This week the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, gave a speech at the National Press Club [video | transcript]. As befits someone with such a varied career – Nelson has been a medical practitioner, a politician and an ambassador – it covered a lot of ground, including the place of history in society, the Australian relationship with Europe, and his plans for the Memorial on the eve of the centenary of the First World War.
Of special interest to me are Nelson’s plans for the Hall of Memory and Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier. (I’m a little biased – in 2009 I wrote my Honours thesis on the unknown soldier and have presented a couple of papers about the topic since).
Remembrance Day this year will be the 20th anniversary of the interment of the unknown soldier and also of Prime Minister Paul Keating’s elegant eulogy for him; itself, I think, a landmark in Australian remembrance of war. The Memorial will mark the anniversary in three ways. First, Keating has accepted the invitation to give the commemorative address on 11 November. Second, his eulogy for the unknown soldier will – in Nelson’s words – be “struck in bronze” and placed in the Hall of Memory.
Third, the Memorial will also engrave some of Keating’s speech. It will replace two of the three existing inscriptions on the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, “Known Unto God” and “He symbolises all Australians who have died in war” with Keating’s phrases “We do not know this Australian’s name and we never will” and “He is all of them. And he is one of us.” The third and main existing inscription, “An Unknown Australian Soldier Killed in the War 1914-1918”, will remain.
Now, I like Keating’s eulogy and feel it deserves a more prominent place at the Memorial than the one it currently has, the whole speech in small-ish type in a frame next to the entrance of the Hall of Memory. But I’m not sure about the decision to remove two of the original inscriptions. The second one has always been a bit jumbled; as Ken Inglis asks in his book Sacred Places, “why ‘symbolises’ when he is actually one of them, representing all those others buried or missing in foreign fields?” (The story behind this inscription is one for another time.) The first inscription, though, is surely essential: the phrase “Known Unto God” is the epitaph for all unidentified servicemen buried in Commonwealth war cemeteries around the world, including the Unknown Australian Soldier prior to 1993, when he was ‘just’ another digger at rest in Adelaide Cemetery in France.
“Known Unto God” isn’t language that we would choose today, but it is the language that was chosen in the immediate aftermath of the conflict in which the Unknown Australian Soldier died. I think it would be a shame if this continuity was lost.
How about you; what do you think? Please leave a comment and let me know.
 The eulogy was, of course, written by Keating’s speech writer, historian Don Watson.
 K.S. Inglis, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape Third Edition, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2008, p. 430.