Australia's Unknown Soldier
During the Great War of 1914-18, on the battlefields of northern France, an Australian soldier perished. He was among 61,720 troops killed in action during the war; the greatest number killed in any war involving Australians. Some 45 per cent of his fellow Australians died with him on the battlefields in France and Belgium.
Despite the meticulous records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at the end of the war, his body was unidentifiable. With no known name, rank or battalion, he was laid to rest in Adelaide Cemetery, just outside a small village called Villers-Bretonneux in France. On November 2, 1993, his remains were exhumed to be returned ceremoniously for burial in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
His departure was marked with due ceremony. Tributes from France, Belgium, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Australia were paid to him prior to leaving France.
Rob Allison, former Managing Director of John Allison/Monkhouse, offered his services to the Australian War Memorial as an honorary consultant. He acted as a funeral director in the ceremonies at Villers-Bretonneux, at the Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium and at Cambrai Air Base in the north of France. The Australian Unknown Soldier was flown in a helicopter to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
His remains were boarded onto a specially named Qantas 747, 'The Spirit of Remembrance', for the return to Australia. Upon arrival at Sydney airport on the morning of November 7, the coffin was ceremoniously transferred through guards of honour from Australia and France onto an RAAF Hercules flight to Canberra. In Canberra he was borne on a gun carriage from the aircraft to King's Hall in the Old Parliament House, there to lie in state until the ceremonies of November 11, 1993. Rob Allison then handed over his duties to his colleague in the funeral industry, Simon Berry.
The final and most important ceremony began on the morning of November 11, exactly 75 years after the end of the war in which he had fought. It was on this day that he was to be entombed in the Hall of Memory in the Australian War Memorial, coming to be officially recognised as a poignant and powerful symbol of all Australians who have died in war.
Of those 102,000 on the Memorial's Roll of Honour, a representative one thousand of their names were read in a three hour vigil by school children early that morning. In this funeral ceremony, he was accorded the honour given at the funeral of a Field Marshal.
The Unknown Soldier was borne on a gun carriage, followed by a cortege of soldiers bearing uniforms from some of the wars in which Australia had fought. Part of this group was a nurse wearing an old-fashioned uniform and representing all the suffering endured by Australian women in war. A symbolic 300 of the 63,000 members of Australia's armed forces formed part of the procession. The coffin was laid on the Stone of Remembrance as the chief pall bearer and then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, read the eulogy.
A few minutes before 11am, the coffin was lowered into the tomb and the Last Post and Reveille were sounded. Upon the return of the funeral party to the parade ground, the National Anthem was sung by all dignitaries and the attending 25,000 members of the public. Following the ceremony, all were invited to pay their respects, filing past the tomb.
Over the next three days, the general public paid their tributes at the rate of over one thousand per hour. The tomb was then sealed with a one-and-a-half tonne Turkish marble slab.