SYDNEY (Reuters) - Thousands across Australia and New Zealand honoured their countries’ military personnel on Saturday in private ceremonies held in driveways and on balconies, as the coronavirus outbreak forced most traditional Anzac Day memorials to be cancelled for the first time in decades.
Crowds typically gather at dawn services on April 25 to commemorate the bloody battle on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey during World War One, which in recent decades has become one of the most important national occasions in both countries.
But with public gatherings banned to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, people were asked to remember the day privately.
“Our remembrances today, small, quiet and homely, will be,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in his address. He was one of just a handful of people allowed to attend a ceremony at the country’s national war memorial in Canberra.
Australia and New Zealand both managed to curb coronavirus infections before the epidemic strained their public health systems, but officials of the two sparsely populated Pacific neighbours continue to worry.
New Zealand will next week ease some of the world’s strictest lockdown measures taken to tackle the pandemic, while Australia’s strict social distancing rules remain in place.
In remembrances dubbed “stand at dawn,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stood on her driveway along with her fiance and his father on Saturday.
“This year a new threat faces all nations as the impact of the coronavirus deepens worldwide,” Ardern said in an emailed statement.
“As we face these significant challenges, we remember the courage of those who have served in the name of peace and justice.”
In Australia people also flocked to beaches to light candles and honour the country’s military, who have fought in many worldwide conflicts.
Australia reported 20 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, which took its total to 6,687, according to health ministry data. There have been 80 deaths.
In New Zealand, there were three new confirmed cases, bringing the total of infections to 1,117. Eighteen people have died, health ministry data showed.
On April 25, 1915, thousands of troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) were among a larger Allied force that landed on the narrow beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, an ill-fated campaign that would claim more than 130,000 lives.
While the Gallipoli campaign against the Turks failed, the landing date of April 25 has become a major day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand for their troops killed in all military conflicts and the first Anzac Day parade was held in 1916.
Broad public commemorations were cancelled during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919, the year after what was at the time dubbed the Great War. Ceremonies were also greatly scaled back during World War Two.
“Though our streets were empty, the returning veterans were not forgotten,” Morrison said. “We have never forgotten them, and we never will.”
Reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Additional reporting and writing by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by Matthew Lewis and William Mallard