Each year around ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day there is a plethora of articles, news reports, Facebook stories and more highlighting the significance of these days and what they mean to us as Australians. What we don’t often think about are the symbols and ceremonies that not only represent these occasions, but many other aspects of remembrance. The following is a little look at these and why some of them are older than the Commemorative Days themselves and even our nation.

The bairnsdale memorial

Red Poppy

The Red Poppy is the symbol and representation of Remembrance Day most readily identified with the Great War 1914-1918. Subsequently, it has been adopted by most of the Great War allies (Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, France, Canada and to a lesser extent United States of America). Its first appearance was in the poem In Flanders Field written by the Canadian poet Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on the 3rd of May 1915. He was a physician with the Canadian forces in Belgium and wrote the poem after witnessing the death of his friend during the 2nd Battle of Ypres. John McCrae died of pneumonia on the 28th of January 1918.  He never discussed the inspiration for the poem beyond the death of his friend, LT Alexis Helmer, but the symbology of the red poppy caught the attention of the public. In 1955 military historian Lord Macauley wrote of the fields of Flanders 'fertilised by the corpses of 20 thousand soldiers' bursting into sea of scarlet. Although the reality is that when John McCrae wrote the poem it was the midst of bloody trench warfare, and much of the ground would have been churned and muddy after a winter of fighting. It was with the following spring that there would have been those red poppies showing themselves in the patches of soil surviving the tramp of weary feet and hooves. The symbology of blood red poppies and the sacrifice of all of the youth of both sides of the war is undeniable.

Red poppies on the wall

The red poppy was first adopted as a symbol representing the sacrifice of servicemen and women by Monia Michael (a US professor who took leave from the University of Georgia to support the YMCA Overseas War Secretaires Association during the Great War). She first started wearing a cloth poppy in her lapel as early as 1918 although it wasn’t officially adopted as a symbol until 1920 at the general meeting of the North America Legion and subsequently by the Royal British Legion. It has now been adopted by many charitable organisations throughout the Allied Nations with paper, cloth and more elaborate red poppies sold for fundraising to support the ex-servicemen and women today. It is worn on lapels and made into wreaths for Remembrance Day and ANZAC Day. I have a set of cufflinks in the shape of a poppy, cast from the shells found in the field of Flanders. It is also becoming a more common sight around places of remembrance and commemoration for military service and sacrifice.

Community Memorials

The community memorials that we see throughout regional and rural Australia were a part of a phenomena that is generally acknowledged to have started during and after the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902). Here in Australia many of these memorials were added to at the beginning of the Great War as Australian casualties started to rise. These memorials were often in the form of statues, obelisks or a column in the centre of a town or rural community. Today we sometimes see them standing isolated in the middle of a roundabout as industrialisation and modern transport has overtaken the location. Even if the memorial has been moved to make way for urban growth, you may well see signs telling you where it has been moved to, reinforcing just how important the memorial remains to be in its community.

A monolith memorial

The creation and styles of these memorials is wide and varied, with the local communities responsible for the fundraising and creation of them doing so in a way they saw appropriate to their own requirements to remember. You can see the local Memorial Hall with Honour Rolls recording those who served and died, through to Memorial Gates at the entrances to community gardens, memorial stone benches paid for by families of The Fallen, all the way to the grand city memorials of the Cenotaphs in Melbourne and Hyde Park Sydney. Even the Great Ocean Road along the Victorian coast stands as a lasting memorial to our Great War servicemen and women. Almost unique to Australia is the Avenue of Honour: a row of trees along a prominent road entering a town with each tree representing an individual serviceman or women, or simply providing a magnificent entrance to a township that The Fallen can never take again.

These memorials are heartbreaking, comforting and confronting all in one. For those of use reading the honour rolls of young men, and occasionally the nurses who joined them, we can see how many of a small country town went to war and how many from the same family who never returned. We can see the changes in the rolls and the adjustments to these monuments when the need to add additional plaques and names grew beyond the original requirements of the Boer War and Great War. We can also see the space left for the future and have the inherent hope that it won’t needed. We know that for the families of generations gone this was a place where they could go and commemorate those for whom they would never be able to see a grave, if it was known, in a distant land. If you have ever attended an ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day service in one of these towns, you will see the grandmothers and grandfathers run their hands over the names of brothers, cousins and friends from the Second World War (1939-1945). You, like me, will feel embarrassed and honoured when they ask you to come and stand in a place of honour when they know or find out that you are a current serving member.

War Cemeteries

To many, a War Cemetery is a place that that is far from home. We think of the large expanses of the War Cemeteries in France and Belgium where we see row upon row of orderly graves, carefully tended grasses and elegant landscaping. Australia’s war dead are either marked through individual plots (War Graves) within civilian cemeteries, to Commonwealth War Cemeteries amongst our allies, by ourselves and even in mass graves where there were no other options. Australia is part of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) that provides the rules, upkeep and maintenance of the Commonwealth War Cemeteries in perpetuity. Within Australia there are 72 Commonwealth War Cemeteries and over 1,900 civil cemeteries with War Graves. For individuals buried in a War Grave or War Cemetery there is a uniform headstone (originally white, but now generally a bronze plaque on a stone pedestal) with the emblem relevant to their country, service or Regiment, their name, age and service details, and if desired by the family, a religious verse.

A headstone memorial

The most famous of these verses is 'Their name liveth forevermore' (Ecclesiasticus 44: 14) and was chosen by Rudyard Kipling after the Great War. Rudyard Kipling became involved in the CGWC as a result of the death in action of his eldest son during the Great War and selected this verse to be inscribed around each Stone of Remembrance at a War Cemetery. The Stone of Remembrance is one of the symbols unique to CWGC War Cemeteries. It is placed at a War Cemetery with greater than 1,000 burials and some other specified sites (Sydney Cemetery and the Australian War Memorial). It is a non-denominational feature comprised of a stone slab at the top of three steps. Its design is based on the Parthenon and was the creation of Sir Edward Luytens, a renowned British architect who was also involved in the creation of the CWGC. The other symbol seen in a CWGC war cemetery (50 or more burials) is the Cross of Sacrifice. This Latin cross in sand or limestone has a downward pointing bronze sword attached to the front which represents the military and spiritual nature of the cemetery. Sir Reginald Bloomfleid is the second architect who was involved in the creation of the CWGC, and was also responsible for the design of the Menin Gate at Ypres.

Last Post

A key part of military remembrance is the ceremonial component of such. Nearly every part of our military uniform, parades and other ceremonies have evolved over time. These traditions link us to the past and tie us to the future. They show us where we have come from and are important in reminding our political masters that ceremonies of remembrance and commemoration are about the people who served, the impact it had on them, and those that didn’t come home. One of the most recognisable is the Last Post, Silence, and Reveille or Rouse. Originally the Last Post was played to indicate that the day had ended, the commander had completed his final rounds and the gates were about to be secured. Although there were military bandsmen and musician, they weren’t obliged to deploy, but the regimental bugler was. The only opportunity, apart from the doleful singing of soldiers, for music at the funeral was a bugle call and so began the tradition of playing the Last Post at a military funeral. The use of this at public ceremonies and commemorations again became more popular during the Great War, with the introduction of a period of Silence (ranging from 1 to 5 minutes) and reflection for all those that the Last Post had just been played for. Although the Silence is then broken with another bugle call, tradition is that the Reveille is only played for Dawn Services (generally ANZAC Day) and the Rouse is played at all other times. They both mean the same for all intent and purpose: to go about your business – the difference is at the start of the day (Reveille) or return to your duties (the Rouse).

A man plays the bugle

The incorporation of the Last Post into an enduring tradition occurs at both Menin Gate, at Ypres in Belgium and here at the Australian War Memorial.  Menin Gate, as mentioned earlier, was designed by one of the three architects involved with the CWGC at the end of the Great War. It was built to honour the fallen during the various battles in the surrounding area and more specifically the Battle(s) of Ypres. On the inside of the Gate are listed all the names of the Commonwealth soldiers (less New Zealand and New Foundland) who have no known grave and fell in that area. The local community on the completion of the memorial in 1927 created the Last Post Association and at 8 pm every night has sounded the Last Post underneath the Menin Gate. With the exception of the years of World War II, when Ypres was occupied by the Germans and the ceremony was held at Brookwood Cemetery in England, the Menin Gate Last Post ceremony has been continuously held since 2 July 1928. In fact, it was recommenced at Menin Gate the night that Polish troops liberated Ypres on 6th September 1944 despite that fact that the battle was still ongoing.

On 17 April 2013, the Australia War Memorial (AWM) started conducting a Last Post Ceremony. During the ceremony attendees are told about the reason for the building of the AWM and the vision of its creator Charles Bean, a reading is completed by a current serving Australian Defence Force member focusing on the story on one of the 100,000 names on the memorial wall, and the Last Post and Rouse are played with the Silence observed.  Any serving member can volunteer to undertake the reading. As a serving member with a family member represented on the Wall of Honour, you can request for your family member’s story be told and be the reader for that night’s ceremony. I had the privilege of being able to read my Great-Uncle’s story last year with his surviving sisters and sister-in-law. They had never had a funeral or a memorial service for him as he is buried at the Balikpapan War Cemetery in Borneo. I will admit that I was secretly glad that the cameras did not do a close up during the Last Post as they would have captured the few tears slipping down my face. I have been told that the creation of this ceremony was the vision of Dr Brendan Nelson after visiting and observing the Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate. Dr Nelson is the current Director of the AWM, and his idea and implementation of the AWM Last Post Ceremony is not recorded anywhere I could find.

Catafalque party

The mounting of a guard around a coffin or grave has been traced back to medieval times. The guard remained in place to ensure that safety of the body whilst lying in state. Given that this would have generally only occurred originally for the very rich or royalty, who were often buried with jewels worth small fortunes, I could guess that this was to stop the grave robbers getting in early. The reality is that it is believed to be a mark of respect and probably reflected Christian and pagan beliefs of the time requiring protection for the soul. Today you will see it when a body is a lying in state prior to a funeral, at military funerals, and at commemorative services around a memorial. It is conducted with a guard commander and four guards and includes the symbology of rest on arms reverse. This is another tradition for which the exact origins have been lost over time with the first known recording of the creation a specific drill movement recorded in 1722 for the funeral of Lord Marlborough.


The use of Rosemary for remembrance can be traced back to Roman times. It was used in not just for remembering the dead at funeral services but for herbal remedies to help scholars remember their lessons or for remembering your one true love. It was also used in wreaths to crown the victor and honour the hero. I know that in my family my Scottish grandmother had us throwing some sprigs of rosemary into the grave, rather than a handful of dirt. We had to use a cutting of the plant that she swore had been grown from a cutting brought of from Scotland by her grandmother. At the Nurses' Memorial along Anzac Parade in Canberra, there is a hedge of Rosemary surrounding and encompassing this memorial. In Australia we often wear or hand out cuttings of Rosemary to wear on ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day, tucked into a lapel or behind a name badge.

A poppy and sprig of rosemary

If you would like to know more about the different traditions, ceremonies and symbols of remembrance then (aside from Wikipedia) you can read more on the following websites: Australian Army, AWM, the Royal British Legion, Department of Veterans Affairs and many more.