Britain’s Prince William and his wife, Kate have ended their tour Down Under, which has drawn crowds in the thousands, after a surprise visit to a dawn service honouring Australian soldiers lost in war.
The royal couple have been warmly received during their tour of Australia and New Zealand, in which they have travelled from beach to remote outback and shown off their nine-month-old son, Prince George.
On their final day today, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were among tens of thousands at events marking Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand – a tribute to soldiers past and present.
The day, which is also commemorated around the world, marks the April 25, 1915 landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or Anzac, at Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey and has become a defining symbol of courage and comradeship for both countries.
“I said to them, it means a great deal to our nation that you should honour us by attending the dawn service,” said Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson.
“Without hesitation they had an immense sense of pride in actually being here. But in the end ... it’s not about the royals, it’s not about the governor general ... it’s about the men and women we honour.”
Afterwards, the couple kept to their schedule, attending a commemorative service at the Australian War Memorial, which drew an estimated 37,000 people.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a staunch monarchist who recently reintroduced the titles of knights and dames, spoke of the connection between Britain and its former colony Australia at the event.
“Long ago, we ceased to regard Britain as the mother country, but we’re still family,” he said. “Your presence, Sir, reminds us of all our comrades-in-arms. These are the ties that bind. Lest we forget.”
Abbott said the events at Gallipoli almost a century ago, in which more than 10,000 Australian and New Zealand servicemen lost their lives, still cast a shadow.
“The First World War impacted Australia like nothing before or since,” he said, noting that from a population of about five million, 417,000 Australians enlisted and more than 60,000 never returned home.
After three FA-18 Hornets fighter aircraft flew overhead, the royal couple placed small posies of rosemary and Australian native flowers on the verge of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The duchess, who has impressed with her wardrobe choices on the tour, wore a grey tweed coat dress, midnight blue headpiece, and a poppy brooch given to her by the wife of Australian Victorian Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith.
Anzac Day is a public holiday in Australia and New Zealand, with tens of thousands attending sombre dawn services and parades to mark the occasion.
In New Zealand a dawn march in Wellington was led by returned servicemen and women dressed in replicas of 1914 New Zealand infantry uniforms – the brainchild of Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winning film director of the trilogies The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
“The soldiers got into it, wearing the kit of their forebears,” Jackson said.
The visit by the duke and duchess, which began in Wellington on April 7, ended in Canberra with the family boarding a Royal Australian Air Force aircraft for the short journey to Sydney, where they were to catch their connecting flight to Britain.
George had delighted crowds during his visit to Sydney’s Taronga Park Zoo to see Australia’s unique wildlife last weekend, and earlier during a playdate with other children in New Zealand.
He was once again in the arms of his mother, watched by spectators at the airport.
“I hope to see them back again. They’ve definitely brought some life back into the royals,” said well-wisher Nicolette Ellis.
Other dawn services marking the 99th anniversary of Anzac Day were held at places including the Australian National Memorial, in Villers-Bretonneux, northern France, and the Australian War Memorial on Hyde Park Corner, in London.