Above: Photograph of Robert published after WWI in the Melbourne University’s Record of Active Service (Courtesy of Melbourne University Archives).
Corporal Robert Livingstone Conning Black +
Pakenham & District War Memorial & Pakenham Upper Roll of Honour
Born: 1893 - Ascot Vale, Victoria
Enlisted: 9 February 1916 aged 22
Unit: 7th Battalion, 19th Reinforcement (SERN: 5985)
Served: Western Front
Killed in action 9 August 1918 - near Herleville (Lihons), France
Thomas Montgomery and Margaret Black and their sons were amongst the pioneers of the orchard industry in Pakenham Upper. The family settled in Pakenham Upper in the early 1900s when “much of the country was covered with heavy timber and scrub”, and established a number of orchards there (1). Prior to moving to Pakenham Upper, the Black family lived at Mooroolbark. Robert attended Montrose State School (1a), North Melbourne State School and South Melbourne College, where he attained a distinction in mathematics (2). While most of his brothers became orchardists, Robert went to Melbourne University to study civil engineering. He had passed his first year examinations (3) when he enlisted in February 1916, aged 22.
Robert was assigned to the 7th Battalion 19th Reinforcement at Castlemaine Camp. While there, he was promoted to the rank of acting Corporal, then acting Sergeant. Robert arrived in England in September 1916 and proceeded to France that November. Robert reverted to the rank of private when he arrived at the Australian base at Etaples. He was taken on strength with B Company 7th Battalion in February 1917. He appears to have served as a scout (3a), the duties of which included reconnaissance missions into no man’s land. During 1917, the 7th Battalion participated in the Third Battle of Ypres, including at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde Ridge. In August 1917, Robert was appointed as a Lance Corporal, and promoted again in January 1918 to the rank of Corporal (4). Robert was wounded on 23 May 1918, sustaining gunshot wounds to the face and arms. According to the Unit’s War Diary, the 7th Battalion was in bivouac positions near Rouge Croix, being held as a “counter-attack” battalion, prepared to move at an hour’s notice to counter-attack the Germans on any part of the divisional front, or to occupy any of the front lines as required. Two companies of the Battalion were engaged nightly on working parties digging trenches or erecting wire defences near Strazeele, and it was presumably during this work that Robert was wounded (5).
After being hospitalised in France, Robert rejoined his unit on 31 July. This was just days before all five Australian Divisions on the Western Front participated together in a massive British battle operation against German positions, to be supported by what was described at the time as “exceptionally powerful artillery, and by tanks and aeroplanes on a scale never previously attempted” (6). For the 7th Battalion, the objective was to seize the strategically important heights near Lihons. The Battalion had to march ten kilometres, “straight into action and advance over open country without artillery support” (7). Then, as the Commanding Officer later wrote, came a “bitter, gruelling and exhaustive struggle for 4 hours .... the mere statement of facts on paper, does not convey any idea of the severity of our task. The position assailed overlooked the whole field battle, the Battalion advanced and fought over the field in broad daylight, without assistance from other arms of the service [i.e. artillery], against an enemy who fought determinedly, an enemy in strongly entrenched positions, with enemy field guns firing over open sights; fought and advanced against M.G. fire of fierce intensity, on a hot day and at the conclusion of a long, tiring, dusty march ... The 9th of August is sacred to the men of the 7th Battalion as the anniversary of their famous Lone Pine fight, and the deeds of that day were worthily emulated by the men of the present 7th Battalion” (8). While the Battalion’s objectives were secured that day it came at a terrible cost: 238 casualties (including 58 dead) out of 805 men with the unit (9), a casualty rate of nearly 1:3. Amongst those killed was Robert, who fell near Herleville (10). Of Robert’s death, one military historian has written: “His loss was typical of the deadly swathe that swept through the AIF during the Great War, robbing Australia of its very finest and best, and inflicting a terrible social cost on Australian Society” (11).
Robert’s body was recovered and buried at Heath Cemetery near Harbonniers. News of Robert’s death reached Pakenham Upper on the day his younger brother Douglas (“Bruce”) was to be farewelled before leaving for the Army. That evening, at a Red Cross concert, Frank Wisewould said “the deepest sympathy of all present would go out to the bereaved family” (12). Robert’s death was reported at the same time as the wounding of another Pakenham District volunteer, George “Artie” Paternoster (13). Robert’s service and sacrifice was remembered on the Pakenham Upper Roll of Honour and Pakenham & District War Memorial. He was also commemorated on the Montrose State School Roll of Honour, while a tree was planted in his memory at that school too (14).
The assistance of Robert’s relative Judith Green; Lynne Bradley and Marianne Rocke of the Narre Warren Family History Group & Sue Thompson of the Lilydale & District Historical Society is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) Berwick Pakenham Historical Society (2005), p. 148.
(1a) & (14) Information provided by the Lilydale & District Historical Society
(2) (3) & (10) AWM 145 Roll of Honour Cards 5985 Cpl BLACK, Robert Livingstone Conning
(3a) Committee of the Melbourne University Engineering Society (1919) p. 26
(4) NAA B2455 - BLACK R L C
(5) AWM 4 23/24/42 7th Infantry Battalion Unit Diary May 1918 p. 15
(6) Ibid p. 36
(7) Ibid p. 9
(8) Ibid p. 42
(9) Ibid p.2
(11) R. Austin (2004), p. 241
(12) Pakenham Gazette 30/8/1918, p. 2
(13) Dandenong Advertiser 5/9/1918, p. 3