Victoria Cross : Second Lieutenant A S Blackburn, 10 Battalion, AIF

Unit 10th Australian Infantry Battalion
Place Europe: France, Picardie, Somme, Albert Bapaume Area, Pozieres Area, Pozieres
Accession Number OL00271.001
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Award
Physical description Bronze
Location Main Bld: Hall of Valour: Main Hall: France 1916
Maker Hancocks
Place made United Kingdom: England, Greater London, London
Date made c 1916
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918
Description

Victoria Cross. Engraved reverse suspender with recipient's details and reverse cross with date of award.

History / Summary

Arthur Seaforth ‘Blackie’ Blackburn was born in Woodville, Adelaide on 25 November 1892 to Reverend Thomas and Margaret Harriette Stewart (nee Browne) Blackburn. The youngest of four children from Reverend Blackburn’s second marriage, Arthur was educated at Pulteney Street Church of England School and St Peter’s College before graduating from the University of Adelaide with a law degree in 1913. On 19 August 1914, barely two weeks after war was declared, Blackburn enlisted in the AIF. On 28 September he was appointed as a private (service number 31) and assigned to ‘A’ company of 10 Battalion (10Bn). During initial training he was selected as one of the battalion’s 32 scouts under Lieutenant Eric Talbot Smith. On 20 October he embarked at Adelaide on HMAT A11 Ascanius, bound for Egypt.

Just before dawn on 25 April 1915, 10Bn was part of the first wave of troops to land on Gallipoli. As a scout, Blackburn was one the first of the men to wade onto the beach. Talbot Smith immediately gathered his unit and headed up the slope toward their objective, Third Ridge, moving ahead of the invading forces and following the retiring Turks. Their main aim was to find the enemy gun emplacements thought to be behind 400 Plateau, later the site of Johnson’s Jolly and Lone Pine. Historian Charles Bean described the movement of 10Bn’s scouts: ‘As the last Turks...bolted out, the first Australians followed them across the hilltop and stood looking down the sheer gravel slope into Shrapnel Valley...Gazing down from the plateau, they could see the Turks...running back in single file through the valley and up its far side.’

Blackburn became separated from his unit but stumbled across Lance Corporal Phil Robin, an ‘old tent mate’. Together they forged forward down across the valley and onto Third Ridge. Blackburn wrote to his brother Charles in June 1915 that ‘travelling across this valley was a decidedly lively time as the scrub was full of snipers...’ According to Bean, Blackburn and Robin were among only a handful of Australians ever to reach the objective. Looking down from the ridge they could see the Turks massing a considerable force and retired back to the Australian lines at 400 Plateau.

Blackburn was promoted to lance corporal in late April and in May was put in charge of the battalion’s post office for one month. On 4 August he was given a field commission as second lieutenant and command of a platoon in ‘A’ Company. The battalion left Gallipoli on 21 November. By the end of January 1916, 10Bn was engaged in the defence of the Suez Canal and the following month Blackburn was promoted to lieutenant.

In March, to balance new recruits with experienced veterans, the battalion was split, with half going to the newly formed 50Bn. Blackburn was retained in 10Bn and posted as platoon commander in ‘D’ Company. On 27 March, 10Bn embarked from Alexandria bound for France, arriving in Marseilles on 2 April. In July the battalion was brought up to the front for the assault on the village of Pozieres as part of the Allied Somme Offensive. The battalion was initially held in reserve when the attack began soon after midnight on 23 July though by 1.30 am ‘A’ Company, led by Captain W F J McCann, was ordered in to relieve a unit from 9Bn. The unit had captured a German strong post but had suffered severe casualties. Private John Leak of 9Bn was later awarded a Victoria Cross (VC) for his actions in the capture of the post.

McCann’s unit pressed forward but progress was hampered by a lack of bombs (hand grenades) because a number had been supplied without primers. McCann, now wounded, decided against pressing on and withdrew down the trench, ordering the platoon he was leading to build a barricade. At 5.30 am the commander of 9Bn, Lieutenant Colonel J C Robertson, asked for more troops from 10Bn to bolster the faltering momentum of the attack, and Blackburn, together with 50 men and two teams of bomb throwers were sent up.

Travelling down the captured section of trench, Blackburn came across the remnants of McCann’s by now exhausted party. He immediately leapt the barricade and with a small party of bombers proceeded to the nearest corner to cover the remainder who tore down the barricade. The unit then pushed forward before coming upon sections of the trench almost totally destroyed by artillery fire, exposing the area to sweeping fire from a nearby machine gun post. Blackburn called a halt and with four men crawled forward to determine the location of the gun. He was forced to retire when the men with him became casualties but not before the gun emplacement was located ‘only a stone’s throw to the right.’

Blackburn made another attempt at the gun, this time using trench mortars to bombard it before committing to the attack. This second attempt also failed with further casualties though Blackburn remained unharmed. On the third attempt, the group managed to gain a further 25 metres of trench under cover of artillery fire before again being stopped by enemy bombs. This time Blackburn and Sergeant Robert Inwood (brother of Private Reginald Roy Inwood who would win a VC at the Battle of Menin Road in September 1917) went forward alone and returned with information that allowed their unit to press forward and gain a further 100 metres of enemy trench.

The party again came under heavy bomb and machine gun fire and became cut off from their own lines. Blackburn managed to crawl along the trench and found a partly demolished tunnel. Working through the tunnel he stumbled across men from 9Bn and shortly afterwards reinforcements began working their way to Blackburn’s position. Following another three fruitless attempts to gain more ground he was finally ordered to hold and consolidate his position. Robertson reported later that: ‘Lieut. BLACKBURN of 10th Bn. did yeoman service and but for his persistency and leadership our gains would have been lost.’ For his actions during the fighting at Pozieres he was awarded a Victoria Cross, the first South Australian to be so decorated. The recommendation for the award reads:

‘During the operation at Pozieres. At 530 on 23rd July Lieut. BLACKBURN was detailed with 50 men to drive the enemy out of a trench about X 5 D.3.5½, the enemy strongly resisted and it was only by dogged determination and skill that the trench was eventually taken. Lieut. BLACKBURN led no less than four separate parties of bombers in this attack, most of the men that he led were either killed or wounded. Lieut. BLACKBURN exhibited great gallantry, skill and determination in the face of heavy opposition and captured 250 yds. of trench.

Having secured this advantage Lieut. BLACKBURN and Sgt INWOOD (who was killed) crawled forward to reconnitre [sic] the position and subsequently he took another 120 yds. of trench at X 5.D.0.1. and established communication with the Btn. on his left. I cannot speak too highly of the gallantry of Lieut. BLACKBURN.’

On 1 August Blackburn was promoted to temporary captain though he reverted to lieutenant when he was evacuated sick the following month suffering from pleurisy. King George V presented Blackburn with his VC on 4 October 1916 at Buckingham Palace. Still suffering the effects of the illness, he was invalided back to Australia, arriving in Melbourne on 1 December. He married Rose Ada Kelly on 22 March 1917 in Adelaide and was medically discharged from the AIF the following month.

Blackburn used much of his time following his discharge acting as an advocate for returned soldiers and in actively supporting the introduction of conscription. In September 1917, he became president of the South Australian branch of the fledgling Returned Soldiers' Association. Hoping to gain a greater voice in the welfare of returned soldiers, Blackburn turned to politics. He was elected as the Nationalist member for the seat of Sturt in South Australia’s lower house in April 1918, though he did not re-contest the 1921 election.

In 1925 he formed a partnership in a legal firm with fellow 10Bn veteran, Captain W F J McCann. In the same year he enlisted in the militia as a lieutenant in 43 Battalion rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel commanding 18 Light Horse (Machine Gun) Regiment (18LHR) in 1939. His son, Richard, was also a member of 18LHR.

He became coroner for the city of Adelaide in 1933, a position he held for some years before the Second World War intervened. On 20 June 1940, Blackburn was made a lieutenant colonel in the Second AIF (service number SX6962) and given the task of raising 2/3 Machine Gun Battalion. Following training the battalion travelled by train from Adelaide to Sydney and embarked on HMT ’MM’ (SS Ile de France) on 10 April 1941, bound for the Middle East. The battalion disembarked at Port Tewfik, Egypt, on 14 May and, in mid June, were ordered to the then Vichy French controlled Syria.

On 20 June, Blackburn, with ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies, was in position overlooking Damascus to assist in an allied assault on the city. By 12.30 pm the following day the city had fallen and Blackburn, as the senior officer present, accepted the surrender on behalf of the allied forces. The campaign in Syria ended on 11 July when the Vichy French surrendered to the British. The repatriation of the French prisoners was a condition of the Syrian surrender agreement and Blackburn was posted to the Commission of Control to oversee its application. 2/3MG Bn stayed as part of the occupying force in Syria till late January 1942.

The unit left the Middle East on the SS Orcades, less ‘B’ company and the battalion’s machine guns and vehicles, on 1 February 1942. Its immediate destination was a matter of conjecture for many on board. The Japanese had already bombed Pearl Harbour and were now pressing down the Malayan Peninsula. Two weeks after 2/3MG Bn sailed Singapore fell. The Orcades was ordered to Oosthaven, Sumatra for a hastily planned defence of its airfield but the plan was aborted when the Japanese overran the airfield just as the battalion landed. The ill-equipped troops were then ordered to Tandjong Priok on the island of Java, to make a stand against the Japanese, arriving on the afternoon of 16 February.

On 21 February, Blackburn was promoted to brigadier in command of all AIF troops in Java. Known as ‘Black Force’, it was a 3000 strong contingent of Australians thrown together to assist the Dutch forces on Java. In overall command of Allied troops on Java was the Dutch General Hein Ter Poorten. The Japanese landed on the island on 28 February and despite a spirited defence by the Australians Java fell on 8 March. Three days later Blackburn surrendered the remainder of his forces to the Japanese and as a consequence 566 members of 2/3 MG Bn, among others, became Prisoners of War (POWs).

Sergeant Alf Sheppard, writing in 1995 of his experiences in Java, tells of the regard the Japanese had for ‘Black Force’. The Japanese general and his staff rose as Blackburn entered their Headquarters on 12 March to ‘pay tribute to the Australians.’ The Japanese plans had been considerably delayed by Blackburn’s force, which was believed to be much larger than it was.

In late December 1942, Blackburn and a party of senior officers were transferred from Java to Singapore, arriving at Changi POW Camp on 2 January 1943. A few days later, a further 900 POWs from Java, including troops from 2/3MG Bn arrived at Changi under the command of Colonel Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop. Blackburn’s stay at Changi was short. With other senior officers he was sent to Taiwan and eventually to the Chen Cha Tung POW Camp in Manchuria where he saw out the remainder of the war.

In 1946 Blackburn gave evidence at the war crimes trials in Japan and in November of the same year was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his actions as commander of ‘Black Force’ and for his inspiration and leadership during his time as a POW.

For his long service in the armed forces, Blackburn was presented with an Australian Efficiency Decoration (ED) in 1946. The following year he was appointed as a commissioner to the newly formed Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, remaining in the role until 1955. This was followed by a position with the Australian National Airlines Commission and a seat on the board of Trans Australia Airlines. From 1947 to 1950 he acted as president of the Returned and Services League. On 1 January 1955, for his services on these and other government and community boards, he was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG). The following year he and his wife attended a gathering in London to mark the centenary of the VC.

Blackburn died on 24 November 1960. He was survived by his wife, Rose, and their four children. Blackburn’s brothers, Harry and John Stewart Blackburn, also served in the First AIF as did (Sir) Charles Bickerton Blackburn, half-brother to Blackburn from his father’s first marriage, who was later Chancellor of the University of Sydney. Blackburn’s sons (Sir) Richard Arthur and Robert Stewart Blackburn both served in the 2nd AIF.