The Unknown Australian Soldier

The Unknown British Warrior interred in Westminster Abbey in 1920 was meant to honour the whole Empire’s missing. Yet, Australians were divided about whether or not their government should repatriate its own unknown soldier. ‘London is the seat of the British Empire,’ reasoned one veteran, ‘and I think that Australia should be content to know that a soldier of the British Empire is buried in the abbey.’ Another veteran disagreed, arguing that the burial of an unknown soldier in London was insufficient, ‘owing to its distance from the outlying parts of the Empire’.

By the 1990s, new factors supported the entombing of an unidentified Australian soldier. First, the seventy-fifth anniversary of Armistice Day was approaching. Second, the prestige of the British Empire had dimmed. And, lastly, the number of surviving war veterans had diminished. The entombing of an unknown Australian soldier would act as a communal farewell to the Anzacs.

After months of negotiations, government officials agreed to exhume and reinter an unidentified Australian soldier from France into the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial on 11 November 1993.

On a quiet November day, a small team gathered at the Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux, randomly selected a grave and then delicately exhumed the soldier’s remains. The presence of Australian badges and uniform confirmed that the skeletal remains were those of an Australian. One observer noted that the soldier’s boots appeared good enough to walk in.

An unknown Australian soldier had been exhumed after 75 years of rest, enlisted back into the nation’s service, duty-bound for eternal anonymity.

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