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We will remember them

We will remember them

We will remember them

11 November 2021

Remembrance Day, a time to remember those who have died or suffered in wars and armed conflicts. Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

by Lindsay Cox

Remembrance Day – originally called Armistice Day – acknowledged the signing of the armistice that brought World War One to an end at 11am on 11 November 1918. After World War Two, it became a memorial day observed across the Commonwealth (and in many nations that fought in World War One) to remember the soldiers, sailors and air force personnel who have died in the line of duty.

The two minutes’ silence we observe on Remembrance Day was proposed by Australian journalist Edward Honey and was introduced as part of the commemorative ceremony at the London Cenotaph on the first anniversary of the armistice in 1919.

In Australia in 1997, then Governor-General Sir William Deane issued a proclamation formally declaring 11 November to be Remembrance Day, urging all Australians to observe one minute’s silence at 11am on 11 November each year to remember all those who died or suffered for Australia’s cause in all wars and armed conflicts.

A place to grieve

Members of the Salvos have dutifully rallied to the defence of Australia to serve in either combat or support roles; the latter included chaplains, stretcher-bearers, nurses, and Red Shield welfare officers. And many of them, along with thousands of fellow Australians, lay buried in graves on the foreign battlefields upon which they fought and died. For some, their final resting place is unknown.

There is particular grief in not knowing where a loved one’s remains are. To ease some of this grief and to commemorate all war dead, in November 1920, the remains of an ‘Unknown Soldier’ were brought from the battlefields of the Western Front and interred with full military honours in Westminster Abbey, London.

The idea of the ‘Unknown Soldier’ was that of Chaplain Reverend David Railton, a son of Commissioner George Scott Railton, The Salvation Army’s first Commissioner and second-in-command at the time. Chaplain Railton was serving with an infantry brigade at Armentieres on the Western Front in 1916, where he was awarded the Military Cross for saving the lives of an officer and two soldiers.

He recalled: “I came back from the frontline at dusk after having just laid to rest the mortal remains of a comrade. At the back of my billet was a small garden, and in the garden was a grave. At the head of the grave stood a rough cross of white wood on which was written in deep black-pencilled letters, “An Unknown British Soldier”.

The image of the grave stayed with Chaplain Railton until after the armistice when he wrote to Bishop Ryle suggesting that the remains of an unknown soldier be interred in Westminster Abbey as the representative of all those who had died in the war. Ryle approached both Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street and gained acceptance for the idea.

The Unknown Soldier

Most Allied nations adopted the tradition, but in Australia, it was not until November 1993 that an ‘Unknown Australian Soldier’ was brought home from France to be interred in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

One casualty of war represented by the ‘Unknown Soldier’ is Private William Smith of the 1st South Australian Contingent to the Boer War.

William Smith was a bandsman in the Peterburgh [Peterborough] Salvos in South Australia and a member of the local Militia Force. He volunteered and arrived in South Africa in November 1899 and, with his mounted infantry unit, was brigaded with the Victorian Mounted Rifles at Rensburg following the relief of Kimberley. A determined Boer attack caused the Australians to retreat to Arundel. Trooper James Rigg of the Victorian Mounted Rifles later wrote to his mother: “We had a rough bit of fighting till dark, the bullets whistling overhead like peas. A South Australian was killed in a fight in which they made the Boers retreat back to Rensburg.”

The South Australian killed in action at Arundel on 21 February 1900 was Private William Smith, giving him the unhappy distinction of being the first Australian Salvo killed while serving in Australia’s armed forces. On this Remembrance Day, we recall William Smith, who lies in a marked grave far from home in South Africa, nevertheless represented by the ‘Unknown Soldier’ entombed in the Hall of Memory.

Lindsay Cox is Museum Manager for The Salvation Army Australia.

 

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