The first thing you notice at an ANZAC Day Dawn Service is the quiet. Whether out of reverie or just disbelief that they’re up and awake at such an early hour, thousands of people move together in a hush through the empty streets. You also notice the colour of your surroundings. Everything is an eerie, misty grey. The sun is nowhere near rising, but it’s no longer night. A lighter shade of dark has broken through.
And you notice how gentle everyone is with each other. There is no pushing or shoving, no jostling for a better position. People make sure the elderly are comfortable; that they can see and hear. Big TV screens ensure everyone gets a good view, but it wouldn’t matter if you didn’t. We aren’t really here for the spectacle.
The smell of coffee floats through the air as a mobile barista helps tired people pull themselves together. Service men and women weave through the crowd in full uniform, turning heads as the crowd acknowledge their presence. Everyone allows them a clear passage, they are thrilling to watch.
My first dawn service was under sufferance; I was three months from completing my journalism degree and had been tasked with covering ANZAC Day. I dragged my sorry arse there expecting to resent every minute of being awake so soon after going to sleep the night before, but I didn’t. I loved it. I loved the peacefulness, the gentle rumble of the drums as the veterans marched towards the Eternal Flame, and the sense of respect within the community. I didn’t even mind the dreary hymns, because I loved how proud I felt to be there. And I loved watching the children.
Families with sleepy-eyed kids are everywhere at the service. Mothers hug or place a protective arm around their offspring, while fathers show their sons how to stand. Older children sit on the ground, leaning against light posts and trees, or hang their bodies over railings, eyes still closed. The really young ones observe everything with bewilderment as they wake up to their surroundings. You can see every thought run across their little faces.
Why are we here with all these people at night time?
Why are we standing on the road with no cars?
Why are there so many police? Is someone in trouble?
Why is everyone quiet?
They watch with fascination as adults around them wipe away tears, and get spooked by the footsteps of the diggers marching into position. Their eyes always widen when they see the old men with medals on their chest, like they instinctively know to be awed by them. And the reaction when an occasional child walks past wearing medals from a long gone relative is priceless. It’s a wonderfully comic combination of jealousy and admiration, and it fills me with ridiculous joy.
They may not be old enough to fully grasp the gravitas attached to the Dawn Service, but they understand that something of importance is occurring. Even the whiniest kid seems to be mollified by the sound of the bugle. Children aren’t stupid; they sense the emotions around them. This morning, a newborn cried as the final strains of The Last Post died away. It was perfect.
I love that the Dawn Service is becoming a family ritual. I love that we are teaching children about sacrifice, and the pain of war, in such a heartfelt caring way. I hope they grow up to remember the thrill of being woken up in the middle of the night and taken into the centre of town, and how fascinated they were by the ceremony. I hope the lasting legacy of the 60,000 who died and the 156,000 who were wounded during World War 1 is a legacy of peace. I want to believe these children are growing up with an awareness of how long sadness lasts after a tragedy. Maybe then we’ll start seeing a world run by people who think with their hearts first and egos second.
I want to believe it, but maybe I’m just crazy.