A hero two wars could not silence
Patrick Walters Arthur Blackburn VC By Andrew Faulkner Wakefield Press, 498pp, $ 45
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 Blackburn spent seven months on the peninsula, leaving only when the battalion was withdrawn in November.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.