The Dawn Service on Anzac Day has become a solemn Australian and New Zealand tradition. It is taken for granted as part of ANZAC ethos and few wonder how it all started.
Its story, as it were, is buried in a small cemetery carved out of the bush some kilometers outside the northern Queensland town of Herberton. Almost paradoxically, one grave stands out by its simplicity. It is covered by protective white-washed concrete slab with a plain cement cross at its top end.
No epitaph recalls even the name of the deceased. The inscription on the cross is a mere two words – “A Priest”. Adjacent to, and on the right of this marker lies the grave of the late Reverend Arthur Ernest White, a Church of England clergyman and padre, 44th Battalion, First Australian Imperial Force.
On 25th April, 1923, at Albany in Western Australia, the Reverend White led a party of friends in what was the first ever observance of a Dawn parade on ANZAC Day, thus establishing a tradition which has endured Australia wide ever since. Reverend White served as one of the padres of the earliest Anzacs to leave Australia with the First AIF in November, 1914. The convoy was assembled in the Princess Royal Harbour and King George Sound at Albany, WA. Before embarkation, at four in the morning, he conducted a service for all men of the battalion.
When White returned to Australia in 1919 he was appointed relieving Rector of the St John’s church in Albany. It was a strange coincidence that the starting point of the AIF convoys should now become his parish. No doubt it must have been the memory of his first Dawn Service those many years earlier and his experience overseas, combined with the awesome cost of lives and injuries, which inspired him to honour permanently the valiant men (both living and the dead) who had joined the fight for the allied cause.
“Albany”, he is quoted to have said, “was the last sight of land these ANZAC troops saw after leaving Australian shores and some of them never returned. We should hold a service (here) at the first light of dawn each ANZAC Day to commemorate them”.
That is how on ANZAC Day, 1923 he came to hold the first Commemorative Dawn Service. As the sun was rising, a man in a small dinghy cast a wreath into King George Sound while White, with a band of about 20 men gathered around him on the summit of nearby Mount Clarence, silently watched the wreath floating out to sea. He then quietly recited the words, “As the sun rises and goeth down we will remember them.”
All present were deeply moved and news of the Ceremony soon spread throughout the country, and the various Returned Service communities Australia-wide emulated the Ceremony.
Eventually, White was transferred from Albany to serve other congregations; the first in SA; then Broken Hill where he built a church; then later at Forbes, NSW. In his retirement from parish life, he moved to Herberton where he became Chaplain of an Anglican convent. However, soon after his arrival (on September 26, 1954) he died, to be buried so modestly and anonymously as “A Priest”.
White’s memory is honoured by a stained glass window in the All Souls’ Church at Wirrinya, a small farming community near Forbes, NSW. Members of the parish have built the church with their own hands and have put up what they refer to as “The Dawn Service Window” as their tribute to White’s service to Australia.