Thousands braved the dark and cold to pay their respect at Whanganui's Anzac Day dawn service on Thursday morning.

It was a letter from a child, only signed off by "Lucas M." that Returned and Services Association (RSA) Whanganui President Geoff Chowles chose to read to the crowd.

"Dear veterans, thank you very much for your time, bravery, and sacrifice. Thanks to you we are forever free," Chowles read.

"Thanks to you we have peace in New Zealand. Thanks to you there is justice. There are so many things that you did and I am forever grateful."

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The full letter was sent to the RSA earlier this year, and has been hanging on the club's notice board giving veterans the chance to see what a member of the younger generation thinks of their service for New Zealand.

Whanganui Girls College Head of School Nikita McDonald told the story of her great grandfather "who was one of the lucky ones that got to return home."

"My great grandfather never liked talking about the war, I could never imagine the trauma and horrors that he saw and went through, but because of his selfless act and that of thousands of many other New Zealand veterans, he ensured that our families would never have to."

"Sometimes the role women took in the war is over looked," she said.

"Women were not allowed to serve on the front line. Some political and military leaders had decided not to use women in combat because they feared public opinion."

McDonald said there were females of a similar age to hers that served in war as nurses.

MP for Whanganui Harete Hipango places a wreath at the ceremony. Photo / Lewis Gardner
MP for Whanganui Harete Hipango places a wreath at the ceremony. Photo / Lewis Gardner

"As this year's head prefect for Whanganui Girls College, I was looking back on the history of those young ladies, who attended our school and went to war,"

"It was incredible to read about the strong young women who had active roles in the war."

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McDonald said we gather each Anzac Day to remind ourselves of who we are and the freedoms we now possess, and to acknowledge those who made the sacrifice for New Zealand.

The bagpipes sounding at the dawn service. Photo / Lewis Gardner
The bagpipes sounding at the dawn service. Photo / Lewis Gardner

Reverend Rosemary Anderson emphasised the need to commemorate, but not celebrate, the milestones in New Zealand and Australia's military journeys, because war causes suffering and death of mass proportions.

"Yet in the midst of all this we have found countless stories of heroism, self-sacrifice and service – of ordinary men and women performing the most extraordinary feats of courage and endurance, and which have inspired our fellow countrymen and women over the last 100 years."

She said the world was forever changed for those who returned home, a world that was torn apart by heartbreak and grief for those who didn't make it back.

"For instead of returning to peace and tranquillity, the troops arrived in the midst of the Spanish 'Flu pandemic, the worst since the Black Plague of the Middle Ages. While New Zealand had suffered 18,000 deaths in the War, the 'Flu was to claim nearly 9,000 lives from the general population, many of them returned men."

Anderson said treatment for post-traumatic stress injuries were non-existent, and servicemen faced further troubles in the years following their return home.

"With the Depression of 1921 following hard on the heels of all this, surely the men could be forgiven had they wondered if all this had been worth the sacrifice."

Rum and coffee was available after the service. Photo / Lewis Gardner
Rum and coffee was available after the service. Photo / Lewis Gardner

Mayor Hamish McDouall laid a wreath at the ceremony and said it was a well-attended event.

"It's been a pretty good turnout especially in the middle of the school holidays, it's great to see young people getting out of bed and coming along."

"I remember back in the 70's I used to attend, and there wouldn't have been a quarter of the crowd numbers here today, it's really gained attention in Whanganui over the years."

Following the ceremony the crowd was invited into the War Memorial Centre for rum and coffee.

Those preparing the hot drinks will make around 220 litres of coffee throughout the morning, and use 15 bottles of rum.

Around 1500 cups will be served to those who came out to the ceremony.