A hero two wars could not si­lence

Pa­trick Wal­ters Arthur Black­burn VC By Andrew Faulkner Wake­field Press, 498pp, $ 45

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

AC­CORD­ING to of­fi­cial war his­to­rian Charles Bean, Arthur Black­burn and Phil Robin pen­e­trated farther in­land than any other Aus­tralians on that first Anzac Day. The pair reached Third Ridge, one of the Aus­tralians’ key ob­jec­tives. The po­si­tion was never won and the An­zacs were pushed back to­wards the beach.

In the first chaotic days, Black­burn sur­vived count­less brushes with death. His 10th Bat­tal­ion was among the first Aus­tralians to wade ashore at Anzac Cove and a good pro­por­tion of them did not sur­vive the cam­paign.

Gal­lipoli re­vealed two things about Black­burn. His men­tal tough­ness and re­silience en­abled him to re­main amaz­ingly calm un­der fire. He was also ex­traor­di­nar­ily lucky.

He won a Vic­to­ria Cross at Pozieres, and his record was equally dis­tin­guished in World War II. At 47 he joined up again.

Jour­nal­ist Andrew Faulkner has writ­ten the first bi­og­ra­phy of Black­burn, chart­ing his mil­i­tary ser­vice in two wars as well as his peace­time ca­reer as a South Aus­tralian MP, lawyer and state coro­ner. He draws on the con­tem­po­rary ac­counts of 10th Bat­tal­ion men and Black­burn’s let­ters home.

There is a graphic ac­count of the des­per­ate first days at Anzac Cove and the shock­ing ca­su­al­ties suf­fered by the bat­tal­ion. Four days af­ter land­ing, the 950- strong 10th Bat­tal­ion mus­tered just 11 of­fi­cers and 380 other ranks. The rest were killed, wounded or miss­ing. Black­burn spent seven months on the penin­sula, leav­ing only when the bat­tal­ion was with­drawn in Novem­ber. By then, four of his 10- man sec­tion, in­clud­ing Robin, were dead.

Back in Egypt, the bat­tal­ion was split up, with half the of­fi­cers and men leav­ing to join the newly formed 50th Bat­tal­ion. In early 1915 Black­burn be­gan to feel the strain and was hos­pi­talised for three weeks with ner­vous ex­haus­tion. But the big­gest bat­tle of his war lay ahead in France.

If Faulkner is too ea­ger to blame stupid Bri­tish gen­er­als for the mis­for­tunes of the First Aus­tralian Im­pe­rial Force on the West­ern Front, he gives a stir­ring ac­count of Pozieres. That hell, in late July 1916, drove ex­pe­ri­enced sol­diers mad and cost thou­sands of Aus­tralian lives. On July 23, Black­burn led raid­ing par­ties on Ger­man po­si­tions. Most of the 70 men un­der his com­mand were killed or wounded. Un­scathed, he con­tin­ued to lead sor­ties into en­emy lines and cap­tured 350m of trench, earn­ing his VC for ‘‘ con­spic­u­ous brav­ery’’. In a let­ter home, Black­burn re­counted: ‘‘ Sev­en­teen times the man be­hind me was killed and 22 times the men be­hind me were wounded.’’

In late 1916, Black­burn was in­valided home suf­fer­ing from pleurisy. His old unit car­ried on in France. By Novem­ber 1918, only 30 of the 1064 who had joined up at Ade­laide’s Mor­phettville race­course in 1914 were still serv­ing in the 10th. The dead num­bered 1010.

Black­burn was one of only three Aus­tralian VC win­ners to vol­un­teer again in 1939. A tough but fair dis­ci­plinar­ian, he led the 2/ 3 Ma­chine Gun Bat­tal­ion in Syria against Vichy French forces, ac­cept­ing the French sur­ren­der at Da­m­as­cus in June 1941.

In early 1942 his bat­tle- hard­ened unit was di­verted to Java in a fruit­less bid to stall the south­ward ad­vance of the Ja­panese. The heav­ily out­num­bered ‘‘ Black Force’’ fought well but within weeks Al­lied forces sur­ren­dered. Black­burn be­came a pris­oner of war.

Af­ter the war, Black­burn be­came a con­cil­i­a­tion com­mis­sioner in the Com­mon­wealth Ar­bi­tra­tion Court. Worn out by his war ser­vice, he died in 1960. Pa­trick Wal­ters is The Aus­tralian’s na­tional se­cu­rity ed­i­tor.

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