The signing of the armistice at 11 am on 11/11/1918 did not raise great enthusiasm among members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), because their first thought was for sleep. It then took a year for the battlefield silence to spread across the Empire.
Three days before Armistice Day 1919, the Governor-General of Australia passed a message from King George V ‘To all my people’. It is ‘my desire and hope’, the King had said, that wherever possible at the hour when the armistice came into force, ‘there may be, for a brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our activities … all work, all sound, all locomotion should cease’. This was to perpetuate in ‘perfect stillness’ the memory of the ‘great deliverance’ of ‘the Empire’ from the ‘world-wide carnage’ and of ‘those who laid down their lives to achieve it’.
This distillation of the Great War into two-minutes silence is so deeply inculcated in Australian culture that, while not taking it for granted, let us recall how that came to be.
As the memory of mud and body parts continued surreally to fall away, it took a further year for Armistice Day in Australia to remotely embody its ritual centre. By 9 November 1920, the Australian papers explained that, at 11am two days later, the remains of an ‘unknown soldier’ would be interred in Westminster Abbey to represent the sacrifice of the Empire in the recent war. To establish the milieu, some articles explained that the British Empire was ‘the greatest force for good in the world’. Westminster Abbey was our ‘national Valhalla’, noted another. And this is how the Sydney Morning Herald drove its empire patriotism home: ‘Here distant though we may be, every Australian can pay his meed of tribute on armistice day to the body of the unknown British warrior’ (my emphasis).
Not all Australians were entirely comfortable with this focus for empire loyalty. In May 1920 and again in November, reports appeared in the press that the Australian Federal Capital League and others were urging the government ‘to allow the body of an unknown Australian soldier to be buried on the lines of those at Westminster Abbey’ – in Canberra.
In rejecting these proposals to move along parallel lines, the Federal government held that, to remove a few bodies (at private expense) would involve unequal treatment, while the cost and effort of removing them all would be prohibitive. Furthermore, ‘British cemeteries in foreign lands would be the symbol for future generations of the common devotion, the common sacrifice of all ranks in a United Empire’.
To go a little more into this semantic field, it is important to appreciate that Australians widely assumed that those who had fallen had done so both for the ‘empire’ and for the ‘nation’. What was going on? Basically, this interchangeable use of those disparate terms went with a dream of ‘imperial federation’ that had been popular in British political discourse since the 1880s. Inspired by the United States of America, the dream had been to constitute, within British sovereignty, a white, world-wide British ‘nation’ or ‘empire’, including Britain and its white settler colonies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Commonly known as ‘Greater Britain’, this prospective planetary ‘nation’ or ‘empire’ was never realised and is forgotten today. Yet the idea of it lingered on. It hung around in the dream of ‘imperial unity’ that was a primary Australian war aim in 1914-1918. And so, a point to stress is, I think, that many Australians who spoke of their ‘nation’ in 1920, were identifying with the sovereign British ‘nation’ or ‘empire’ they tended to imagine in Australia – as distinct from the national perspective of ‘independent Australian Britons’, which Alfred Deakin had defined.
Certainly, press accounts of the entombment of the ‘unknown soldier’ in Westminster Abbey on 11 November assumed the ‘British nation’ and ‘empire’ in Australia. To paraphrase the Sydney Morning Herald on 13 November:
Surrounded by a large violet carpet, the grave was located within a dozen yards of the great west doors of the Abbey. This also placed it in the shadow of Westminster’s ‘national memorial to Pitt, the great founder of the Empire’, who now looked down upon the unknown hero, whose sacrifice had helped to sustain his creation. Then, as Big Ben Boomed 11, ‘not a sound was heard within or without the building for two minutes.’ Symbolically, the heart of the vast congregation, which included 100 VC winners, was said to have ‘joined in unison with the prayers of hundreds of thousands throughout the Empire’ in gratitude for ‘their deliverance’ and the ‘eternal happiness’ of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Fitting the long-range expeditionary nature of the AIF, an old crusader sword, a gift of the King and chief mourner, was placed beside the helmet on the flag-draped casket of the ‘unknown British soldier’.
Inspired by John McCrae’s 1915 poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, which was not known in Australia until 1921, the wearing of artificial red poppies became another element of ritual on Armistice Day – also ‘Poppy Day’ in other countries.
But still, impelled by our emotional history, Australian remembrance had a life of its own. Over 60,000 known Australian soldiers had been killed, and they could not be forgotten in far-away ‘British cemeteries in foreign lands’. And so, in the 1920s, local war memorials began appearing all over the country, as surrogate tombs and essential sites of community grieving. These memorials mixed imperial symbols, including crusader swords, which doubled as crosses, and eternal flames, and modern statues of humble soldiers with heads bowed in slouch hats. Tree-lined parades provided whispering shades.
In the 1930s, a change of name from ‘Armistice’ to ‘Remembrance Day’ also embodied the community’s need to bring the dead into the lives of the living. Stones of Remembrance were set in the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance, which was opened on 11 November 1934, and in the Australian War Memorial, which opened on the same day in 1941. The laying of wreaths at those major and many local memorials was a common component of the simple Remembrance Day ritual by the 1960s.
Then, suddenly, 75 years after Armistice Day 1918, something seemed to change: an unknown Australian soldier was finally removed from a grave in northern France and entombed in the Hall of Memory of the Australian War Memorial on 11 November 1993. The Governor-General placed a sprig of wattle on the coffin, and a Great War veteran assisted by a young soldier sprinkled a handful of soil from Pozières, where in 1916 Australians fell more thickly than on any other battlefield. The event had been timed to pay homage to the last surviving Anzacs. Yet the words inscribed on the tomb showed that the reverence extended to others: AN UNKNOWN AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER KILLED IN THE WAR OF 1914-1918 HE SYMBOLISES ALL AUSTRALIANS WHO HAVE DIED IN WAR. Prime Minister Paul Keating’s funeral oration included the words: ‘He is all of them. And he is one of us.’
What did this new Australian identification change? Perhaps, not as much as some would imagine given the precedence in our Great War commemoration of Anzac Day. Not immediately, anyway.
In Britain, Armistice Day on 11 November became the main day for remembering the war. In Canada, the United States and France, where the same was true, 11 November also became a public holiday. In Australia and New Zealand, neither of those things happened. There, Armistice or Remembrance Day, has always remained a secondary day of Great War remembrance; second to Anzac Day, which became a public holiday on 25 April, and which remembers the beginning rather than the end of the fighting. Anzac Day is widely reputed to be a commemoration of the ‘nation’s baptism of fire’ at Gallipoli.
How could that have been? The AIF, which landed at Gallipoli, was an Imperial force. By definition and the mainstream press accounts of the day, the AIF fought in the service of the ‘British Empire’ or, given the interchangeable use of the terms mentioned above, for the ‘British nation’ in Australia – which obviously needed no baptism. In view of that usage, we see also that the AIF fought for a dream of ‘imperial unity’ in what, we should add, was the anxious and historically unwarranted official hope that it would save Australia from Asia. (https://johnmenadue.com/greg-lockhart-what-were-we-fighting-for-at-gallipoli-in-palestine-and-on-the-western-front-part-1-of-5-part-series/). Presumably, however, that view is at variance with the deeply inculcated royal desire to perpetuate remembrance of those who fell in the ‘great deliverance’ of ‘the Empire’.
At the same time, the ‘unknown Australia soldier’ does not lie alone: ‘he is one of us’. His lying there assumes the context of an independent sovereign Australian nation. In view of Australian dependence on the American alliance, however, it seems that nation is still more sentimental than real. And, in that ambiguous context, the more things change, the more they stay the same: the dissolution in 1993 of the old imperial centre in Remembrance Day observance has hardly ruled out the reconstitution of a new one.
At the armistice, the Anzacs finished with fighting and went to sleep. To maintain the dream of ‘imperial unity’, Australia officially identified with the ‘unknown British soldier’ entombed in Westminster Abbey. Remembrance of his death automatically established the crusader precedent for future Anzac sacrifice. Similarly, remembrance of the death of the ‘unknown Australian soldier’ in recent wars can hardly help but sanctify the precedent for future ANZAC sacrifice within the American alliance. The fight for dreams of ‘imperial unity’ in the Great War has become the fight for eternal US protection from the world around us. This does not rule out the possibility of change. Meanwhile remembrance of the ‘unknown Australian soldier’ today may well serve to remind us that we are yet to grasp our national sovereignty.
Greg Lockhart is a Vietnam veteran and historian