• John William Blankenberg was born in Riga in 1892. Today Riga is the capital city of Latvia, but then it was a part of Russia. John was one of four sons born to Nathalia Blankenberg. When he left Russia, John’s father had already died, but he left behind his mother and three brothers. However, the outbreak of the First World War tore his family apart when one of his brothers was shot, another drowned, and his mother and third brother killed when their village was destroyed. He was left with no family.

    John had left his home to become a seaman, and served a two-year apprenticeship with the Prince Line before receiving an honourable discharge. He was living in Australia on the outbreak of war, and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in Melbourne on 18 January 1916. Two months later he embarked for England aboard HMAS Malwa. In September of that year, John joined the 24th Battalion in France. The battalion had recently fought in the battles around Pozières and Mouquet Farm, and spent the bleak winter of 1916-17 training, working behind the front line, and manning the forward trenches during the coldest winter France had seen for decades. They also developed a unique form of improvised snow camouflage: large white nighties bought in Amiens.

    In September 1917, John was sent to the 2nd Auxiliary Hospital in Southall, England where he was treated for an abscess on his jaw. He remained at the hospital for a little under a month before re-joining his battalion.

    On 22 March 1918, the 24th Battalion was attacked with mustard gas; John was taken to the field hospital for treatment and re–joined his unit just weeks later.

    On 19 May 1918, the battalion took part in the attack on the village of Ville-sur-Ancre in France. Throughout the battle, John served as a batman to Lieutenant Eric Henry Drummond Edgerton, and was always in the forefront of the fighting. When the men he was with were temporarily held up by an enemy machine-gun he crept up to the post and threw a bomb into the German position, rescuing two wounded Australians.

    Blankenberg’s medal citation notes:

    He helped his officer to rush another post, put the crew out of action and captured a gun [then] helped another casualty to the rear, and immediately reported to his officer again … During the whole attack he showed a total disregard of all danger and materially assisted in the success of the operation.

    In recognition of his “outstanding gallantry”, John was awarded the Military Medal. However, he did not live long enough to receive his medal as he was killed in action on 5 October, 1918 during the battle of Montbrehain, the last Australian action of the First World War.

    There is no record of how John was killed. Military records indicate that he was buried approximately 300 yards north of Montbrehain.

    After the war, a request was made for information regarding John’s next of kin. An Australian woman, Miss Arabella Rosewear, wrote to Base Records in 1924 to say that John used to visit her family’s house and “always made our home his home when out of camp”. It seems this was his Australian family; John would leave them “his money and what other small belongings he had”.

    Activities for research and classroom discussion

    1. As a Russian subject of German origin, what difficulties might John have encountered while serving in the AIF during the war?

    2. When John left Russia to work as a seaman he had a mother and brothers. Why might John have wanted to enlist?

    3. John served as Lieutenant Edgerton’s batman during the attack on Villa–sur–Ancre. Research the role of a batman. When was the role of batman phased out?

    4. Why would the 24th Battalion have had to develop snow camouflage while serving in France? Using the image below for inspiration, brainstorm some of the challenges the soldiers would have faced in this environment.

      A member of the 24th Battalion at a frozen water point.
    5. Examine the images below of Villa–sur–Ancre. What challenges would Edgerton and Blankenberg have faced while trying to capture enemy machine machine-guns in this environment?

      Photograph of the last objective captured by Lieutenant. Edgerton and the 24th Battalion.
      A footbridge across the Ancre River built by the 6th Field Company of Engineers and used by the 24th Battalion in their attack at on Ville-sur-Ancre.
    6. John served an important role as batman. What do the images below tell you about the different roles people had during the war? Are any of these roles more important than another?

      Reinforcement cooks of the 10th through 24th battalions.
      Headquarters of the 24th Battalion, in a dugout on Broodseinde Ridge, Belgium.
      Members of the 24th Battalion in a trench, awaiting the lifting of the artillery barrage before the renewed attack on Mont St. Quentin, France.
    7. Military Base Records made numerous attempts to locate John’s next– of– kin. Why would they require this information?

    8. Examine the two propaganda posters below. How do you think they would have made John feel, both as a man of German origin and given what happened to his family?

      Australian First World War recruitment poster.
      An Australian First World War recruitment poster.