Twentieth century warfare has resulted in millions of unknown dead resting in unknown graves. Of Australia’s war dead from World War One and World War Two, 35,527 (about 35 per cent) have no known graves. The names of many Australians who died in World War One appear on memorials along the Western Front, including the names of about18,000 men of the Australian Imperial Force with “No Known Grave”.
On the second anniversary of the armistice, on the 11th November 1920, the commemoration was given added significance when it became a funeral, with the return of the remains of an unknown soldier from the battlefields of the Western Front. Unknown soldiers were interred with full military honours in Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triumph in Paris. The entombment in London attracted over one million people within a week to pay their respects at the unknown soldier’s tomb.
Most other allied nations adopted the tradition of entombing unknown soldiers over the following decade. In 1993, to mark the 75th anniversary of the 1918 armistice, the Australian Government exhumed the remains of an Unknown Australian Soldier from the Adelaide Cemetery, near Villers-Bretonneux on the Western Front. A State Funeral was held on Remembrance Day, the 11th November 1993.
The Unknown Soldier was interned in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War memorial in Canberra. Before proceeding to the Hall of Memory, the Unknown Soldier’s coffin was placed on the Stone of Remembrance outside the Memorial where the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, delivered the following eulogy:
We will never know who this Australian was. Yet he has always been among those we have honoured. We know that he was one of the 45,000 Australians who died on the Western Front, one of the 416,000 Australians who volunteered for service in World War One and one of the 100,000 Australians who have died in wars this century. He is all of them. And he is one of us.
As Australia’s Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in the Hall of Memory, World War One veteran Robert Comb, who had served in battles on the Western Front, sprinkled soil from Pozieres, France, over the coffin and said, “Now You’re Home, Mate”.
Remembrance Day ceremonies were conducted simultaneously in towns and cities all over the country, culminating at the moment of burial at 11-00am and coinciding with the traditional two minutes’ silence. This ceremony, which touched a chord across the Australian nation, re-established Remembrance Day as a significant day of commemoration.
To “Keep Refreshing Our Memory” is, for most people – whether they realise it or not – the surest way to reinforce our own passion for justice, freedom and peace. Remembrance Day, rightly understood, is no glorification of war. This is the last thing either the dead or the living of the two World Wars, and the later campaigns in Malaya, Korea, Borneo,Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan would want.
Remembrance Day, rightly understood, strengthens in us the resolve to live for the things for which they died. Let us ever be mindful that, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.