Archives for category: Second World War

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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Dad and I went back to Milne  Bay in Papua New Guinea in 2000 where he had served with E Battery Australian Heavy Artillery in 1942. It was a memorable trip, especially for Dad, as we were the first non-locals to visit the isolated spot on the  southern arm of Milne Bay where he and his mates had installed their 155mm gun, and were left to live on hope and bananas (according to Dad).

This story first appeared in The Age in September 2006.

The water is transparently deep: porpoises play around the bow, flying fishes skim metres ahead of the sturdy Masurina workboat rumbling close to the southern arm of Milne Bay. This is the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea, where the last ridges of the Owen Stanley’s subside into the Coral Sea. If the island of New Guinea is shaped like a great bird of paradise, Dad and I are sailing among the tail feathers, searching for the place where he did his bit in World War Two. Read the rest of this entry »