About The Dawn Service

Ben Robert Smith

In the early hours of that day, five members of the Association of Returned Sailors and Soldiers Clubs who had been attending the Association’s Anzac eve annual general meeting and dinner in the Martin Place Blue Tea Rooms (between Castlereagh and Pitt Street), were wending their way home when they saw an elderly lady moving to place a sheaf of flowers on the then bare granite plinth of the Cenotaph in Sydney’s Martin Place.

When she stumbled and dropped the flowers they helped her and awkwardly watched her place the flowers; when she commenced to pray they silently joined her; the men were Jim Davidson, Ernie Rushbrooke, George Patterson, Len Stickler and Bill Gamble. The recounted their experience, and to old soldiers it brought back memories of other dawns.

The creation of the Cenotaph had heightened consciousness of commemoration and, in response to a motion by Rushbrooke, its honorary secretary, the Association decided to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph on Anzac Day 1928 at 4.30 am, which was when the landing commenced at Anzac Cove on 25th April, 1915. A small number attended this first service, including the five men mentioned; Patterson laid the wreath. The service was most simple but its solemnity created a deep impression and ensured the continuance of the Ceremony. With the completion of the Cenotaph, attendance grew rapidly, so that by 1931, it was up to 800.

The following provides a picture of the development of the Sydney Dawn Service:

1929 Prayers were introduced, led by a padre;
1930 The Legion decided to make the Dawn Service an annual ceremony, and appointed Ernie Rushbrooke as the organizer with Len Stickler as his assistant; bugle calls were introduced;
1931 The state governor commenced to attend; and special trains and trams were laid on;
1932 Station 2GB commenced to broadcast the service and (Uncle) Frank Grosse became the announcer/compere – a service he provided until 1964. Howard Craven succeeded him, to hand over to Leon Becker in 1995, Lieutenant Colonel John Moore took over in 2006;
1933 The state governor (Sir Phillip Game) commenced to deliver the dedication, the Sydney Male Choir sang for the first time, and original members of the 3rd Brigade travelled from interstate to attend;
1935 'There is No Death' sung by the choir for the first time;
1939 The threat of war found 20,000 present and, although conditions limited attendance during the war years, the ceremony continued to be conducted each year;
1942 In 1942, at the height of the Second World War’s ‘Battle for Australia’, declared following the Fall of Singapore and East Timor on 15 February, public outdoor gatherings were curtailed for national security reasons. As a result, the official ceremony took place at the Savoy Theatre (a cinema and playhouse in Bligh St) where it is reported that more than 200 people were in attendance by invitation of the Australian Legion of Ex-Service Clubs. Following the 4.30 am indoor ceremony, Legion members carried the wreaths to the Cenotaph where they were laid a second time. Later that morning, the Governor, Lord Wakehurst, led an RSSILA organised wreath-laying that included representatives of Allied nations. Other short wreath-laying ceremonies were scheduled throughout the day. Also at 4.30 am that year, in order to maintain the traditions of the Legion, four members of the Marrickville Anzac Memorial Club, an original member club at the time of the first Dawn Service in 1928, laid a wreath at the Martin Place Cenotaph. In attendance were three uniformed soldiers, two Australians and one American, and a widow, Mrs Kathleen Seaton, who had lost her husband in the bombing of Darwin only a few weeks before Anzac Day.
1986 The 75th Anniversary of the Royal Australian Navy, and Rear Admiral David Martin (later Governor of New South Wales) proposed the navy's participation by way of providing a band, catafalque part and chaplain. This established a precedent for the defence services to take it in turns to provide not only that assistance, but, the guest speaker;
2000 The Anzac Day Dawn Service Trust formed;
2005 To cope with the increasing attendances, which now extend well up Martin Place, a television screen was positioned east of Pitt Street facing up Martin Place. The cost of this and the filming involved were beyond resources of the volunteer organizers and the State Government gave generous assistance. Since then it has continued to provide constructive support;
2014 To mark the Centenary of Anzac, the NSW Government projected historical images and portraits of soldiers on to Challis House, adjacent to the Cenotaph; New Zealand took a more prominent role by laying the first wreath together with the NSW Governor and providing a Maori choir to sing a Song of Sorrow; the NSW Premier opened the Service with a poem; the Service included an Indigenous ‘Welcome’ and Legacy children, representing Australian youth, recited The Ode.
2015 The Centenary of the landing at Gallipoli was commemorated with a large crowd numbering in the tens of thousands requiring the provision of additional television screens
2020 The regular conduct of Anzac Day activity in 2020 was constrained by the Government’s Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order, 31 March 2020, in response to the pandemic. Consequently, the official Dawn Service could not be conducted in its traditional form. In place of an official ceremony, the President, Mr Ray James and Vice President, Mr Ron Glew, attended the Cenotaph to perform a short wreath-laying. At precisely 4.30 am Mr James and Mr Glew proceeded towards the northern face of the Cenotaph. Mr James laid the Anzac Day Dawn Service Trust wreath and then Mr Glew recited the Ode. The two then observed a one-minute silence. Following the Trust’s wreath being laid, Mr Jim Gilhooly, representing the Australian Legion of Ex-Service Clubs, laid a wreath. This is only the second time in the history of the Dawn Service in Sydney, first held in 1928, that Government regulations have prevented the conduct of the traditional ceremony.

There have been two notable changes over the long life of the Service – to the darkness and the silence. Until the 1970s the service was conducted in darkness, and, in the early years there was no band, the veterans assembled in Macquarie Street and the first sound of their footsteps (without any accompaniment) heralded the start of the Ceremony, their tramp becoming louder and louder as they marched down Martin Place. It was both eerie and very moving; subsequently the veterans assembled in Pitt Street and marched on to face the northern side of the Cenotaph. However, by 2009, the veterans’ march on had deteriorated and it was replaced by a recording of the stamp of feet in remembrance of the march down Martin Place by the Great War veterans. Since 1998 high school students are now invited to recite the Ode.

To ensure the continuance of the tradition the Australian Legion of Ex-Service Clubs, whose representatives were aging, obtained the assistance of the National Servicemen’s Association NSW Branch, and in 2000, formed a new body The Anzac Day Dawn Service Trust Inc.

It is noteworthy that, after the ‘Last Post’ and a minute’s silence, the ‘Reveille’ is sounded in contrast to the ‘Rouse’ which is the bugle call played at all commemorative ceremonies other than the Dawn Services.

It did not take long for others to follow – Perth in 1929 and may suburbs and towns and in every other capital by 1933; however the Melbourne Service differed by originally being wordless and by being restricted, as advertised in the newspapers: ‘Men who are not returned soldiers and women are requested not to attend this ceremony’.

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