Dawn ceremony as a symbol of commemoration in Australia


Veterans in Australia often wear military decorations and medals on special days of commemoration, such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day

History of its symbolism

The idea of a dawn service originates from the army's 'stand-to' routine in World War I.

Since early times, the half-light of dawn was one of the most favoured times to attack an adversary. Dawn's misty shadows played tricks with the soldiers' eyes, giving an attacker some advantage. World War I was no different.

In the trenches of Gallipoli and the Western Front, and on the front lines in the Middle East, a company's orderly officer and sergeant woke those soldiers on active duty an hour or so before dawn. In the dark, the troops would fix their bayonets to guard the position against enemy attack, which was common at dawn.

Soldiers looking out from a trench lined with sandbags

Members of the 9th Australian Light Horse Regiment standing to in the trenches at Russell's Top on Gallipoli, 1915. AWM H02778

In Australia and New Zealand, the timing of the dawn service links symbolically to the first landing on Gallipoli at dawn on 25 April 1915.

Commemorative services to honour those who died in World War I were held as early as 25 April 1916. However, the term 'dawn service' is not recorded until the 1920s.

Early dawn services were forerunners of the modern tradition. Reverend Arthur White, former padre with the 44th Australian Infantry Battalion during the war, held a dawn service at Albany, Western Australia, in 1923.

The first official wreath-laying service at dawn was held at the Sydney Cenotaph in Martin Place on Anzac Day 1928.

What it means to us today

Faces lit by candlelight
Faces bathed in candlelight at the Canberra Anzac Day dawn service at the Australian War Memorial.

A ceremony at dawn has now become the preferred form of remembrance for veterans and members of the Australian public on Anzac Day.

Many official services take place across the country and overseas on Anzac Day, along with a televised national dawn service held at Canberra's Australian War Memorial.

Engage more with this topic

Read a newspaper report: "ALL READY", The Sun, 24 April 1928. Use Trove to find other newspaper articles that cover the first dawn service.

Read the 2017 Australian Geographic article, The evolution of Anzac Day from 1915 until today. What are some key differences and changes that have occurred over this time?

Learning inquiry questions

  1. What does the dawn service mean to you?
  2. What emotions do you feel when attending a dawn service?
  3. What emotions do you think veterans experience on Anzac Day?
  4. What other symbols and traditions are associated with a dawn service?

Hold your own dawn service

You can hold a commemorative dawn service in your local community, school, or at home. Use our resources to get ideas and help plan your event:

Share your commemoration

We invite you to share your personal commemorations with other Australians:

  • post reflections or stories of military service
  • share photos of you or your community at a dawn service
  • use hashtag #1MS to help people find your commemoration
  • read posts from others to follow the personal stories of veterans and their families

Last updated:

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Dawn ceremony as a symbol of commemoration in Australia, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 19 April 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/commemoration/symbols/dawn-ceremony
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