You are here

Anzac Day today: what it means and how to participate

Anzac Day is observed with a community-focused remembrance service in the morning and the afternoon is traditionally a time to spend with family and friends.



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 by Australian troops who were the first ashore. The added symbolism of darkness breaking into sunrise makes for a compelling and emotional experience.



The first Anzac Day services were held in Australia and New Zealand on 25 April 1916. The services marked the anniversary of the previous year’s Gallipoli landings and to act as surrogate funeral services for those who lost family members at Gallipoli as bodies of the dead were interred where they fell and not repatriated.

The dawn service originated in Australia, primarily to mark the time at which Australian soldiers first landed, New Zealand troops did not begin landing until mid-morning, so Anzac Day services in New Zealand were not held until mid-morning.



The commemoration typically begins with returned servicemen and women marching a short distance to their local war memorial. They are given pride of place while families and other members of the community gather informally around the memorial. In some cases, uniformed service personnel may provide a catafalque guard around the memorial — standing to attention, motionless, heads bowed over reversed arms.

A drum roll often marks the start of the service which can include:

  • A prayer or reading; hymns (such as “Abide With Me,” “O God, our Help in Ages Past,” 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 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”

The service will always include the recitation of The Ode of remembrance, based on the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen”. The Ode is recited in Te Reo Maori and English.

E kore rātou e kaumātuatia

Pēnei i a tātou kua mahue nei

E kore hoki rātou e ngoikore

Ahakoa pehea i  ngā āhuatanga o te wā

I te hekenga atu o te rā

Tae noa ki te aranga mai i te ata

Ka maumahara tonu tātou ki a rātou

Ka maumahara tonu tātou ki a rātou.


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

We will remember them.


The lines shown above in bold are typically repeated by those assembled.

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 and the veterans march 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 recall 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” 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 has 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 may be joined by members of the armed forces, cadets, and youth organisations, together with massed bands.



The service itself has many elements in 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. Families also lay personal tributes.

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, mix with serving personnel, and 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.