BEACH BURIAL #
Background and Context - Beach Burial #
In 1940, Kenneth Slessor became Australia’s official war correspondent first reporting from Northern Africa.
It was a battle in El Alamein, an obscure railway stop west of Alexandria that in the course of a few days became known around the world for turning the fortunes of war. In November 1942, the Allied Eighth Army, comprised of at least 10 nations of the British Empire, broke German and Italian lines to push Rommel’s Axis troops back to Tunisia and defeat in Africa.
“Before El Alamein we never had a victory; After Alamein we never had a defeat,” Winston Churchill reflected on the course of World War II. He also famously referred to it as “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
In the midst of “the blue” was the Australian 9 Division, famous throughout the British Empire a year earlier for its defence of Tobruk. Now they dug into slit trenches on low ridges in open ground to hold a line scratched in the stony sands of Egypt. The Australians were given the hardest part of the line to smash.”
The Australian dead, buried at the Commonwealth War Cemetery where they fought: together, and in four plots on the western flank nearest the front line. “Nine Div” comprised about 10 per cent of the Eighth Army’s strength, yet accounted for more than one in five of its casualties.
‘There are more Australians buried at El Alamein than there are at Pozieres in France,” says Peter Stanley, a military social historian who for more than 20 years worked at the Australian War Memorial. “Yet the significance of the campaign has always been overshadowed by the war against the Japanese.”
Eucalypts throw thin shade from a high African sun. Balls of clipped bougainvillea flower purple. Caretakers paid by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tend ornamental succulents, oleander and olives, planted on bare earth among headstones, overwhelming in num ber and laid in patterns to confer an order to an otherwise crazy death.
*Of the 7970 men buried, 1234 are Australian. Never since have so many Australians died in such numbers in such a short time. The names of a further 655 are chiselled in limestone in a cloister honouring Allied servicemen who died fighting in the Battle for Northern Africa. Excerpts from SMH Traveller, Saturday, April 25, 2009 by Dugald Jellie
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 the 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.
I. Sound Effects - Beach Burial: #
Slessor is a master of sound and meaning and believed sound was inseparable from meaning.
This poem starts with a subdued tone elicited by long slow, soft sounds (softly, humbly, convoys, sway, wander, under, rolls, foam pluck, shallows, burrows ) lulling us into a false sense of calm, then by understating the enormity of the calamity we slowly realise that we are talking about dead soldiers. As daylight approaches, the sounds get harsher and more strident because of the emotional stress of burying the dead and the emerging awareness that War is devastating, cruel barbaric and unnecessary.
The recreation of the rocking waves of the ocean in
“swaying and wandering”
And later the echoes of treading on the sand are conveyed by the meter.
“sob and clubbing of the gunfire”* (a muffled distant sound) — a news reporter’s distant impression - away from the action. “Sobbing” expresses deep grief.
Contrast this with the immediacy of Wilfred Owen’s:
“The stuttering rifle’s rapid rattle” - Anthem of a doomed Youth
“choke” — words stuck in our throats.
Bury. Burrows, clubbing, sobbing
II. Subject Matter Beach Burial: #
As war correspondent, during the North African campaign in the early forties, Slessor writes sympathetically about the death of young people.
“Beach Burial”, written at El Alamein during the war, significantly, has similar themes as “Five Bells” - the drowned man - the fading communications. The name scrawled on the wooden “stake of tidewood” is itself anonymous: “Unknown Seaman”, the indelible pencil in which it is written “Wavers and fades”; the men buried in the sand are not only anonymous but are “joined together” by the sand, whether in life they were enemies or allies.
III. Themes - Beach Burial: #
Beach Burial is not a typical war poem; there is no rallying call to arms, no celebration of heroics, no declamations of patriotic or national piety, instead we have a sober, sombre, evocative but realistic tribute to soldiers of all nations whether foe or friend who have been united by the common enemy - death. The Allied forces comprised soldiers from at least 10 countries of the British Empire, including: New Zealand, Australia, India, South Africa, Pacific Islanders…. Egypt represented the hub of the Empire and losing it, would represent a mortal blow to the entire British Empire.
The poem decries the tragic, wanton waste of life.
In war soldiers become part of a machine and lose their identity. More than ten nationalities are represented here, yet Slessor fails to make this into a nationalistic conflict; rather it is a more universal conflict of survival and compassion for those who have died.
Rather than enlist on the front of war against each other, we should enlist on a common front against the real enemies of humanity: disease, famine, war - environmental disaster.
Slessor lauds the compassionate action of those who find time to bury the unidentified fatalities with some dignity.
IV. Poetic Technique - Beach Burial: #
Beach Irony of title - beaches usually associated with life and pleasure.
Nakedness - Vulnerability of humans to exposure to elements and life.
Cross - Symbol of Christ’s suffering and pain of war.
Stake- connotations of sharp dangerous implements of destruction and evil.
Driftwood - like the bodies have drifted in
Other front - Paradox – they are united at last with the suggestion that all life is a conflict even after death.
V. LANGUAGE -Beach Burial: #
convoys— usually ships - here dead bodies.
dead sailors/seamen– blunt language dehumanises them?
someone — anonymity of both dead and live soldiers.
Burrows — similar to shallows in shape and sound and meaning
Tread- repetitive - Indicates shift In tone - echoes the monotonous drone of life.
Seaman — later becomes seamen. Ghostly - echoes of death
Purple — a royal colour for these kingly men.
Landfall — a haven after long time at sea.
Other front - literally new front against Hitler /figuratively - life after death
From The Trenches: The Best Anzac Writing of World War One, Edited By Mark Dapin, examines the use of language to express a new reality.
Moreover this was war where the means of death dealing were more mechanised and lethal than they had ever been. Dapin calls the first part of his book “The Great Adventure”, as he succinctly traces the soon-obliterated enthusiasm when war was first declared. Those delusions are admonished by the poem with which the section opens - Walter Turner’s Death’s Men.
These are its chilling last lines: “click, clack, click, clack, go Death’s trim men/ Across the autumn grass”.
Following Turner up the line is Philip Schuler, an Age war correspondent who then joined the AIF. His Australia Answers the Call begins with that pseudo-chivalric language that Paul Fussell analysed in The Great War and Modern Memory: “young manhood”, “baptism of fire”, “thousands of braves”. The Great War killed off this rhetoric, as it would kill Schuler, at Messines in Belgium in 1917.
The more self-aware of the authors whom Dapin selects wrestle with the question - moral as well as stylistic - of what language can be found to register the horrors of war. Sometimes there was a resort to mocking euphemism - the naming of frontal assaults as “stunts”. For John Monash, a dry, descriptive mode seemed best: “the front line is not really a line at all, but a very complex and elaborate system of field works”. He writes also of those behind the front - field police, liaison officers with the French Military Mission, salvage corps and 200 girls in the laundries.
The favoured figurative device of Great War writing (indeed of much war literature in the century since) hearkened back to Homer. This is the simile. Official war correspondent Charles Bean wrote of “an occasional sniping shot, exactly like the crack of a cricket ball”. New Zealander Alexander Aitken likened a tank to “a pertinacious beetle”, while for Frederic Manning (whose 1929 novel The Middle Parts of Fortune Ernest Hemingway thought the finest about the war), “the drumming of the guns” was “as though a gale resounded overhead, piling up great waves of sound”.
By remaking the unfamiliar through the familiar, the horrible through the benign, simile allows the illusion of escape from war to the distant peaceful land left behind. But literary respite, like time spent away from the trenches, is only temporary. Dapin shows ways of reckoning with war and implicitly invites us to contrast them. We can set Walter Downing’s exultant account of the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day 1918 - “the fierce low growl of tigers scenting blood” - with John Jacob’s account of advancing into battle: “We all got up and walked on as if we had suddenly got tired of lying there."
VI. Evaluation -Beach Burial #
This is one of Slessor’s more mature poems and he exhibits his objective, impartial, newspaper journalistic reporting style with empathy but little judgementalism and yet evokes powerful emotions of mourning.
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