Welcome Home - the Return of the Unknown Soldier

The RSL Virtual War Memorial is extremely proud to have Berry Funerals Directors as a Development Partner of its commemorative website. Director Simon Berry has a unique connection to Remembrance Day in particular and is a passionate advocate for educating younger generations on the importance of preserving the stories of all men and women who have served this nation in times of conflict. Simon shares his story below.

Simon Berry Reflects

My involvement with the Return of the Unknown Soldier commenced 23 March 1993 when the Director of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Dr Brendan Kelson, spoke at the Australian Funeral Directors Association (AFDA) National Council Meeting. The address, focused on the reason for bringing home an Unknown Soldier from The Great War, was both eloquent and emotive. It was agreed that if there were to be a funeral on 11 November 1993, the elected National President of the AFDA would conduct it in liaison with other participants in the ceremony. As I was the incoming National President of the AFDA in March 1993, and I served in that capacity until 1995 and that is how my involvement began.

I was a member of a project team of some 26 people that was ably lead by the eminent war historian, Dr Richard Reid.  Many hours of work and decisions took place between March and November that year culminating in the exhumation of the remains of our Unknown Soldier from the Adelaide Cemetery just outside Villers- Bretonneux, France, on 2nd November 1993. He lay in state in the Australian War Memorial in Villers- Bretonneux and The Cloth Hall in Ypres, Belgium, before being repatriated to Australia. Arriving in Canberra on 7 November 1993, the Unknown Soldier lay in state in Kings Hall of Old Parliament House until the morning of the ceremony, Remembrance Day, 11 November 1993.

I vividly remember stepping off from Old Parliament House with fellow members of the Bearer party at 9.26am. A Gun Carriage provided transport from Old Parliament House to the corner of Constitution Avenue and Anzac Parade. The Funeral procession began at 10am for the slow march up Anzac Parade to the Parade grounds in front of the Australian War Memorial, where the formal Ceremony would commence. Timing was calculated with military precision, ensuring that ‘our’ Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in his tomb in The Hall of Memory of the War Memorial just prior to 11.00am. I remember slow marching up Anzac Parade and listening to the Returned Service men and women who were in attendance from the Unit Associations invited, as we passed, offer the heartfelt words “Lest We Forget”.

I shall always recall being part of a congregation of in excess of 20,000 people singing  The Lord’s My Shepherd  (Crimond form) being led by the choir.  As I listened to the eulogy delivered by the (then) Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Paul J Keating, I can recall the scent of a distant BBQ drifting across the parade ground behind the War Memorial. It wasn’t planned, but it was truly a sense of Australia.

At the end of the ceremony, just before we moved into the War Memorial for the Committal prayers, I have a clear memory of the sound of two crows calling as we proceeded up the steps of the War Memorial.  I also recall leading the Funeral party into The Hall of Memory and seeing the fourteen WW1 Veterans who were invited to attend the Ceremony, seated in expectation.  I will never forget the moment when one of them, the late Mr Robert Comb, came forward to receive soil that had been gathered from the site of the windmill at Pozieres, France, to be sprinkled over the coffin in the tomb. Time was tight, as 11am was fast approaching, but Mr Comb really didn’t care about the time, he savoured the moment. He held out his hand, and as the soil was placed into his palm, he crushed it, sprinkled it through his fingers and as he did so, simply uttered the words, “welcome home mate”.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, those fourteen now deceased Diggers, each lay a single rose at the head of the tomb, along with other dignitaries. Then members of the public were able to lay a flower. 

The next morning, my wife, Helen, and I returned to The Hall of Memory for a private viewing of the tomb with other representatives from the AFDA. We truly understood the significance of this Unknown Soldier. He represents all of Australia’s war dead to so many people. As we moved around the tomb reading some of the messages on the thousands of flowers that had been laid, the one that struck me the most was a spray of six red roses and on the card, it simply said “To my dear son Mark, finally home for Christmas.”

Helen and I will always be proud to have been part of this special ceremony. Our ongoing commitment to honouring those who have served the nation and especially those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in doing so continues through our support of the RSL Virtual War Memorial.

In closing, I would like to quote excerpts from the eulogy that was delivered by the Hon PJ Keating, as it encapsulates the reasons for this symbolic moment in history.

“We do not know this Australian’s name and we never will. We do not know his rank or his battalion. We do not know where he was born, nor precisely how and when he died. We do not know where in Australia he had made his home or when he left it for the battlefields of Europe. We do not know his age or his circumstances – whether he was from the city or the bush; what occupation he left to become a soldier; what religion, if he had a religion; if he was married or single. We do not know who loved him or whom he loved. If he had children, we do not know who they are. His family is lost to us as he was lost to them. We will never know who this Australian was.

Yet he has always been among those whom we have honoured. We know that he was one of the 45,000 Australians who died on the western front; one of the 416,000 Australians who volunteered for service in the First World War; one of the 324,000 Australians who served overseas in that war and one of the 60,000 Australians who died on foreign soil; one of the 100,000 Australians who have died in wars this century.

He is all of them. And he is one of us…..

The Unknown Soldier honours the memory of all those men and women who laid down their lives for Australia.

His tomb is a reminder of what we have lost in war and what we have gained.

We have lost more than 100,000 lives, and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy.

We have gained a legend:  a story of bravery and sacrifice and, with it, a deeper faith in ourselves and our democracy, and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian.

It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that, in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here, there is faith enough for all us. “

Simon Berry, Director, Berry Funeral Directors

For the entire transcript of the Prime Minister's speech, visit https://www.awm.gov.au/talks-speeches/keating-remembrance-day-1993/