Crowds brave chill to honour war dead

AN estimated 3500 people sacrificed their warm beds to stand in the chilly morning air yesterday at Warrnambool’s Anzac Day dawn service to honour the ultimate sacrifices of those who died in war.

What was regarded as the largest crowd in at least 50 years was evidence that the Anzac tradition is growing in importance. 

A few hours later an even larger crowd of up to 4500 gathered for the main street march and service.

Hundreds turned out at other services around the south-west, while at Gallipoli  itself a group of Warrnambool and district residents joined tens of thousands at a solemn dawn service on the Turkish peninsula.

Flags fluttered in the cool Warrnambool dawn breeze with waves crashing in the distant backround as the ode was read: “... At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. Lest we forget”.

Participants aged from babies to veterans, hailing from across the region and the state, listened in silence during the short ceremony.

Many later laid sprigs of rosemary bush in an urn at the foot of the soldiers’ memorial.

Some were at the cenotaph by 4am preparing the site, including Warrnambool RSL sub-branch president John Miles who was overwhelmed by the large turnout. “It was certainly the largest crowd in my time here,” the Vietnam War veteran said. 

“The response was mind-blowing. Our service crowds are getting bigger every year and who knows how many will come next year for the centenary.”

His other 4am companion was Norm Sheppard, 71, who has attended almost 60 dawn services since he first rolled up as an 11-year-old Scout.

“It’s definitely the biggest crowd I can remember,” he said.

“We come to pay our respects to those who lost their lives serving their country.”

Mr Sheppard helped co-ordinate 40 Scouts and Venturers who participated in marches at dawn, at Dennington and later at the main Warrnambool street march.

Maurice Reid, of Warrnambool, who began his annual visits to the dawn service 30 years ago as a Scout cub agreed it was the largest crowd he had seen at the annual event.

Guest speaker at the main service Gordon Wood spoke of his time in the Vietnam War where he lost several friends in battle.

He said Australians in all theatres of war embodied the main aspects of the Anzac spirit — mateship, endurance, humour and a healthy distrust of authority.

Mr Wood’s great-grandfather, Reg, was killed in the First World War early in the conflict after enlisting at the age of 38 by declaring he was 10 years younger.

Preparations have already started for next year’s Anzac centenary celebrations in Warrnambool with a large outdoor screen to be set up on Cannon Hill for crowds to get a clearer look at official ceremonies around the war memorial.

This year’s march, which was led by post-1975 war veterans and went directly to the cenotaph rather than breaking at the entertainment centre for official speeches, was a trial run for a larger march next year.

“I think today’s turnout has silenced most of the critics,” Mr Miles said.

pcollins@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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