Early before sunrise this morning, hundreds of Australian and New Zealand residents of the Kingdom, along with their families and loved ones, rose in the dark and prepared themselves for one of the most sacred days on the Australasian calendar.

Gathering in the pre-dawn light on the grounds of the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh, they took part in a solemn tradition which has been marked by the people of the two neighbouring countries for more than a century.

April 25, Anzac Day, serves as a memorial which broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations”.

The service was all the more poignant for being held in the capital of a nation which itself has been marked by the scars of loss caused by the flames of war.

This year marked the 109th anniversary of the April 25 landings by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) at Gallipoli in Turkiye, then part of the Ottoman Empire, during the First World War. 

The bloody campaign was eventually declared a military failure and led to a withdrawal, but as the first major action involving the troops of the two then-colonial nations, it served as a “baptism of fire” and is widely considered the time when the two young nations came of age.

The annual event is marked by a unique “Dawn Service”, which begins before sunrise, and includes moving tributes to the fallen of all sides of the conflict.

This morning’s ceremony was attended by a multitude of dignitaries, including representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Ministry of National Defence.

Pablo Kang, Charge D’affaires at the Australian embassy to Cambodia, addresses the pre-dawn Anzac Day commemorations. Australian embassy

Also present were ambassadors and representatives of Australia, New Zealand, Turkiye, the UK, the US, France, the Philippines and Singapore, among others.

The Australian embassy released a statement immediately following the ceremony, in order to express appreciation for those who attended the solemn occasion.

“Thank you to all who took part in this morning’s Anzac Day 2024 Dawn Service in Phnom Penh. This year we honour all our veterans, including those who served with the UN in Cambodia. Lest we forget,” it read.

As is traditional at the Dawn Service, a well-known poem taken from the battlefields of the First World War was read, this year by the embassy’s defence attaché, Group Captain Tony Peck. The poem, “In Flanders Fields” is well known throughout the Western world, and pays tribute to the iconic red poppies which grew among the graves of the European theatre. 

Such is its vivid imagery, the red poppy has become a symbol of remembrance in many nations, including those of the Commonwealth, as well as Ireland, Ukraine and even South Korea, where they are worn in memoriam of those lost in the Korean War.

A moving address was then delivered by the Australian embassy’s charge d’affaires Pablo Kang, who paid a personal homage to the losses incurred in the past, as well as the sacrifices of today’s veterans. 

His speech touched on not only the wars of the past, but also peacekeeping missions, including the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, whose military commander was Australia’s own Lieutenant-General John Sanderson.

Turkish ambassador to Cambodia Ulku Kocaefe offered a tribute to the deceased of both sides in the Gallipoli campaign, with a powerful piece, often attributed to Kamal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkiye.

“Ambassador Kocaefe participated in the Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian embassy this morning. On the 109th anniversary of the Çanakkale Land Battles we commemorate all our fallen soldiers and martyrs with respect and gratitude,” said the embassy of Turkiye, via Twitter.

Following the playing of two traditional martial pieces of music, “The Last Post” and “Reveille”, as well as a minute of reflective silence, the national anthems of the two ANZAC nations were sung.

UK ambassador Dominic Williams took to social media to share his thoughts. 

“Joined our Australian and New Zealand mates and other Cambodian and international friends to mark Anzac Day 2024. An important moment each year to remember the sacrifices made by our friends and allies and pay tribute to their brave armed forces,” he said.

As has become customary, the guests were then treated to a “gunfire breakfast”, where bacon and eggs were served, along with rum-laced coffee, tea or milk. The tradition of drinking rum early in the morning purportedly stems from the tots of rum which were sometimes issued to soldiers in the field immediately before an attack.

At a modern Anzac Day service, it serves as a means for veterans and their communities to share camaraderie. The rest of the day is traditionally given over to socialising, with many veterans swapping stories and catching up with old mates. 

The embassy grounds quickly began to echo with the sound of widespread conversations, many serious, some less so. Nearly all of the dignitaries who attended the ceremony also took part in the gunfire breakfast, reflecting the community-building aspect of the occasion. 

Perhaps thanks to the innate understanding of the tragedy of war known by all Cambodians, the Dawn Service, with its rich traditions from faraway lands, has become firmly established in the Kingdom.