Arthur Seaforth Blackburn
Captain A. S. Blackburn c. 1919
|Born||25 November 1892|
Woodville, South Australia
|Died||24 November 1960 (aged 67)|
Crafers, South Australia
|Years of service||1914–1917|
|Unit||10th Battalion (1914–1916)|
|Commands held||18th Light Horse (Machine Gun) Regiment (1939–1940)|
2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion (1940–1942)
|Battles/wars||World War I
World War II
Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George
Commander of the Order of the British Empire
|Relations||Sir Richard Blackburn (son)|
Sir Charles Blackburn (half-brother)
|Other work||Member for Sturt (1918–1921)|
Commissioner of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration (1947–1955)
Brigadier Arthur Seaforth Blackburn, VC, CMG, CBE, ED, JP (25 November 1892 – 24 November 1960) was a soldier, lawyer, politician, and Australian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in battle that can be awarded to a member of the Australian armed forces. Blackburn enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in August 1914, soon after the outbreak of World War I, and along with the rest of the 10th Battalion, landed at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, on 25 April 1915. He and another scout from the battalion were credited with reaching the furthest inland on the day of the landing. Blackburn was later commissioned and, along with his battalion, spent the rest of the Gallipoli Campaign fighting Ottoman forces.
The 10th Battalion was withdrawn from Gallipoli in November 1915, and after re-organising and training in Egypt, sailed for the Western Front in late March 1916. It saw its first real fighting in France on 23 July during the Battle of Pozières. It was during this battle that Blackburn's action resulted in a recommendation for his award of the Victoria Cross (VC). Commanding 50 men, he led four separate sorties to drive the Germans from a strong point using hand grenades, capturing 370 yards (340 m) of trench. He was the first member of his battalion to be awarded the VC during World War I, and the first South Australian to receive the VC. He also fought in the Battle of Mouquet Farm in August, before being evacuated to the United Kingdom and then Australia suffering from illness. He was medically discharged in early 1917.
Blackburn returned to legal practice and pursued a part-time military career during the interwar period. He also briefly served as a member of the South Australian parliament. He led the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia in South Australia for several years, and was appointed the coroner for the city of Adelaide, South Australia. After the outbreak of World War II, Blackburn was appointed to command the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion of the Second Australian Imperial Force, and led it during the Syria-Lebanon Campaign in 1941, during which he personally accepted the surrender of Damascus. In early 1942, his battalion was withdrawn from the Middle East and played a role in the defence of Java in the Dutch East Indies from the Japanese. Captured, Blackburn spent the rest of the war as a prisoner-of-war. After he was liberated in 1945, he returned to Australia and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his services on Java in 1942.
Following the war, Blackburn was appointed as a conciliation commissioner of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration until 1955, and in that year was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for his services to the community. He died in 1960 and was buried with full military honours in the Australian Imperial Force section of the West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide. His Victoria Cross and other medals are displayed in the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial.
Arthur Seaforth Blackburn was born on 25 November 1892 at Woodville, South Australia. He was the youngest child of Thomas Blackburn, an Anglican canon and entomologist, and his second wife, Margaret Harriette Stewart, née Browne. Arthur was initially educated at Pulteney Grammar School. His mother died in 1904 at the age of 40. In 1906, he entered St Peter's College, Adelaide and this was followed by studies at the University of Adelaide, where he completed a Bachelor of Laws in 1913, after being articled to C. B. Hardy. During his term as his articled clerk, on one occasion Hardy was being assaulted by two men on the street, and despite his slight build, Blackburn intervened and chased them away. In 1911, compulsory military training had been introduced, and Arthur had joined the South Australian Scottish Regiment of the Citizen Military Forces (CMF). He was admitted to the Bar on 13 December 1913. His half-brother, Charles Blackburn, became a prominent Sydney doctor, served in the Australian Army Medical Corps in World War I, and later became a long-serving Chancellor of the University of Sydney. Their father died in 1912. At the outbreak of World War I, Arthur was practising as a solicitor in Adelaide with the firm of Nesbit and Nesbit, and was still serving in the CMF.
World War I
On 19 August 1914, aged 21, Blackburn enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and joined the 10th Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division. The 10th Battalion underwent initial training at Morphettville, South Australia, before embarking on the SS Ascanius at Outer Harbour on 20 October. Sailing via Fremantle and Colombo, the ship arrived at Alexandria, Egypt on 6 December, and the troops disembarked. They then boarded trains for Cairo where they made camp at Mena near the Great Pyramid of Giza on the following day, along with the rest of the AIF. They remained at Mena undergoing training until 28 February 1915, when they entrained for Alexandria. They embarked on the SS Ionian on 1 March, and a few days later arrived at the port of Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos in the northeastern Aegean Sea, where they remained onboard for the next seven weeks.
The 3rd Brigade was chosen as the covering force for the landing at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, on 25 April. The brigade embarked on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the destroyer HMS Foxhound, and after transferring to strings of rowing-boats initially towed by steam pinnaces, the battalion began rowing ashore at about 04:30. Blackburn was one of the battalion scouts, and one of the first ashore, landing from Prince of Wales.
Australia's World War I official war historian, Charles Bean, noted there was strong evidence that Blackburn, along with Lance Corporal Philip Robin, probably made it further inland on the day of the landing than any other Australian soldiers whose movements are known, some 2,000 yards (1,800 m). The position which Blackburn and Robin reached was beyond the crest of a feature later known as "Scrubby Knoll", part of "Third (or Gun) Ridge", which was the ultimate objective of the 3rd Brigade covering force, of which it fell well short. Robin was killed in action three days after the landing. Later in life, Blackburn was modest and retiring about his and Robin's achievement, stating that it was "an absolute mystery" how they had survived, given the range at which they were being shot at and the men who were shot around them.
Blackburn participated in heavy fighting at the landing; by 30 April, the 10th Battalion had suffered 466 casualties. He was soon promoted to lance corporal, and was placed in charge of the unit post office for one month shortly after his promotion. He was involved in subsequent trench warfare defending the beachhead, including the Turkish counter-attack of 19 May. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 4 August, and appointed as a platoon commander in A Company. By mid-September, the 10th Battalion had suffered a total of 711 casualties, 150 of whom had been killed. Blackburn served at Anzac for the rest of the Gallipoli Campaign, until the 10th Battalion was withdrawn to Lemnos in November, and subsequently back to Egypt. The battalion lost 207 dead during the campaign. The unit underwent re-organisation in Egypt, and on 20 February 1916, Blackburn was promoted to lieutenant. In early March, he was hospitalised for two weeks with neurasthenia. The battalion sailed for France in late March, arriving in early April. By this time, Blackburn was posted to a platoon in D Company.
Blackburn went on leave in France from 29 April to 7 May. The 10th Battalion was committed to fighting on the Western Front in June, initially in a quiet sector of the front line. While in this area, Blackburn was selected as a member of a special raiding party led by Captain Bill McCann. In the early hours of 23 July, the 10th Battalion was committed to its first real fighting during the Battle of Pozières. Initially, A Company under McCann were sent forward to assist the 9th Battalion, which was involved in a bomb (hand grenade) fight over the O. G. 1 trench system.[note 1] Held up by heavy machine gun fire and bombs, McCann, who had been wounded in the head, reported to the commanding officer (CO) of the 9th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel James Robertson, that more help was needed. About 05:30, a detachment of 50 men from 16 Platoon, D Company, 10th Battalion, was then sent forward under Blackburn to drive the Germans out of a section of trench. Blackburn, finding that A Company had suffered heavy casualties, immediately led his men in rushing a barricade across the trench, which they were able to break down, and using bombs, they were able to push the Germans back. Beyond this point, preceding artillery bombardments had almost obliterated the trench, and forward movement was exposed to heavy machine gun fire.
Blackburn, along with a group of four men, crawled forward to establish the source of the German machine gun fire, but all four of the men were killed, so he returned to his detachment. He went back to Robertson, who arranged support from trench mortars. Under the cover of this fire, Blackburn again went forward with some of his men, but another four were killed by machine gun fire. Another report to Robertson resulted in artillery support, and Blackburn was able to push forward another 30 yards (27 m) before being held up again, this time by German bombers. Under cover from friendly bombers, Blackburn and a sergeant managed to crawl forward to reconnoitre, establishing that the Germans were holding a trench that ran at right angles to the one they were in. Blackburn then led his troops in the clearing of this trench, which was about 120 yards (110 m) long. During this fighting, four more men were killed, including the sergeant, but Blackburn and the remaining men were able to secure the trench and consolidate. Having captured the trench, Blackburn made another attempt to capture the strong point that was the source of the machine gun fire, but lost another five men. He therefore decided to hold the trench, which he did until 14:00, when he was relieved. By this time, forty of the seventy men that had been under his command during the day had been killed or wounded. Sometime that night, Blackburn took over command of D Company, but was relieved the following morning. For his actions, Blackburn was recommended for the award of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in battle that can be awarded to a member of the Australian armed forces.
Describing his actions in a letter to a friend, the normally retiring Blackburn said it was, "the biggest bastard of a job I have ever struck". In recommending him for the VC, his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Price Weir, observed, "Matters looked anything but cheerful for Lieutenant Blackburn and his men, but Blackburn lost neither his heart nor his head".
The 10th Battalion was relieved from its positions at Pozières in the late evening of 25 July, having suffered 327 casualties in three days. Blackburn was temporarily promoted to the rank of captain on 1 August, due to the heavy losses. The battalion spent the next three weeks in rest areas, but returned to the fighting during the Battle of Mouquet Farm on 19–23 August, incurring another 335 casualties, from the 620 that were committed to the fighting. Following this battle, the 10th Battalion went into rest camp in Belgium, and on 8 September, Blackburn reported sick with pleurisy and was evacuated to the 3rd London General Hospital. He relinquished his temporary rank upon evacuation, and was placed on the seconded list. Blackburn's VC citation was also published on 8 September, and read:
For most conspicuous bravery. He was directed with fifty men to drive the enemy from a strong point. By dogged determination he eventually captured their trench after personally leading four separate parties of bombers against it, many of whom became casualties. In the face of fierce opposition he captured 250 yards of trench. Then, after crawling forward with a Serjeant to reconnoitre, he returned, attacked and seized another 120 yards of trench, establishing communication with the battalion on his left.— The London Gazette, 8 September 1916
Blackburn was the first member of the 10th Battalion and first South Australian to be awarded the VC, and his VC was earned in the costliest battle in Australian history. He was discharged from hospital on 30 September, and attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 4 October to receive his VC from King George V. The same day, McCann received the Military Cross for his own actions at Pozières that immediately preceded those of Blackburn. Blackburn embarked at Southampton for Australia onboard the hospital ship Karoola on 16 October for six months' rest, arriving home via Melbourne on 3 December. The train he arrived on was met by the state Premier, Crawford Vaughan, but he declined to speak to the assembled crowd about his exploits. The following day he was fêted by the staff and students of St Peter's College.
He married Rose Ada Kelly at the St Peter's College chapel on 22 March 1917;[note 2] they had two sons and two daughters. Blackburn was discharged from the AIF on medical grounds on 10 April 1917, as he was classified as too ill to return to the fighting. He was awarded an invalid soldier's pension. In addition to his VC, Blackburn also received the 1914–15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal for his service in World War I. His brothers Harry and John also served in the AIF during the war.
Between the wars
Blackburn returned to legal practice, becoming a principal lawyer for the firm of Fenn and Hardy. In May 1917, Blackburn was elected as one of five vice-presidents of the Returned Soldiers' Association (RSA) in South Australia, which was led by the first commanding officer of the 10th Battalion, Stanley Price Weir. On 12 September, Blackburn was elected state president of the RSA. He was involved in the 1917 Australian conscription referendum campaign, advocating in favour of conscription. As RSA president, he was involved in advocating for returned soldiers, and navigated a contentious period in the organisation. In January 1918, he was re-elected unopposed as president. Despite his push for the RSA to remain independent of politics, in early April 1918, Blackburn successfully contested the three-member House of Assembly seat of Sturt as a National Party candidate, and on 6 April he was elected first of the three with 19.2 per cent of the vote. As a parliamentarian, Blackburn's speeches were generally about issues affecting those still serving overseas, as well as returned soldiers. A notable exception was his successful motion in favour of a profit-sharing system for industrial employees. On 29 August 1918, he was appointed a justice of the peace.
In January 1920, Blackburn was re-elected as state president of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA), which had succeeded the RSA. In accordance with normal procedures, while serving in the AIF, Blackburn had been appointed an honorary lieutenant in the CMF on 20 February 1916 on the Reserve of Officers List.[note 3] This appointment was made substantive on 1 October 1920, still on the Reserve of Officers List. Continuing to practise law while a member of Parliament made for a heavy workload, and Blackburn did not seek re-election in 1921. In the same year he relinquished his role as state president of RSSILA.
On 30 October 1925, Blackburn was transferred as a lieutenant from the Reserve of Officers List to the part-time 43rd Battalion of the CMF. In the same year, along with McCann, he formed the legal firm Blackburn and McCann, continuing the association they had during the fighting at Pozières. On 21 February 1927, Blackburn was promoted to captain, still serving with the 43rd Battalion. He was transferred from the 43rd Battalion to the 23rd Light Horse Regiment on 1 July 1928. With the amalgamation of light horse regiments, Blackburn was transferred to the 18th/23rd Light Horse Regiment on 1 July 1930, and to the 18th Light Horse (Machine Gun) Regiment on 1 October of the same year.
In 1933, Blackburn became the coroner of the city of Adelaide, a position he held for fourteen years. In this role, he was criticised for refusing to offer public explanations for his decisions not to hold inquests; it was criticism he ignored. On 6 May 1935, Blackburn was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal. He was promoted to major on 15 January 1937, still with the same regiment, and in the same year was awarded the King George VI Coronation Medal. On 1 July 1939, a few months before the outbreak of World War II, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed to command the 18th Light Horse (Machine Gun) Regiment.
World War II
Blackburn stopped practising law in 1940, and on 20 June was appointed to raise and command the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, part of the Second Australian Imperial Force raised for service overseas during World War II. Motorised infantry units, the machine gun battalions were equipped with wheeled motor vehicles, motorcycles and sometimes tracked carriers, and were formed to provide a greater level of fire support than that which was organically available within ordinary infantry battalions. After undergoing training, the battalion entrained for Sydney where it embarked on the SS Ile de France on 10 April 1941. The battalion sailed for the Middle East and disembarked in Egypt on 14 May. Upon arrival, the battalion was assigned to the 7th Division in Palestine, where it underwent further training.
In mid-June, the battalion was committed to the Syria-Lebanon Campaign against the Vichy French. Due to the presence of Vichy French troops, the campaign was politically sensitive and as a result of heavy censorship not widely reported in Australia at the time; the nature of the fighting, where it was reported, was also downplayed as the Vichy Forces outnumbered the Allies and were also being better equipped. For the 2/3rd, the campaign saw them heavily involved throughout the short, but sharply contested campaign, with each of the four machine gun companies supporting separate efforts by elements of the 7th Division and also British troops, seeing action around Merdajayoun, Metula, Quneitra, Sidon and Damour before the Vichy French requested an armistice in mid-July. On 21 June, Damascus fell to the Allies, and because he was the senior Allied officer in the city, Blackburn accepted the surrender. The battalion suffered 42 casualties during the campaign.
In the aftermath of the campaign, the 2/3rd stayed on as part of the Allied occupation force established in Syria and Lebanon to defend against a possible drive south by Axis forces through the Caucasus. The battalion defended a position north-east of Beirut, around Bikfaya initially, but was moved around to various locations including Aleppo on the Turkish border throughout the remainder of 1941. They endured a bitter cold, and snowy, winter at Fih near Tripoli, which was punctuated by leave drafts to Tel Aviv. During the occupation, Blackburn was a member of the Allied Control Commission for Syria, responsible, among other functions, for the repatriation of French prisoners-of-war (POW).
On 1 February 1942, the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, less one company and with no machine guns or vehicles, left the Middle East on the SS Orcades . By mid-February, Singapore had fallen to the Japanese, and Orcades disembarked the battalion briefly at Oosthaven on Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies to help defend an airfield. The Japanese arrived before the Australians, and the battalion was quickly re-embarked. On 16 February, it was again disembarked, this time at Port of Tanjung Priok on Java to form part of the defence on that island. On 21 February, Blackburn was temporarily promoted to brigadier, and appointed to command all 3,000 Australian troops on Java, collectively known as "Blackforce". Blackforce was instructed to fight alongside local Dutch forces under the overall command of the Dutch Luitenant-generaal Hein ter Poorten. The Japanese landed on 28 February, and Blackforce was able to put up a spirited resistance for about two weeks. Poorten surrendered Java on 8 March, but Blackburn was reluctant to do so, and sought medical advice on the idea of continuing resistance in the hills. He was advised against this course of action, and surrendered his force on 11 March. Through its efforts and the delays it caused, "Blackforce" convinced the Japanese that it was a force of much larger divisional size. In his last order to his commanders he wrote:
You are to take the first opportunity of telling your men that this surrender is not my choice or that of [Major] General [Hervey Degge Wilmot] Sitwell. We were all placed under the command of the Commander in Chief NEI [Netherlands East Indies] and he ordered us to surrender (emphasis in the original).
Captivity and return to Australia
He was promoted to substantive colonel on 1 September 1942, but retained his temporary rank of brigadier whilst in captivity. In late December, Blackburn and some other senior officers were transferred from Java to Singapore, and Blackburn was briefly held at the Changi POW Camp. Along with other senior officers he was soon sent to Taiwan, then on to Moji in Japan and Pusan in Korea, and finally to the Chen Cha Tung POW Camp in Manchuria where he spent the balance of the war. He was liberated in September 1945 in Mukden, Manchuria, by which time he was in weak physical condition but otherwise in reasonable health.
In October, he was flown back to Australia via Colombo, and was hospitalised for two weeks. On arrival in Adelaide, he was met by three other VC recipients, Phillip Davey, Roy Inwood and Thomas Caldwell. On 9 May 1946, he was awarded the Efficiency Decoration. This was followed by an additional period in hospital in June and July. On 28 May, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (Military Division) (CBE) for his gallant and distinguished service in Java. His citation for the CBE noted that:
'Blackforce', which he commanded, was very hastily organised and equipped. It included English, both RAF and Army, and Australian units and personnel. Some, who had left Singapore under very dubious circumstances, were of doubtful quality. Thanks to Brigadier Blackburn's excellent leadership and personal example the little force fought splendidly. Discipline and morale remained high throughout.
Blackburn's Second AIF appointment was terminated on 18 July, at which time he relinquished his temporary rank of brigadier and was transferred to the Reserve of Officers List. He was also granted the honorary rank of brigadier. In addition to the CBE, Blackburn was also awarded the 1939–1945 Star, Pacific Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939–1945 and Australia Service Medal 1939–1945 for his service during World War II. Both of Blackburn's sons, Richard and Robert, served in the Second AIF during World War II.
On 11 October 1946, Blackburn was again appointed to active duty from the Reserve of Officers List, and was again temporarily promoted to brigadier while he was attached to 2nd Australian War Crimes Section as a witness before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo, Japan. In December, he was again elected as state president of the renamed Returned Sailors' Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia (RSSAILA). On 11 January 1947, Blackburn was transferred back to the Reserve of Officers List, retaining the honorary rank of brigadier.
Blackburn relinquished his role as city coroner in 1947, and was appointed as a conciliation commissioner of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, a position he held until 1955. He was also chairman of trustees for the Services Canteen Trust Fund from 1947 until his death. On 8 June 1949, Blackburn was appointed as the honorary colonel of the Adelaide University Regiment (AUR), and he was transferred to the Retired List in January 1950 with the honorary rank of brigadier. In the same year he relinquished his role as state president of RSSAILA. In 1953, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal. He relinquished his honorary colonel role with AUR in January 1955. In 1955, he was appointed as a member of the Australian National Airlines Commission and a director of Trans Australia Airlines. For his "exceptionally fine honorary service as chairman of several trusts, especially for the benefit of ex-servicemen and their dependants", he was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in the 1955 New Year Honours. The following year, Blackburn attended the VC centenary gathering in London.
Blackburn died on 24 November 1960 at Crafers, South Australia, aged 67, from a ruptured aneurism of the common iliac artery, and was buried with full military honours in the AIF section of Adelaide's West Terrace Cemetery. His medal set, including his VC, is displayed in the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
- The O. G. (Old German) trench system consisted of two lines of German trenches that were objectives of the Australian assault.
- Lock gives their date of marriage as 16 March 1917, but this is contradicted by R. A. Blackburn, Faulkner and South Australian Births, Deaths and Marriages data, which state they were married on 22 March.
- The Reserve of Officers List was part of the reserve element of the CMF.
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|South Australian House of Assembly|
| Member for Sturt
Served alongside: Thomas Hyland Smeaton, Edward Vardon