By City of Charles Sturt
Arthur Seaforth Blackburn was born in Woodville in 1892. He was the youngest son of Thomas and Margaret Blackburn. Thomas was Rector at St Margaret’s Church, on the corner of Port and Woodville Roads, from 1886 until his death in 1912.
Blackburn, a lawyer, enlisted with the AIF in mid-1914, not long after the outbreak of war. His unit, the 10th Battalion, embarked from Adelaide in October.
After time in camps in Egypt, Blackburn’s 10th Battalion Scouts was one of the first groups ashore at Gallipoli on 25 April 1916. War historian, Charles Bean, believed that Blackburn and another South Australian, Phil Robin, penetrated up to almost 3km inland that day, the furthest of any allied troop for the entire 8 month campaign.
Blackburn remained in Gallipoli with the 10th Battalion until the allied withdrawal in December. Many of those he stepped ashore with were left behind, including his friend Private Bertie Stokes (see Letters from Bertie story).
In March 1916, the 10th Battalion sailed for France and the bitter trench warfare of the Western Front. The Battalion, as part of the 1st Australian Division, engaged in its first major action in July, at Pozieres in the Somme Valley. It was here that Blackburn demonstrated the bravery that earned him a Victoria Cross:
For most conspicuous bravery. He was directed with 50 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 face of fierce opposition he captured 250 yards of trench. Then, after crawling forward with a sergeant to reconnoitre, he returned attack and seized another 120 yards of trench, establishing communication with the battalion on his left.
Blackburn gave his own account of the events:
"We had a fearfully hard proposition to face at Pozieres and it is a great compliment to the Australians that they were given such a job as three previous big attempts to capture it had failed. We fought solidly for three days and nights, almost without stopping and drove our way foot by foot through the village until, by the third night, we had got right through and on to some high, commanding ground in the rear. We were then relieved, and as we had, of course, had no rest or sleep all this time, you can imagine the state we were in. Men were staggering about like drunkards, and it was hard to stop them from lying down right out in the open, and sleeping there. I was put on a pretty important job on the first morning at daylight. There was a trench from which we were enfiladed. We had just got a footing in it, and I had orders to work my way up it with bombs. It kept me busy for 10 hours, but in the end I cleared it and captured 370 yards of it. Goodness only knows how I got out of it alive, as 17 times the man behind me was killed, and 22 men behind me were wounded." (The Register, Adelaide, 4 December 1916).
The Battle for Pozieres was a costly battle for the AIF. In just four days, 5,285 men of the 1st Australian Division were killed, wounded or missing. Over the 7 week campaign, 23,000 Australians were killed or wounded.
In September 1916, Blackburn was evacuated sick and was repatriated to Australia. He arrived home to a hero’s welcome in December; South Australia’s first Victoria Cross recipient. He was discharged ‘medically unfit’ in early 1917.
The Blackburn family was well represented in WWI. Arthur’s brothers Charles, Jack and Harry served with the AIF and his sister’s husband was killed in the Middle East in 1916.
After the war, Blackburn established himself in the legal profession. From 1918-21 he was a Member of Parliament, and he was a founding member of the RSL and Legacy.
Blackburn was called up for active service in WWII. He was captured by the Japanese in Java in 1942 and remained a Prisoner of War until 1945. He died in Adelaide in 1960.
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