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Anzac Day today: what it means and how to participate

Anzac Day is observed with remembrance services till 1pm, followed by a relaxed holiday afternoon.


The Dawn Service is today the most popular of the Anzac Day observances. It is timed to coincide with the initial landings at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. The time is also poignant for veterans who recall the routine dawn “stand-to” of their war service. The added symbolism of darkness breaking into sunrise makes for a compelling and emotional experience for everyone.


The commemoration begins with a short parade by returned servicemen and women to the local war memorial. They are given pride of place while families and other members of the community gather informally around the memorial. Uniformed service personnel provide a catafalque guard of honour around the memorial — standing motionless, heads bowed over reversed arms — their youth a reminder to all present that the returned service personnel before them and those remembered today were once young.

A drum roll begins the short service which usually includes a prayer or reading; hymns (such as “Abide With Me,” “O God, our Help in Ages Past,” “There Is No Death” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional” or “Lest We Forget”); a piper playing the traditional Scottish lament “Flowers of the Forest”; an Address; the National Anthem, and the laying of wreaths (in some centres the Dawn Service has become the main Anzac Day service when all wreaths are laid). The universal and distinctive part of the service is the reading of the Anzac Dedication:

At this hour, on this day, Anzac received its baptism of fire and became one of the immortal names in history. We who are gathered here think of the comrades who went out with us to battle but did not return. We feel them still near us in spirit. We wish to be worthy of their great sacrifice. Let us, therefore, once again dedicate ourselves to the service of the ideals for which they died. As the dawn is even now about to pierce the night, so let their memory inspire us to work for the coming of the new light into the dark places of the world.

  • They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;

  • Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.

  • At the going down of the sun and in the morning

  • We will remember them.

Many recite with the speaker the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” and then everyone together repeats “We will remember them”.

The most solemn phase of the service follows with a lone bugler sounding the Last Post, followed by a minute’s silence, and the sounding of Reveille. The silence provides the climax of the service when the crowd is left to remember the dead. With the first hint of dawn now visible, the service concludes, as it began, with a drum roll. The veterans reform and parade silently to the post-dawn function or breakfast.


The darkness, calm and chill of the early morning; the sound of the single tap of the drum of the parade; the emotionless faces of the catafalque guard, and the mournful notes of Last Post sounded by a lone bugler, combine to give a feeling of deep solemnity. It is the intensity of the symbolism which contributes to its powerful impact upon participants; indeed what underlies its popularity. In a country with few public rituals, the Dawn Service continues to provide a sense of occasion as a meaningful ritual of remembrance.

Above all, the Dawn Service is a returned service ritual. For them the service recalls the dawn “stand-to” before the commencement of engagements, while the Last Post and Reveille recalls the inevitable military funerals which followed — all compelling participants to remember their wartime experiences. It is this “pilgrimage” into the past that makes the Dawn Service a truly returned service.


After the Dawn Service, the traditional post-dawn function or breakfast hosted by the RSA enables people to warm-up with a hot drink, traditionally a “rum and coffee” (a tot of rum being the traditional pre-battle ration), and an Anzac biscuit. It is most of all a time to relax and reminisce.


The mid-morning service is a less emotional ceremony than the dawn service, but serves as a more public commemoration as indicated by its traditional name of “citizens’ service”. It is also the most traditional of the day’s observances and in some centres the form as changed little since the early Anzac Day services during and immediately after the First World War.


Returned and ex-service personnel, wearing their medals, march behind flags to the war memorial. The physical act of marching has special significance as it rekindles the marches and the esprit de corps of their service years. They are joined by members of the armed forces, cadets and youth organisations, together with massed bands.


The service itself has many elements common with the Dawn Service: the sounding of Last Post and Reveille, a Minute’s Silence, the hymns, National Anthem, and an Address. However, the particular selections of readings, hymns, and other items are often specific to each community and often date back to the earliest observances.


Above all, the service provides the occasion to lay wreaths in memory of all New Zealanders who have served and died in past wars and conflicts by representatives of veterans’ organisations, nations, civic authorities, and youth organisations. In many places, the wreaths are the result of hours of work by RSA Women’s Section volunteers. Families also lay personal tributes. Wreaths are poignant symbols of mourning and remembrance.

The wreaths transform the thousands of war memorials throughout New Zealand into “living memorials” — bringing renewed vitality as well as attention from those that inspect the wreaths and read the tributes during the following days.


After the formal remembrance services, local RSAs play host to veterans and their families. It is a time for veterans to reunite and reminisce, to mix with serving personnel, and to relax with family. The occasion has somewhat the atmosphere of the “wake” after a funeral, which is appropriate on a day that remembers New Zealand’s war dead.


While the formal commemoration period ends at 1 p.m. there are usually special events planned for Anzac Day afternoon, such as exhibitions, musical recitals and military displays. At dusk in Wellington, for example, “Beating the Retreat” (the centuries-old military ceremony of lowering the flag at the end of the day) is performed.

In the evening, television stations broadcast reports of Anzac Day services from around the country and overseas, as well as relevant documentaries and films.

For veterans it is time to pack away their medals for another year. It is also a time for personal remembrance.