The first Anzac Day passed unremarked in Australia. Australians did not receive a good account of the Gallipoli landing until two weeks later, when they read a report in their morning newspapers by an English war correspondent.

It was on that day, May 8, 1915, that Australians first believed their nation was born at Gallipoli, which was the high significance placed on the event.

It was an odd notion. It survived long enough to drive Paul Keating mad. The nation already existed, formed by the accomplishment of federation on January 1, 1901. What sort of cringing colonial outfit was it that thought it did not properly exist until it took part in an imperial war?

Keating has never visited Gallipoli and declared recently he never would. He tried with only limited success to make Kokoda in Papua New Guinea Australia’s sacred place. If a war must be the defining event, let it be one in which Australians were fighting to repel a direct attack on the nation.

The founders of the federation were proud that their nation was not created by war or bloodshed. The colonies had come together by an open democratic process unparalleled in world history.

The citizens elected the delegates to the convention that wrote the constitution, and then they voted at referendum whether to accept it or not. This put their nation from the jump in the forefront of progress.

Though the founders made a virtue of the absence of military glory, they could not stamp out its allure. In 1899, just as the federal movement was about to reach its goal, the British empire went to war in South Africa against the Boer republics.

The Australian colonies sent soldiers who acquitted themselves well. British commanders were keen to have in their units the mounted horsemen from the Australian bush.

There was much more interest in the Boer war and the feats and sacrifices of Australian soldiers than there was in the last stages of the federal movement. The Commonwealth was, after all, baptised by blood. Why the nation could come to think of its birth as occurring at Gallipoli in 1915 rather than in a Sydney park in 1901 was already evident.

Being prepared to fight and die for your country was a common test of attachment to nation. It was held more strongly about 1900, as belief grew in the power of the blood and the inevitability of struggle between nations.

The landing at Gallipoli gave Australian soldiers their test. They were given their own section of the peninsula to seize; the British and French were further south.

In the Boer War the Australian troops had been distributed in the British units; now they were on their own - except for the New Zealanders, though they did not land in the first wave. New Zealanders took pride in the achievements of their troops, but no one ever claimed the New Zealand nation was born at Gallipoli.

The Australians had a special need to prove themselves because the British, and indeed the whole world, knew of their debased convict origins. Though the New Zealanders were too polite to say it, this was one reason why they decided not to join the Australian federation and share its shame.

Colonists look above all else to the approval of the mother country - or to outdo it. Australians did not beat the English in war, but they had beat them at their own game of cricket. Then in May 1915 an experienced English war correspondent, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, declared that the Australian troops at the Gallipoli landing were superb, as good or better than the British.

The self-doubt of the Australians lifted at that moment. They felt themselves to be a proper nation. They had passed the test; no one could look down on them now.

The recent revival of interest in Gallipoli against all predictions is a new oddity. Among all the reasons for it, the notion that the nation was born there is no longer one of them, certainly not the chief. But it was that notion that launched Gallipoli into the national consciousness - on the basis of an Englishman’s words. Here are extracts from his report.

The Australians, who were about to go into action for the first time in trying circumstances, were cheerful, quiet and confident. There was no signs of nerve nor of excitement.

As the moon waned, the boats were swung out, the Australians received their last instructions, and men who six months ago had been living peaceful civilian lives had begun to disembark on a strange and unknown shore in a strange land to attack an enemy of a different race.

The boats had almost reached the beach, when a party of Turks, entrenched ashore, opened a terrible fusillade with rifles and a Maxim. Fortunately, the majority of bullets went high. The Australians rose to the occasion. Not waiting for orders, or for the boats to reach the shore, they sprang into the sea, and, forming a sort of rough line, rushed at the enemy’s trenches. Their magazines were not charged, so they just went in with cold steel.

It was over in a minute. The Turks in the first trench were either bayoneted or they ran away, and their Maxim was captured.

Then the Australians found themselves facing an almost perpendicular cliff of loose sandstone, covered with thick shrubbery. Somewhere, halfway up, the enemy had a second trench, strongly held, from which they poured a terrible fire on the troops below and the boats pulling back to the destroyers for the second landing party.

Here was a tough proposition to tackle in the darkness, but those colonials, practical above all else, went about it in a practical way. They stopped for a few minutes to pull themselves together, got rid of their packs, and charged their magazines. Then this race of athletes proceeded to scale the cliffs without responding to the enemy’s fire. They lost some men but did not worry. In less than a quarter of an hour the Turks were out of their second position, either bayoneted or fleeing.

But then the Australians, whose blood was up, instead of entrenching rushed northwards and eastwards searching for fresh enemies to bayonet. It was difficult country to entrench. Therefore they preferred to advance.

There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and storming the heights, above all holding on whilst the reinforcements were landing.

Whether this was a completely accurate account is an entirely different question.

John Hirst is a historian. His next book Australian History in Seven Questions will be available in July.