Activists urging recognition of colonial Australia's frontier wars and the treatment received by Aboriginal servicemen after their return from the two world wars were applauded as they marched in Canberra yesterday.

The small group of about 20, carrying Aboriginal flags and banners and accompanied by a didgeridoo, joined the tail of the national Anzac Day parade, behind columns of veterans that included a detachment of New Zealanders.

Led by Michael Anderson, one of the founders of the capital's tent embassy, the activists were separated from the main body but were met with support as they moved up Anzac Parade to the Australian War Memorial.

Veterans' groups had earlier attacked the march as "inappropriate", and there had been some concern after the Australia Day protest, during which Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were rushed from a restaurant by bodyguards.


A few bystanders heckled the marchers - one said they should "join up or go home" - but were outnumbered by others who applauded along the length of the parade.

Anderson said people had seen the "lest we forget the frontier wars" banners and others naming colonial battles and massacres, and knew that the march was not a protest.

"The public are a little more in the know than politicians and bureaucrats," he said.

Anderson said indigenous groups were asking governments to identify and set aside sites of colonial conflicts as memorials, but progress was slow. Separate indigenous services were held in Canberra and the Sydney suburbs of Redfern and Blacktown.

Across the nation, tens of thousands of Australians turned out for commemorations that began with dawn services ranging from drizzle in Melbourne and 2C temperatures in Canberra, to Elephant Rock on the Gold Coast's Currumbin Beach.

The services were overlaid with the toll of 32 dead and 220 injured in Afghanistan, a war, which after more than a decade, appears likely to end ahead of time with the return of most of Australia's 1550 troops by December.

In Townsville, the dawn service remembered three soldiers from the north Queensland city who were killed in Afghanistan in the past year. "Young men who last year may have well stood next to you at this gathering or played a game of two-up with you have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation," Brigadier Shane Caughey told the service.

At Belgium's Menin Gate, a passageway to World War I's western front that bears the names of 55,000 allied soldiers lying in unknown graves, Defence Force Chief General David Hurley said Australians, New Zealanders and Belgians were again overseas at war or on peacekeeping operations.

"As today's Anzacs rise this morning to commemorate Anzac Day we think of them and their families," he said.

Speaking at the Lone Pine cemetery, Gillard said that the Dardanelles campaign was Australia's first act of nationhood, the place where "its spirit and ethos were sealed".

She said that for the allies, Gallipoli had been a battle for wider strategic goals, and for the Turks, a defence of the soil and sanctity of home, but all who fought there faced deaths that spared no age or rank or display of courage.