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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“Last week, revisiting the battlefields of the Lebanon, I came to a little cemetery in lonely Bergouliye, just south of the Litani. It was a neatly kept square in the middle of an empty plain, fenced with barbed wire, with paths of white pebbles in the rich soil and a gate painted battleship-grey.

“Here the bodies of those British soldiers who died in the surround territory have been removed by the War Graves Commission. It too faces the ancient Phoenician beach and the blue sweep of the Mediterranean. There was a red poppy on each of the seventy graves, for it had been Remembrance Day a few days earlier. English, Scots and thirty-three Australians lie in precise ranks, and the crosses are now of smooth white wood with painted inscriptions. … I found the two comrades here still side-by-side as the fought against Vichy France. Inscriptions on their crosses are lettered neatly in black – “SX 4756 Private M La France 12/6/41” and “SX 3104 Private R. La France 12/6/41”  (Kenneth Slessor, Cairo 25 November 1941 War Despatches, ed Semmler p 262)

Slessor writing in fastidious haste in Cairo didn’t know whether Merv and Ray were brothers, and noted in his diary that after a night’s pondering, safely named them comrades.

But they were brothers.  Merv was 27, and Ray 22 when they were killed, sons of Pierre and Florence La France of Port Augusta West, South Australia. Their deaths might have been recognised on 12 June, but they had been killed on the two nights prior, as their unit the 2/27th Battalion fought up the coast from Tyre to Sidon.

The 2/27th had crossed the Litani River and by the afternoon of 10 June was in a creek bed three kilometres south of Adloun, some 18 kilometres Sidon. Adloun and the next town Innsariye were their objectives.  Vichy defences at Adloun were on a set of north south ridges above the main road with a cliff above a couple of hundred metres of flat terrain on the sea side.

‘The battalion was extremely tired after three days of no sleep and hard fighting, was hungry and thirsty, but still full of fight and as they waited for the attack to open, the sucked the juice of green tomatoes and cucumbers growing in the gardens bordering the assembly area. However next day many men were wishing the green tomatoes had been left where they were.’ (Brown & Blue  44)

Ray La France was in Captain DR McPhee’s B Company, which attacked a position above Adloun with Phoenician caves in the cliffs at on 11/12 June 12.25 and reached the top before 2 am. He was killed with four others in the same company in that hour and a half.

Merv was in D Company, and was killed that same day in the fighting along the riverbed and the ridges above. One cannot imagine what was in his mind, knowing his younger brother had been killed.

Slessor returned that way in 17 May 1942, and noted in his journal ‘took a photograph of the La France graves at Bergoulive cemetery; astonishing how quickly the earth covers the scars of a campaign – not even craters or bomb-holes now visible on the fields over the Litani …’

Now they are buried, but not side-by-side, in the meticulously cared for cemetery in Sidon.

They were one of the inspirations for Beach Burial, along with Slessor’s writing about the dead of El Alamein. (The Road to Ruin is in my Eyewitness: Australians Write from the Front-line ed 2005, Despatches, p349)

‘… the sand joins them together,

Enlisted on the other front.’

Beach Burial

Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.

Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness;

And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,
Bears the last signature of men,
Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,
The words choke as they begin –

‘Unknown seaman’ – the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips,
The breath of wet season has washed their inscriptions
As blue as drowned men’s lips,

Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither; the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.

El Alamein