The idea of a national day called Australia Day dates back to the engagement of Australian troops in the First World War, at a time when the young country was forging its national identity.
Today, Australia Day is a national day of celebration, respect, and reflection for the Australian nation, but during the First World War, January 26 was not a nationally celebrated date.
In 1915, Australia Day was part of a fundraising plan for Australian troops serving in the war, to help improve the general living conditions of the soldiers and to enable the Red Cross and other organisations such as the South Australians Soldiers’ Fund to provide more comfort and care for injured and ill Australian soldiers.
It was the mother of four Australian soldiers, Mrs Ellen Wharton-Kirke, who suggested the organisation of a national patriotic fundraising day to celebrate Australia’s military achievements in the conflict and help improve the lives of Australians serving on the front line. The idea was taken up by the government and the date of the first ‘Australia Day’ was set for 30 July 1915.
Three months after the landing of Australian troops in Gallipoli, Australian communities took part in Australia Day. During this day, marches, fairs, auctions and performances are organised all over Australia to raise funds for the troops.
Commemorative items such as ribbons, handkerchiefs, badges or matchboxes were made and sold in the streets of Australia. The messages written on these objects appealed to Australian patriotic sentiment and the development of a strong national identity. The day was also an opportunity for those who could not serve to support the troops.
In 1915, Australia Day was a success and continued in the subsequent years to support the troops fighting on the frontline. It was not until 1935 that Australia Day became Australia’s national holiday and was celebrated on 26 January.