Archives for the month of: February, 2013

In January 1919, eight families received a letter from Major Lean, Officer-in-Charge, Base Records in Melbourne. It enclosed a photograph, taken at San Stefano prisoner-of-war camp in Constantinople.  San Stefano was located where Istanbul international airport now stands.

Major Lean wrote that it was “forwarded as a memento of the trials this soldier has undergone whilst serving in the Australian Imperial Force.  I trust he will be spared to return none the worse for his trying experience.”


The Photograph, San Stefano Camp, Constantinople, 30 June 1918. (AWM C01052)

All the men returned. I have previously told the stories of some of them, listed at the end of this pot.

This post is about Private Joseph Cahir 14th Battalion (standing far right),  Private Harry Foxcroft, 14th Battalion  (sitting far right) and  Trooper Robert Malcolm McColl (seated, centre), 2nd Australian Light Horse Regiment.

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Kenneth Slessor’s reaction to seeing two Australian graves in Lebanon was critical to the composition of perhaps his finest poem, Beach Burial.

Kenneth Slessor wrote (25 November 1941):  ‘Driving back along the coast I stopped at a smashed police post not far from the Litani River [just north of Tyre] and stood for a few moments at a little cluster of Australian graves. They were huddled together, as if taking cover on a slope of a hill. Behind them a ripple of young maize came to life in the wind, still defiant of the shells, which had ploughed it.

The crosses were the simple sides of packing cases nailed at right angles and the inscriptions, written with careful clumsiness in indelible pencil, had been smeared violet by the rain. The two comrades lay side by side facing the white beach and the blue sea, so piercing blue that it might have been stolen from their South Australian coast.

It was not their relationship nor the fact that both had been killed on the same day that held me there so much as the tragic irony of their names …

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Kenneth Slessor, the great Australian poet and journalist, resigned as official Australian war correspondent of the Second World War – 69 years ago – on 21 February 1944. He resigned before he was sacked.

Slessor was one of a distinguished group of journalists who fell foul of the Second World War information and censorship bureaucracy, and General Thomas Blamey in particular. Others included Damien Parer and Chester Wilmot.

The anniversary is a good excuse, if one was needed, to sing Slessor’s praises as a journalist and war correspondent. His descriptive power was that of a poet rather  than a hard news journo, which makes it longer lasting and  more relevant today. Here he is in Syria, after the campaign ended in on 13 July 1941.

Today the crickets are singing ion the trampled grass of the battlefield; corn is dancing on the skyline and farm-boys are winnowing the crops. The earth has received the scattered bones of war and forgotten them. Syria, too, in a few weeks of peace will forget, let us hope, the cloud which passed over its green fields.

Syria, sadly, has had to remember again.

I (re)published Slessor’s The Road to Ruin, an evocative piece on El Alamein written on 20 November 1942 in Eyewitness: Australians Write from the Front-line, in 2005.

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Nahr al-Kalb or Dog River is little way north of Beirut, on the conqueror’s road from Europe and the Near East, or vice versa. Alexander the Great passed this way in 332 BC and Herodotus, first historian and travel writer, saw the Ramesses II carving around 440 BC. Ramesses had passed by a thousand years earlier, around 1250 BC.

Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC, Roman Emperor Caracalla in 215 AD century AD, and Napoleon III in 1861 have had inscriptions carved here. The tradition continued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a variety of commanders of greater or lesser quality had inscriptions carved.

Two victorious Australian generals – Sir Harry Chauvel in the First World War and Sir Thomas Blamey in the Second also caused inscriptions to be carved, honouring the deeds of their forces.

Controversy attached to both events. First, because the initial inscription failed to acknowledge the Anzacs Light Horsemen, and second because of Kenneth Slessor’s acid poem about the General – not named, but obviously referring to Blamey.

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