Musician Robin Kidney from the Darwin Army Band sounds the last post during the 2011 1st Combat Engineer Regiment Dawn Service at Robertson Barracks, Darwin.
During battle, the half-light of dawn was one of the most favoured times for an attack. Soldiers in defensive positions were woken in the dark before dawn, so by the time first light crept across the battlefield they were awake, alert, and manning their weapons; this is still known as the ‘stand-to’.
After the First World War, returned soldiers sought the comradeship they had felt in those quiet, peaceful moments before dawn. A dawn vigil, recalling the wartime front line practice of the dawn ‘stand-to’, became the basis of a form of commemoration in several places after the war.
The Dawn Service is not an Army specific ceremony. It is a public ceremony normally conducted by the Returned and Services League of Australia with involvement across all three Services of the Australian Defence Force. The origins of the Dawn Service are not entirely clear and research is currently being undertaking by Australian military historians to ascertain the true beginnings of the Dawn Service.
It is probable that the holding of a commemorative service at dawn may have had its origins from either the military practice of ‘stand to’ at dawn on the battle field, or it may also have recognised origins from the dawn landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.
Current research indicates there may be a number of ‘first’ Dawn Services held; they include:
A service held on the Western Front by an Australian Battalion on 25 Apr 1916;
A service held at Toowoomba Queensland in 1919 or 1920;
A service conducted in Albany, Western Australia in 1923 (or later); and/or
A service held in the newly build Cenotaph at Martin Place, Sydney in 1928.
It is conceivable that a number of ‘Dawn Services’ did occur independent of each other with participants not having any knowledge of the other services held in other locations.
The Australian Army and others is undertaking research to assess each possible occasion to enable each instance to be understood with the results being published prior to the centenary of Anzac Celebrations in 2015.