Australian War Memorial keeps Known unto God” on the tomb of an unknown soldier in Canberra

A wreath lays at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The Australian War Memorial council has decided to keep the inscription “Known unto God” in the tomb of an unknown soldier in a war memorial in Australia.

The Australian War Memorial has decided it will not push through its plans of replacing the inscription “Known unto God” on the tomb of an unknown soldier in Canberra.

Last month, the governing council of the AWM has decided to remove the words of Rudyard Kipling, “Known unto God”, inscribed on the tomb of an Australian soldier and have it replace with “We do not know this Australian’s name. We never will.”

The ABC News reports that the latter phrase was derived from the eulogy of then Prime Minister Paul Keating during the re-internment ceremony of the Unknown Soldier 20 years ago.

The inscription “Known unto God” are on thousands of headstones of soldiers in war ceremonies around Australia. And the AWM decided to keep it that way.

AWM Director Brendan Nelson says they have received around 40 complaints when they have decided to change the original inscription. These complaints came from Christians, politicians, historians and other parties.

The director further revealed that they planned on changing two inscriptions on the tomb. But, they have decided to make a compromise of their initial decision.

“Obviously sensitive to the concerns, the council’s then said right well we will leave ‘Known unto God’ but we will replace at the other end of the tomb the words ‘He symbolises all those Australians who’ve died in war’ with ‘He is one of them, and he is all of us’,” he said.

The compromise was reportedly made by the council after Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Minister for Veteran’s Affairs Michael Ronaldson intervened on the issue.

However, AWM Director Nelson declined to make any comments on the involvement of the Prime Minister or the Minister for Veteran’s Affairs. He also declined to comment if the personalities indeed had conversations with the director and the content of their conversations.

“But I think it would be fair to say, knowing Tony Abbott as I do so very well, I suspect he’d be quite comfortable with where we’ve landed.”

Director Nelson said the decision to remove “Known unto God” was made not because of political correctness.

“Historically, Charles Bean … who conceived and drove the memorial, his ambition was always that there would be no religious symbols or references in the memorial or indeed in the hall,” he said. “It was not until 1999 that the words ‘Known unto God’ were placed.”

Aside from this, he also wanted to include the eulogy of then Prime Minister Keating into the war memorial in 1993.

“This was never driven by some suggestion that we should remove God or political correctness or anything of the sort,” Director Nelson said.

The Unknown Soldier was killed in World War I in France. The Australian soldier’s remains were returned to Australia in 1993 and buried in the Hall of Memory, a war memorial for all the Australian soldiers who died in wars. During the re-internment ceremony, then Prime Minister Keating gave a eulogy.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE