Reshaping the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier: Dr Brendan Nelson’s National Press Club speech

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[1] 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?”[2] (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.


[1] The eulogy was, of course, written by Keating’s speech writer, historian Don Watson.

[2] K.S. Inglis, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape Third Edition, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2008, p. 430.


7 thoughts on “Reshaping the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier: Dr Brendan Nelson’s National Press Club speech

  1. I agree that we should be careful about replacing phrases chosen immediately after the War to remember the dead. It is the generation that survived the War who chose how they wished their to be remembered. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was created and accepted by that generation.

    This argument is based on preserving the Tomb of the Australian Unknown Soldier as a historic artifact. There can be an argument made for recognising that remembrance is a current act, one that should allow the current generation to shape the remembrance in light of today’s values and standards. I see the need for balance but we need to be very careful that this does not lead to the remembrance becoming more about the current generation’s imagination. Any remembrance should be about connecting the current generation to the thoughts of those who served in World War I. This does not mean the empty acceptance of everything that they thought and did. There should be thoughtful engagement with what the WWI generation said. Removal of their phrases at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier would hamper this thoughtful engagement.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, perkinsy, and especially for making the very first comment on the blog. I hope it will be the first in many interesting conversations with readers.

      I agree that remembrance should not be static, consisting only of repeating previous acts with existing artifacts. One of the things that most interests me about the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier is its combination of old and new. It originates in the interments of the world’s first unknown soldiers, the British Unknown Warrior and French Inconnu in 1920, but the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier in 1993 was also very contemporary to that time (and very Australian). The ways in which people have interacted with the tomb since are also fascinating. When I’m researching at the Memorial I always take the time to visit the tomb and, in particular, to see the various tributes that people have left. Most of these are official (from visiting dignitaries and school groups) but many are also personal. People really “get” and respond to the representativeness of the unknown soldier and it’s an incredibly active space of remembrance.

      You raise a good point about the desirability of remembrance also connecting to the people who are being remembered, the First World War generation. Perhaps the Memorial should also consider providing some interpretive displays about the history of the Hall of Memory and tomb, probably within the museum section of the building. Visitors could then engage not only with ‘remembering’ but also the history of remembrance. Actually, some interpretive displays about the history of the whole Memorial would be wonderful – how the spaces have changed through the years. I wonder if this is something we will see in the new First World War gallery being developed for the centenary.

  2. To make a comment here is to be in august company, with Perkinsy having made the premier one, but I’ll give it a go.

    Ashleigh, thank you for provoking my thoughts. Here they are.

    – I think that the Unknown Australian is a ‘symbol’ because he is also representing those Australians in other wars apart for the First World War whose final resting place is not known. This is distinct from the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington where the Unknown from WWI was not also a symbol for later wars. WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War all subsequently had a fallen representative at the tomb.

    – Which leads us onto another question. How unknown is the Unknown Australian Soldier? Could his identity be revealed? The Unknown US serviceman from the Vietnam War was later identified through diligent detective work and DNA matching. Could the Unknown Australian Soldier also be identified if we really put our minds to it? The Unknown Australian Soldier was one of only 4 unknown Australians in the Adelaide CWGC cemetery in France. All Australians in that cemetery appear to be of the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the AIF who died between March and September 1918. Of course after the war the remains of the fallen were gathered into that central location from outlying smaller cemeteries. Undoubtedly some of the casualties’ remains would have been obliterated in the passage of the war, but with the dates of death being close to the end of the war this would have been minimised compared to some other locations. Through some data matching between casualty records, Red Cross casualty and missing reports, CWGC records and the war diaries for the 1st and 2nd divisions a list of candidates for the soldiers with no known resting place who may have been amongst the 4 Australian unknowns buried in the Adelaide cemetery could be determined. Then a public appeal for decendants or living maternal descendant relatives to come forward could be made. Somewhat like The Fromelles Project.
    ( ) There is no guarantee of success in identifying the Unknown Australian Soldier at the AWM, but shouldn’t we try? Do his relatives deserve to know? Does he deserve to be buried under his own name with an inscription chosen by his family?

    – Desire and motivation to identify an fallen unknown serviceman varies, however. With the Fromelles fallen, the motivation and effort is high. For the Unknown Sailor of Christmas Island a first attempt at finding his identity failed, but a recommendation from the Commission of Inquiry into the Loss of HMAS Sydney (II) about how to make a 2nd effort to identify the remains has gone unheeded. The ” … and we never will ..” part of Keating’s (Watson’s) speech perhaps is not really true. Perhaps we could find out his name if we wanted to do so.

    – If the Unknown Australian Soldier were identified through these means then he would be unknown no more. His remains would be exhumed from the AWM, to be reburied, perhaps in one of our Australian War Cemeteries. Then, what of the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier? Would it lay vacant? Would all the surrounding inscriptions at the AWM lose some of their meaning? Would another soldier be exhumed from France, Belgium, Palestine, or Turkey and brought home to lend meaning to the space and words?

    – It is not unprecedented for the way a significant part of the AWM is used to change over time. Here is an example. When I first visited the AWM in 1978 there were no paper poppies placed on the bronze plaques of the Roll of Honour. It was at that time forbidden and unthinkable that one would put a red paper poppy beside a name with personal significance as a mark of special remembrance. Now, people do that every day. It is a contemporary practice, one of these times, not of the many decades before.

    – I’m not sure that I agree with you, Ashleigh, that it is essential to keep “Known Unto God”. Yes, it is traditional, yes it is contemporary to the feelings and practices of the 1920s. But it is also to my mind a script that was imposed by the Imperial War Graves Commission, and like much of the iconography and words chosen for the War Cemeteries, not one that arose from the grassroots, so to speak. The ways in which the Imperial War Graves Commission allowed grieving Australian families to commemorate their war dead was an imposition, albeit a reasonably well meaning one. Therefore, I’m not too attached to their choice of words. In modern Australia where there is no State religion, should our national monument to our war dead carry the words “Known Unto God”? I think perhaps this is exclusive, not inclusive.

    – I agree with Perkinsy that our history of remembrance and of the AWM is fascinating and worth telling. For some of that I suggest McKernan’s “Here Is Their Spirit”, although now 24 years out of date.

    – Also worth reading on a related topic of how Australians commemorated and remembered their First World War fallen is Ziino’s “A Distant Grief.”. To see how Australian families used the measly number of characters on the tombstones permitted by the IWGC, read John Laffin’s collection of epitaphs in “We Will Remember Them.”

    • Hi Bob,

      Many thanks for your thoughtful, detailed and wide-ranging comment. Your suggestions for further reading are well made (Bart Ziino’s A Distant Grief is one book I particularly admire) and you’ve reminded me that when you start talking about unknown soldiers, there’s an awful lot to say!

      Personally I am uncomfortable with the idea of attempting to identify the Unknown Australian Soldier, if that were possible. For me the case is very different from that of the former American Unknown of the Vietnam War, identified as USAF First Lieutenant Michael Blassie in 1998, especially in terms of family. When Blassie was reinterred under his own name, his mother, brother and three sisters were all still alive. Any surviving relatives of the Unknown Australian Soldier are highly unlikely to be so immediate. This is not to diminish the depth of grief that is still felt in Australia (and elsewhere) about the losses of the First World War; British broadcaster Jeremy Paxman put it well this week when he wrote of his great uncle Charlie, who died at Gallipoli, “He was my mother’s father’s younger brother, dead well before she was born. Yet as children we were all familiar with him 70 or more years later — Uncle Charlie was a present absence.” But would the chance of identifying the Unknown Australian Soldier through, and for, non-immediate family members be worth disturbing his grave (and then taking away the symbol/representative of the unknown soldier)? Of course we’ve seen many DNA identifications of soldiers whose unmarked graves have been discovered on the old Western Front in recent years. These have occurred under very different circumstances – the special case of the mass grave at Fromelles or the graves being disturbed unknowingly, as with the Zonnebeke Five, discovered during the construction of a gas pipeline.

      [The quote from Paxman is from his article at ]

      You are absolutely right about changes to the use of parts of the Memorial changing over time, and the Roll of Honour poppies are probably the best example. You might be interested to know that this is related to the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier. Poppies were left en masses as people queued to view the coffin in the new tomb on Remembrance Day 1993 – a great example of spontaneous, personal gestures of remembrance during a choreographed national event. It was later decided not to remove these and, indeed, to encourage the practice in the future.

      You are also right to say that the epitaph “Known Unto God” for unidentified servicemen was a creation of the Imperial War Graves Commission and that ordinary Australians (and others) had no say in it. Perhaps there were a small number of families who would have chafed at its religious nature… though surely the thought that their son/brother/husband had a grave and an epitaph, even one that they didn’t choose themselves and which might have conflicted with their own personal worldview, would have been vastly better to the alternative: the idea that no marked grave existed or that no remains at all survived.

      In thinking about your comment, Bob, I’ve come to two additional questions about the inscriptions. What would we gain from the replacement of the inscriptions? And what would we lose? I think we would lose the Tomb as created at a particular moment of Australian remembrance of war in 1993 and also its continuities with the immediate post-First World War era. I’m not yet sure of what we would gain.

  3. First, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Second, I believe, just as many ships are left with the drowned sailors inside to remain as their tomb – what was said and done at the time of an incident should not be altered later on.

    • Hello, gpcox; welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting. It’s interesting that you point to the unknown soldier as representative of missing sailors as well. One of the challenges of the interment was how to adequately represent all three Australian services, Navy, Army and Air Force. Missing sailors particularly resonate in Australia in a case like that of HMAS Sydney II, lost with all hands in 1941, the location of the wreck unknown until 2008. The Hall of Memory in which the Unknown Australian Soldier is interred features two First World War sailors on stained glass windows and a Second World War sailor in a mosaic, and at the interment the Navy was represented by 100 sailors on parade and its principal chaplain.

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