Think Piece: The Unknown Soldier

Source: Group Captain Phil Champion, published Thursday 9th November, 2016

phil-championThe Australian War Memorial web-site provides us with the background to the Unknown Soldier who was recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and interred in the Hall of Memory on 11 November 1993 to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War. However, as we approach Remembrance Day in 2016; I cannot help but reflect on another unknown soldier.

The circumstances behind this soldier are far more nuanced and I don’t know whether he died on the battlefields of the Great War or returned home to re-unite with his family. I first met this soldier a few years ago in a second hand store in Port Adelaide and I have reflected upon him ever since – young and clean-shaven, he looked full of optimism for the adventures that lay ahead. How is it that almost 100 years on, this soldier was once again separated from his family, hanging alone on the dusty wall of a Port Adelaide second hand store, valued only for the aged convex glass and the ornate frame surrounding his lean Anzac torso?

Whether he survived the Great War or died, how is it that successive generations of this Unknown Soldier’s family became separated from their loved one? I value this soldier for much more than the frame by which he is now bound. As a revered Anzac, he did not deserve such an inglorious resting place where prospective bargain hunters would be prone to discarding his photo as landfill for the prize of the convex glass and frame. This was three years ago. I often reflect on this Unknown Soldier and sadly, his photograph may well now be landfill – decomposed like the bodies of so many others left behind on foreign battlefields. Sadly, this Unknown Soldier had no-one left to remember him and to tell his story.

The Great War brought much bad news; but families were strong and resilient. Marriages formed in the days of the Unknown Soldier’s time tended more often to last. When bad news came, it was reconciled. As we know the passage of time is relentless; our lives have become more complex and societal cohesiveness has been tested. Strong, resilient and cohesive families are societies’ glue; they connect us to our past and provide us with a compass for the future. When this aspect of society is strong, we are all strong. When it breaks down, unknown soldiers can proliferate.

I have a portrait of my own grandfather before he departed for the Great War and have done my best to instil in my own daughters the importance of remembering his service; albeit facilitated through some iPhone generation digitisation of the image. Will my daughter’s children think the same about my service in Iraq and Afghanistan?  As society continues to evolve, how do we ensure that the core Anzac values of service and sacrifice continue to resonate?

We have two more years to commemorate the Centenary of Anzac before the 11th of November, 2018. Should you find yourself in an antique shop, I challenge you to look for the Unknown Soldier. If you find him; pause! Ask yourself who he was. Did he come home or did he die in the Great War? Ask yourself what he became or what he could have become; who did he leave behind? You don’t necessarily need to exhume him from his place of interment; but please remember and respect him with a minute’s silence.

For all the Unknown Soldiers interred alone on a foreign wall; we will remember them.

Lest we forget.


Phil Champion joined the RAAF in 1983 commencing with No 10SQN for his first flying tour. Posted to No. 292SQN as an instructor, he returned to No 10SQN for a second flying tour. In 1991, Group Captain Champion was commissioned in the AE category. In 1993, he became Training Officer at the Australian Joint Acoustic Analysis Centre (AJAAC) at HMAS Albatross. Following promotion to the rank of SQNLDR in 1998 he was posted to the ADF Warfare Centre as a Joint Warfare Instructor. GPCAPT Champion completed the inaugural Australian Command and Staff Course in Canberra in 2001 and was posted to 11SQN as BFLTCDR. Promoted to WGCDR in 2004, GPCAPT Champion spent 1 year in MPG/SRG HQ as Staff Officer Capability Development before being posted to New Zealand to HQ Joint Forces as the ADF Embed from 2005-2008. This was followed by a posting with 92WG as Chief of Staff before becoming CO of No. 11SQN from 2009 to 2012.  Following Unit Command, GPCAPT Champion was promoted and posted as the ADF Embed to the Supreme HQ Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons Belgium, where he oversaw NATO strategic operations in Afghanistan. He commenced as OC 92WG in January 2015 and is a member of South Australia’s Veterans’ Advisory Council.