Performing the eulogy for the Unknown Australian Soldier

Last week many people around the world observed Remembrance Day, Remembrance Sunday and Veterans Day, marking the anniversary of the armistice that concluded the military conflict of the First World War. In Australia, Remembrance Day has long been a war commemoration of secondary significance to Anzac Day, the anniversary of the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli. Anzac Day is observed with a public holiday, dawn services, morning marches, ‘pilgrimages’, and much rhetoric about the supposed ‘baptism of fire’ of a young nation on 25 April 1915. Remembrance Day is a much quieter affair, not least because its focus is a minute’s silence at the hour of 11 am, when the armistice came into effect.

But this year’s Remembrance Day in Australia was a bit different. For the first time, the eulogy for the Unknown Australian Soldier was performed.

By ‘performed’ I mean that the eulogy, first delivered by Prime Minister Paul Keating on Remembrance Day in 1993 during the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier, was ceremonially read by Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC during the Australian War Memorial’s evening Last Post Ceremony (for the eulogy, skip to 9.00 minutes in the video below). The reading is a new tradition within a new tradition. The Last Post Ceremony, in its current form, was initiated by Director Brendan Nelson in 2013 and ordinarily includes the reading of the biography of one man or woman named on the Roll of Honour. This Remembrance Day the eulogy was read in place of a biography, as it will also be on future Remembrance Days.

The reading of the eulogy for the Unknown Australian Soldier was one of many ways in which the Australian War Memorial chose to honour the 20th anniversary of the speech. Yes, anniversary of the speech, rather than of the interment, because Nelson has emphasised the importance of Keating’s “towering speech, a legacy given to our nation” over and above that of the event at which it was delivered. In September I blogged about Nelson’s plans for the anniversary: inviting Keating to deliver the 2013 Remembrance Day commemorative address, “striking” the eulogy “in bronze” in the Hall of Memory, and replacing two of the three inscriptions on the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier with phrases from it (this last plan proved especially controversial and was partially abandoned).[1] It seems that Keating’s eulogy for the Unknown Australian Soldier has become both a commemorative act and a commemorative object in its own right.

Have any other Australian speeches attained the same status? While writing this blog post I plucked Sally Warhaft’s admirable compilation Well May We Say…: The Speeches That Made Australia from my bookshelf. Scanning the contents pages I see plenty of familiar phrases from speeches. Sir Henry Parkes: “The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all”. Andrew Fisher: “Our last man and our last shilling”. Ben Chifley: “The light on the hill”. Gough Whitlam: “It’s time”. Sir William Deane: “It is still winter at home”. But most of these strike me as just that: phrases, standing for particular historical moments, neither to be “struck in bronze” nor performed. (It is worth noting that while Warhaft selected three of Keating’s speeches for the volume, the eulogy for the Unknown Australian Soldier is not among them.)

What about foreign speeches? President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address immediately springs to mind. It is both “struck in bronze” – at the Lincoln Memorial, along with Lincoln’s second Inaugural address – and performed: a current PBS project implores Americans to “Learn the Address” and post a video of themselves performing it online (the mashup below, featuring all living presidents, is well worth watching). There seems to be a canonising and pedagogical purpose to both these things. As a visitor to the Lincoln Memorial in December 2012 it struck me that I was being invited (required?) to learn The Most Important Things Lincoln Ever Said; the “Learn the Address” website states it “will continue to grow as more and more people are inspired by the power of history”.

I feel as though these approaches to the Gettysburg address take place in a particular, American cultural context of knowing and reciting shared textual inheritances. There is no Australian equivalent to the American Pledge of Allegiance, for example.

But now that Keating’s eulogy for the Unknown Australian Soldier has become an act and object of commemoration, will we ever see it granted a similar canonised, pedagogical purpose? The eulogy concludes by stating, “It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here there is faith enough for all of us.” Keating returned to this theme in his 2013 Remembrance Day commemorative address, which specifically reflected on both the interment and eulogy, in perhaps more nationalist terms: “By his interment, I thought it important to say that this unknown Australian soldier would serve his country yet again; that his presence would give us a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian as well as serving to remind us of the sacrifice of the more than 100,000 men and women who never came home.”

If the Unknown Australian Soldier must still serve his country, it remains to be seen what service his eulogy will be put to.

Have I missed any Australian speeches that are approached as commemorative acts and/or objects? Or any international speeches? If you had to pick a speech to be a commemorative act or object, what would it be?


[1] The main controversy over the inscriptions was about whether “Known Unto God” should be replaced with “We do not know this Australian’s name and we never will”. It won’t be. However, on 11 November 2013, “He Symbolises All Australians Who Have Died in War” was replaced with “He is all of them and he is one of us”.


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