In the cold light of dawn – the tradition of the Dawn Service

Anzac Dawn Service, Melbourne

The military tradition of the Dawn Parade was to prepare troops for attack in the half light of the early morn. It was this tradition which has become the ANZAC Dawn Service – a tradition which unfolded in different ways in different states. Here we look to the work of Padre White of Albany, Western Australia, the point of departure for troops sailing overseas during World War I .

For anyone who has attended an ANZAC Day dawn service, there is no denying the sense of reverence and reflection that the service inspires. The flickering of a candlelit service and the solemn pause as the sun rises has long been a tradition in Australia and is a fitting commemoration for the sacrifices of the fallen.

Catafalque party rest arms during the Anzac Day dawn service at the Cenotaph in Darwin on 25 April 2014

But how did the tradition begin? In his seminal work on Australian war memorials, Sacred places (1998), Ken Inglis tells how “the idea of commemorating that dawn of 1915 came to a group of returned men in Sydney” in 1927. Five men, returning from an ANZAC Day function in the early hours of the morning “happened to see an elderly woman placing a sheaf of flowers on the as yet incomplete Cenotaph. The men bowed their heads alongside her, and their Association resolved to arrange a dawn service at the Cenotaph.” The following year 150 people gathered at dawn to lay wreaths and observe two minutes’ silence. While this story has been accepted as the origin of the dawn service tradition, there are other stories, less well known but just as poignant, to be told.

The sun rises over a huge crowd gathered for the Anzac Day dawn service at the South Australia National War Memorial , Adelaide, 2013

Soon after the war’s end, requiem masses for the fallen were being held in Australia. On ANZAC Day in 1919, at four o’clock in the morning, Captain George Harrington placed flowers at the graves and memorials of the war dead at Toowoomba, Queensland. As Harrington and his friends drank to these men at the first light of dawn, a bugler sounded the Last Post and Reveille, and this tradition continued in the years that followed. The idea of a dawn ceremony originated from the military routine of waking soldiers before dawn so they could be prepared for attack in the morning’s half-light. Dawn parades, often carried out in silence, and other memorial services held by veterans became common in the 1920s.

Originally, women and children were not allowed to attend these dawn services, as it was thought they might respond too emotionally. While some veterans preferred not to recall their wartime experiences, others felt the tradition kept the ANZAC spirit of mateship and sacrifice alive.

But maybe it was someone else who began the tradition of an official dawn service – in Albany, West Australia. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) convoy had left for the Great War on 1 November 1914 from the King George Sound at Albany. Padre Arthur Ernest White served as a padre with the AIF and, on his return to Australia in 1918, it is believed he held a private requiem mass for the locally known battle dead at Albany’s St John’s Church. While the exact details remain unclear, this mass – pre-dating the events in Toowoomba in 1919 – may have been held at dawn.

Thousands gather for the dawn service at the Australian War Memorial, 25 April 2011
– the National Parliament is visible in the background

White was appointed Rector of St John’s in 1929. The following year, he led a special ANZAC Day morning service at 5.15 at St John’s. This had been advertised the previous day in the Albany Advertiser and was attended by many locals, including members of the local Returned and Services League. The service began with a sung Eucharist, followed by a procession at 5.50 am to the war memorial next to the church to lay wreaths. The sounds of the Reveille were heard from the lone bugler in the church tower.

In 1931, after again holding an ANZAC Day dawn Eucharist, White led a small pilgrimage up Mount Clarence. There White is said to have recited lines from Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen (in particular, the line, “As the sun riseth and goeth down, we will remember them”) while the group watched a wreath tossed out by a boatman in the Sound float out to sea. As Albany was the last sight of land most AIF troops saw as they left Australian shores, this was a fitting location to pay homage to those who had sailed off from that shore 17 years earlier.

The sun rises over the Anzac Day dawn service at Victor Harbor in South Australia, April 25, 2013

White’s grave marker advances his claim to be the first: “On 25 April 1923, at Albany in Western Australia, the Reverend White led a party of friends in what was the first ever observance of a Dawn parade on ANZAC Day, thus establishing a tradition which has endured, Australia wide, ever since”. As White was actually living in Broken Hill in the early 1920s, the 1923 date is clearly incorrect; the marker instead seems to be describing the events of 1930 and 1931. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Padre White did begin an emotional tradition in Albany that is still followed today. His requiem mass in 1918 – and the private service at Toowoomba in 1919 – pre-dates the services in Sydney in 1927 or in Albany in 1930. And in part this is why the current debate over the claim for the “first dawn service” remains controversial.

Much of the debate and confusion arises from the question of what a dawn service specifically involves. Is it a religious ceremony, a parade, or a simple gathering of people silently reflecting on the sacrifices of the fallen? For most Australians, it means the laying of a wreath at a memorial, a lone bugler playing the Last Post and Reveille, and the recitation of the “The Ode” (which derives from Binyon’s poem). However, while those features are what people expect, there is no standard pattern to a dawn service. Some services have become more elaborate over time, while others have remained a simple “stand-to” ceremony. Dawn services, in various forms, are held around Australia and have been held by troops serving overseas in later wars. Today these acknowledge ex-servicemen and women from both world wars, as well as those from Korea, Malaya, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Gulf wars and recent peacekeeping efforts.

The Dawn Service about to begin at the Cenotaph, Hobart, 25 April 2014

Whatever its origins, the ANZAC Day dawn service has become one of the most significant commemorative ceremonies in Australia. Instead of fading away with the last of the First World War veterans, the tradition which started in commemoration of their fallen comrades has gained momentum, with increasing numbers attending dawn services across Australia to pay their respects in the cold light of dawn.

Kerry Neale works in the Military History Section at the Memorial. She would like to thank Douglas Sellick, Albany historian, for hi
s valuablecontribution to the research forthis article.

Source ( Australian War Memorial)

Image Sources:;;

Dawn Service at Kings Park War Memorial, Perth; Anzac Day, 2009