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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The Resignation: 21 February 1944

Kenneth Slessor was appointed official  Australian war correspondent to the Second AIF by a committee that included former  war correspondents Charles Bean and  Sir Henry Gullett, Minister for  Information in  the Menzies Government, on 1 April 1940.  He was, like Bean in the First World War, to write the official histories after the war. Slessor was to work for the Department of Information, as was photographer Damien Parer – newspapers had their own correspondents. He wrote from Britain, North Africa, Greece and Syria/Lebanon and later from Milne Bay and Finschhafen in New Guinea.

It was a soft interview with a supplement writer for the Sydney Sunday Sun in 1943, about the landing at Finschhafen earlier that year that brought about Slessor’s resignation on 21 February 1944. Inaccuracies were alleged, and Slessor’s abilities as a war correspondent were questioned.

The dispute involved Slessor’s particular bête noir General Blamey, and Prime Minister John Curtin, as the official war correspondent job was a Cabinet appointment

In the end Slessor resigned in ‘of my own free will as a protest against injustice’

He wrote 1 March,  “I am bitterly disappointed that I am now forced to give up the struggle to tell in my own way the story of the Australian fightingman, for whom I have so deep an admiration.

I am in a position to resist intimidation. Private correspondents, dependent on the Army’s blessing to keep their jobs are not … there is something gravely wrong with the present organisation of Army Public Relations …”

Slessor’s problems with censors, and ‘Brass Hats’ were many – Clement Semmler, editor of Slessor’s Despatches and Diaries, estimates that only about one third of what he wrote was published, and of that much was mutilated by censors and subs.

His Despatches were sent in ‘cablese’ – for examples, sent from Cairo on 31 October 1941 after an interview with Major General Morshead after the siege of Tobruk.

Stop health men excellent throughout and sick wastage much subnormal stop climate at Tobruk would be beautiful if twernt spoiled by inevitable dust stop at one period it blew profourteen days stoppingless stop

Unlike Wilmot, Alan Moorehead and Osmar White, Slessor did not publish his wartime work as a book in his lifetime, and the rise of his reputation as one of Australia’s greatest poets might also have something to do with obscuring the power of Slessor’s wartime writing.

The War Diaries and War Despatches, brilliantly edited by Clement Semmler, were published in 1985 and 1987.  Semmler covers the resignation in a detailed and lucid appendix in Despatches.