post. Anzac Day has been marked in Ireland since 2006. This year, the centenary of the Gallipoli landings is of special significance and commemorations are being held in Gallipoli itself on April 25th, in co-operation with the government of Turkey.

John Sandes was the son of Samuel Dickson Sandes, Church of Ireland rector in Whitechurch, Co Cork, from 1855 to 1872. Samuel’s father Stephen was a Trinity academic and later archbishop of Cashel. He is commemorated in a plaque at the entrance to the chapel of Trinity College Dublin. John was nine years old when the family moved to England in 1872. He was educated at schools in London and Stratford-on-Avon and obtained a BA from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1885. He emigrated to Australia in 1887. Flora Sandes, youngest sister of John, was a famous soldier in the first World War and was awarded Serbia’s highest military honour.

John Sandes was primarily a journalist and he had a regular column in the Melbourne Argus from 1891 to 1903 under the name “Oriel”. He wrote 10 popular novels, six of them under the pseudonym Don Delaney.

These were popular celebrations of the rugged outback spirit, tales of adventure on themes such as bushranging, gold rushes and sporting exploits. His journalism covered a wide range of topics including naval and military history, foreign policy, Australian identity and social issues.

In 1919, Sandes became the London representative of the Sydney Daily Telegraph and reported from the Versailles Peace Conference. He returned to Australia accompanying the party of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, on his seven-month colonial tour in 1920. Sandes represented the Australian Press Association. This was a prestigious and much-coveted position, and during it, Sandes had the pleasure of meeting his famous sister Flora and introducing her to the prince of Wales. She had travelled to Australia on a fund-raising tour on behalf the postwar government of Serbia, and through her brother’s influence, she was introduced to the prince at a ball in his honour.

John Sandes died of cancer in November 1938. His passing was marked by Quidnunc in this very column on January 21st, 1939: “Few followers of the ‘Inky Way’ – as they call the profession of journalism in Australia – were more beloved than ‘Johnny’ Sandes who died in Australia a few weeks ago. He was known to journalists all over the island continent and was recognised as a giant of his profession. ”