How we remember them: The Dawn Service

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Commemorative ceremonies such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, share many customs and traditions stemming from Australia’s long history of war service. In this series, through the last year of the Anzac Centenary, we explore the origins of these customs and traditions to cement the importance of remembering our service men and women for future generations.The second tradition we feature in this series is The Dawn Service.

The Dawn Service and Anzac Day are synonymous for many Australians. We gather for Dawn Services on Anzac Day in towns and cities all over Australia and around the globe.

The Dawn Service is a dignified and reflective connection to those we have lost in war and those who continue to serve today. It is an important evocation of our national consciousness and identity and commemorates how our small nation has contributed to the world in important ways. But why do we commemorate our service men and women at dawn?

Dawn has a particular connection to military service. Throughout history, the half-light of dawn was one of the most favored times for an attack.

Soldiers were woken in the dark before dawn, so by the time the light made its first appearance they were awake, alert and manning their weapons in what is known as a ‘stand to’. A ‘stand to’ was also held at the other end of the day in the half-light of dusk.

After the First World War, returned soldiers sought the comradeship they had felt in those quiet, peaceful moments before dawn. A dawn vigil, recalling the wartime front line practice of the dawn ‘stand-to’, became the basis of a form of commemoration after the war.

A crowd standing at the 1942 Anzac Day Dawn Service in Melbourne

A section of the crowd at the 1942 Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne (AWM 136267).

Significantly, people also connect the Dawn Service to the hour of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

The origins of the Dawn Service are not entirely certain and research is being undertaken by Australia military historians to ascertain the true beginnings of the Dawn Service.

A number of arguments hold that the first Dawn Service was commemorated by Captain George Herrington in Toowoomba on Queensland’s Darling Downs in 1919. But this is contentious, with some arguing that it occurred as early as 1916 on the Western Front, while others argue that Albany in Western Australia, and Sydney New South Wales were the sites for the first Dawn Services. What is known is that memorial services for veterans became common during the 1920’s.

Four Australian defence personnel standing outside the entrance to the Australian National Memorial at dawn with inscriptions on the wall

Members of Australia’s Federation Guard perform a general salute during the 2017 Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian National Memorial outside Villers-Bretonneux, France (Image courtesy of Defence).

Equally, it is in no doubt that Dawn Services throughout Australia remain an important national event in which we remember the sacrifices of those who came before us, as well as those who continue to serve and sacrifice in defense of our nation.

Many ceremonies include the laying of a wreath at a memorial, a lone bugler playing the Last Post and Reveille, and the recitation of the ‘The Ode’ taken from the poem ‘For the Fallen’ by English poet and writer Laurence Binyon. 

The Ode, also mentions the significance of dawn and dusk to our remembering through the line: ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them’.

Lest we forget.