Reflections on an ANZAC Day Dawn Service


I’ve never been to a dawn service before. This year Mum asked me if I would go with her to the local one because Dad would be away for the weekend. They hold it at the oval close to our house so I thought why not?

I set my coat, jeans, scarf and boots out the night before. When Mum woke me up I mechanically dressed myself. My usual early morning thought of ‘why am I doing this? Shouldn’t I just go back to bed?’ countered by thought of ‘the service men at Gallipoli got up way earlier to go into harms way. This is the least you can do.’

Armed against the cold of the dark hour I followed my mother out onto the street. The suburban streets usually very quiet at that time were filled with people finding their way to the oval and the war memorial. My mother chatted to one of her friends as I clomped along behind them, conscious of the loud noise my heels made on the concrete foot path.

Once we were on the main road we joined a stream of people all flowing down to the intersection on the corner of the oval. I’d never seen so many pedestrians there, a police man directed the traffic, superseding the lights which are much more car focused.

We followed the crowds and found a place in them. The familiar landmarks of the oval lost to me in the sea of people. Coffee vans served people on the side under the oval’s flood lights. When the lights dimmed except for the large screen a hush fell over the crowd. The sound of drumming and marching crept upon the silence.

The service was sombre and thoughtful, cut in half by the breaking dawn. Hymns were sung, my voice squeakier than that of the bagpipes in the cold morning. Profound words were said, 22 names of the local men who served in Gallipoli one hundred years ago were read. Lest we forget was repeated in solemn murmurs throughout the crowd.

A minute of silence was observed by all the people, although the birds squawked in the sherbet orange sky as they flew from their nests to undertake their daily business. The service which begun in darkness ended as the sun’s yellow rays touched the heads and shoulders of the crowd. It dispersed into the heavy streams in which it gathered.

I arrived home to an excited dog who had been miffed when we left without her an hour and a half before. Once she let me remove my grass covered boots I went upstairs and slipped out of my warm clothes and into my cooler walking clothes. We set off in the opposite direction from the oval to the reserve. The streets were still filled with people making their way back to their parked cars and homes. My golden retriever darted this way and that, overstimulated by the crowds and the coos of children at her cuteness.

Once we were in the shade of the big gums of the reserve we were quite alone and I let her off the lead. She sniffed at things which are only of interest to dogs as I walked ahead. The gully has been mostly untouched since settlement except for the council paths, bridges and recreational facilities. I watched tiny wrens make a big fuss in a fallen tree.  The recent rain had washed the area of it’s usual accumulation of man-made garbage. The modest streams had returned to a medium level but flotsam clinging to the railing of the bridge let me know how large they had swelled.

In the fresh smell of dirt and eucalyptus I reflected.

Our family has no servicemen in history. My Pop was too young to fight in WWII and his father too young for WWI. They were nearly interned for being German in both wars until they explained the foreign last name was in fact Danish. On the other side my doctor Grandpa nearly served in WWII the medical core but the war ended before he was deployed. I suppose that’s why I hadn’t thought it important to attend a dawn service before or felt the pull of a pilgrimage to Gallipoli. As student of history I’ve always been more interested in the larger arc of the western front. My favourite war movie is the French ‘A Very Long Engagement’ rather than any of the Australian offerings.

I’ve always been very cynical about the way Gallipoli has been spun into myths and made to sound larger than our contribution to the western front. The fact that our national identity was forged in a war that was partly caused by rampant nationalism bemuses me. But that morning, under the grey green eucalyptus leaves, watching my dog trot though puddles as if it was the most exciting thing, I had a sense that regardless of the ridiculous political reasons that roped Australia into Europe’s mess, I realised that the servicemen themselves were fighting for something else. They fought so that morning I could walk my dog in tranquillity.

I walked farther than I planned to. Fallen trees blocked my usual path home and I didn’t feel like hoisting my twenty five kilo dog over the thick trunks. So I opted to walk the long way further down and then up the hill along the road and houses. I knew I would have to walk very slowly, my dog is fifteen and her vigour comes and goes quickly. The slow pace gave me time to survey the neighbourhood.

When we moved to the area in the 1990s all the houses were close to new, ours was brand new. But a hundred years ago it was farmland and orchards, the men whose names were read out were farm boys, not children of neatly divided blocks with small backyards. There used to be two older houses, set far back on their blocks and much smaller than the surrounding houses. One was demolished a couple of years ago and was replaced by an ostentatious grey rendered house, retaining only the the large magnolia tree still shedding its silver green leaves. The other was pulled down a year ago and the block is still empty except for a large hole now filled with water, awaiting further construction.

Nearly twenty years ago I was colouring a picture of Simpson and his donkey in primary school and the last Australian veteran from the Gallipoli campaign was still alive. In years to come, when I have as much trouble walking up hills as my dog, how will it sound to the young that my life overlapped with one of the original ANZACs.

Although the streets were much quieter than just after the service there was still one family walking back from the dawn service. I overheard the little boy asking his father question after question about Gallipoli. At the top of the hill I turned into my street for breakfast and a shower before getting on with the days regular activities as time moved away from the the centenary anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in its softly relentless way.

Have you ever been to a Dawn Service? What does ANZAC Day mean to you?