Anzac Day Customs and Traditions

April 20, 2020

The Dawn Service

The dawn service on Anzac Day is a tradition in Australia and New Zealand and our most significant commemorative event. It marks the time of day when the first Anzacs landed at Gallipoli. It is also a symbol of the mateship soldiers felt as they woke before daylight in the front-line trenches and prepared to defend their positions, a practice called ‘stand-to’.

There are different views on when the first dawn service was held as many were organised by churches or individuals. Nonetheless, the Anzac Day dawn service is a tradition that resonates across Australia as a solemn time of reflection, remembrance and gratitude for all those who have served Australia.

The Earliest Dawn Services

Reverend Arthur Ernest White held a ceremony in 1914 for the soldiers who were departing in the first convoy of ships that left from Albany, Western Australia. The service was held at 4.00 am. Reverend White later served as a chaplain on the Western Front during World War I. It is believed that, in 1918, the Anglican chaplain held a dawn service at St John’s, Albany, after which he was reported to have said that the Anzacs should be commemorated this way every Anzac Day.  Reverend White late returned to Albany as the minister of a local church and, in 1930, he held a dawn service at his church. During his service, he promised those soldiers who had died that: ‘As the sun rises and goeth down, we will remember them.’

Early morning services are reported to have occurred in several locations across Australia, including the Queensland cities of Rockhampton in 1916 and Toowoomba in 1919.

The First ‘Official’ Dawn Service

The first ‘official’ dawn service is thought to have been at the memorial Cenotaph in Sydney.

Early in the morning of Anzac Day in 1927, a group of returned soldiers came across an elderly woman placing a wreath at the construction site of the Cenotaph in Martin Place, Sydney. The veterans decided they would arrange a dawn service there the following year at which 150 people gathered to observe two minutes’ silence and lay wreaths. By 1935, the number of people attending the service at Sydney had grown to 10,000 and dawn services were being held in the capital cities of every state and in many towns across Australia.

Paterson, A (2018) Australian Remembers: Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and War Memorials, Big Sky Publishing

Terrett, L.C. and Taubert S.C., (2011) Preserving Our Proud Heritage: The Customs and Traditions of the Australian Army, Big Sky Publishing

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