Courtesy of Ron Blackwood
Trooper Archibald McDonald Blackwood
Pakenham & District War Memorial & Pakenham South War Memorial
Born: 19 May 1893 - Stratford, Victoria
Enlisted: 13 July 1915 aged 22
Unit: 13th Light Horse, 6th Reinforcement (SERN: 1206)
Served: Egypt & Western Front
Died: 19 December 1975 - Melbourne, Victoria
Known as “Arch”, Archibald McDonald Blackwood was a son of John Blackwood and Mary Ann Cadd. His parents had met in Berwick, where Mary Ann worked at the Berwick Inn, while John may have also been a horse groom there (1). When Arch was born, the family was living in Stratford in Gippsland, where his father was working as a labourer with the Victorian Railways. After John contracted tuberculosis (TB), the family shifted to Bendigo, where John operated the railway gates at White Hills (2). John’s death in 1902 left Mary Ann a widow with ten children to raise alone. In an era before widow’s pensions and child endowment, Mary sent some of the children to live with aunts and uncles. Arch went to stay on his uncle Joe Coxon’s dairy farm at Bayles (3). Later, Mary acquired a 100 acre property at Pakenham South. The property was known as “The Island” because when it flooded, the homestead remained above water. The family, including young Arch, was reunited there (2). Indeed, Arch, who was only a teenager, drove a bullock team to his new home (4). These were still pioneering days in the “Swamp Country” and the Blackwood boys had to clear their own property. Later, Arch drove a team of 26 bullocks for Tom Bould clearing and ploughing scrub land in the Dalmore / Tooradin area (5).
Arch was a 22 year old farmer when he enlisted in July 1915 with one of his younger brothers, Andrew. Arch and Andy were subsequently assigned to the 13th Australian Light Horse (ALH), 6th Reinforcement. The two brothers had consecutive service numbers and subsequently served together in the 13 ALH for most of the War. A special “send off’ was arranged at Pakenham South in August 1915 for Arch and Andy, together with Ben Turner (a good friend who lived with the Blackwood family) and Fred Archer. Unfortunately, none of the guests of honour could attend due to an outbreak of meningitis in the army camp. The event went ahead nonetheless, with a “resolution of good wishes” to be forwarded to the men, together with wrist watches and “good tucker hampers”(6). Despite the absence of the guests of honour, the evening’s activities included speeches and recitations, music and songs performed by local talent and dancing “to the small hours” (7). Just before he and Andy left Australia, Arch wrote to his aunt: “I say goodbye Aunt as we mite [sic] not meet again but will trust that we will have a safe return ... Arch” (8).
After arriving in Egypt in early March 1916, Arch was taken on strength with the 4th Division Cavalry, which the 13th Light Horse formed part of. Arch’s dearly loved horse was named “Rajah” (9). While in Egypt, Arch and Andy had a got lost in a sandstorm while out on patrol with their horses. As Arch recounted to his brother Jack and sister-in-law Nel: “We were out patrolling along the eastern front and the dust was that bad we got lost you could not see ten yards in front of us & 20 miles out in the desert we were in a nice fix so we made a B line for home but we never got there. We rode until seven at night then Andy & I camped in a dugout ... You can guess how we felt. Our poor horses [had] no water for two nights ... and were looking pretty hollow. On it next morning we saddled up & climbed a big hill & there was our camp we had passed it during the night ... we just got back in time to find a search party ready to go & look for us. I can tell you the lads did give us a time about getting bushed in the desert. Cob [Andy] & I are none the worse of our adventure” [sic] (10).
In early 1916, much of the Australian Army in Egypt was redeployed to the Western Front in France, including the 13th Light Horse. When he got the news that he was likely heading for France, Arch wrote home: “we won’t be sorry to get away from the flies” (11). After several months camped in the Egyptian desert, two things caught Arch’s attention after arriving in Marseilles: the abundance of fruit for the eating and the “bonza” French girls! (12). Arch’s unit and its horses were entrained to Northern France where they were initially put into billets about a mile from the Front lines. From there, he wrote home about “getting used to the roar of the big guns ... we hear them night and day”, and seeing planes (perhaps the first he had ever seen) flying over the lines: “we are anxiously waiting to see two aeroplanes having a fight in the air” (13). Later in the War, Arch witnessed the deadly capability of these new weapons of war, seeing a line of eighteen Australian horses strafed and killed by a German pilot. The next morning there was nothing left but the horses’ bones: the locals, who were virtually starving, had butchered the horses overnight for their meat (14).
In France, the 13th Light Horse became part of the 1st Anzac Light Horse Regiment. Unlike on the plains of Palestine and Syria where the ALH became legendary for its epic cavalry charges, there was little scope for deployment of mounted troops on the Western Front due to the nature of trench warfare. Instead, the Light Horse there was generally deployed in less “romantic” ways, including traffic control behind the Front, escorting and guarding prisoners of war, despatch riding, providing working parties and even fighting as infantry reinforcements (15). According to Arch’s son Ron, because of his experiences in the trenches, Arch always had a “soft spot for the Salvos” (Salvation Army) because they brought round hot chocolate and other much appreciated comforts when the soldiers were literally up to their waists in mud. Ron also remembers Arch saying that at one stage, he was attached as a cook to the staff of a general. As Ron says, being a country boy, his father knew how to “cook a roast and a chook”! (16). Later in the War, there were some limited opportunities to deploy mounted soldiers as scouts, patrols and even decoys ahead of advancing infantry units. This occurred in early 1917 for example, when for tactical reasons, the Germans suddenly pulled back some miles to their heavily fortified Hindenburg Line. As the Australian infantry advanced in the Germans’ wake, mounted units of the 1st Anzac Light Horse (including B squadron) patrolled ahead, and made contact with and engaged in fighting with withdrawing German units near Bapaume. This included deliberately drawing away enemy fire from the Infantry. Later, during the 3rd Battle of Ypres, light horsemen armed with machine guns were engaged in anti-aircraft roles, while others were used as reinforcements for the infantry (17). From Arch’s surviving letters we also get some glimpses into the “lighter” side of the soldiers’ lives. In one letter from “somewhere in France” dated Christmas Eve (1916), Arch wrote: “I am very down hearted. We have been sent away from our little village & I was just the thing there with three girls ... I have three invites out for Christmas & I don’t know which one to go to ... but now we have been shifted ....” [sic] (16). In the same letter, Arch recounted how he and Andy walked three miles to a neighbouring town to have a “little tid” [drink] at the nearest pub with Harry Worship, a fellow Pakenham South Digger. That night, they talked about “every body on the swamp” back home (18).
Following the end of the War, Arch and Andy were sent back to England for repatriation to Australia. Interestingly, both went absent without leave (AWOL) for four days in April 1919. Perhaps they were enjoying a bit of last minute sight-seeing before returning to the farm in Pakenham South. They both forfeited several days pay for the experience! (19). The brothers returned on the HMAT Ypiringa on 5 July 1919, while their older brother James (who had enlisted in October 1916) returned in September. Mrs Blackwood must have been very relieved to have all three sons back safe and sound (20). Arch was discharged on 27 August 1919 having served a total of 1,507 days, of which 1348 were overseas (21). In November 1919, Arch, Andy and James Blackwood were officially welcomed home to Pakenham South, together with other local Diggers. At the welcome, the men were presented with fob chains and gold medallions inscribed by their “Pakenham S. friends”. Arch treasured this memento for the rest of his life. At the welcome home, James Ahern (the Berwick Shire Clerk) expressed the hope that all of the returning soldiers would be able to settle on the land at Pakenham South and that a “model farm” would result (22). Arch indeed, went back to the land, firstly on “The Island”, then on “clearing blocks” where he cleared the land for the owners and ran his stock. Later, in the 1930s, he applied for and was granted a 74 acre soldier settler block at Hagelthorn’s Estate. There, he milked dairy cows and grew fodder and vegetables. Later, Arch acquired an additional 116 acres adjoining his property (23). Meanwhile, back in 1924 Arch had married Elsie Jeremiah, the daughter of another well known Pakenham South family. The couple eventually had four sons and two daughters. During WWII, Arch served as a private with the 11th Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps (V367904).
In 1949, Arch and Elsie celebrated their silver wedding anniversary (24). Tragically, Elsie died of leukaemia a few weeks later, aged just 46. Elsie’s was one of the largest funerals in the district’s history, with the cortege from the church to the cemetery being over a mile long (25). Arch then raised his young family alone. Arch remained active in the Pakenham South community for many years, including with the Pakenham South Progress Association, which was instrumental in having Pakenham South connected to the State Electricity Commission (SEC) grid. Arch was also well known locally for his keen interest in football (he was a life member of the Rythdale - Cardinia Football Club) and horse racing. He served on the Pakenham Racing Club committee for many years. (26). Arch died in December 1975 aged 82. In paying its tribute to Arch, the Pakenham Gazette said of him: “Highly esteemed by all who knew him, he will be sadly missed by a wide circle of friends” (27).
The assistance of Arch’s sons Ron & Stan Blackwood; daughter May Ridgway; granddaughter-in-law Sharon Blackwood & relatives Graeme Blackman and Gail Blackwood is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) (8) (9) (14) & (16) Information provided by Ron Blackwood
(2) & (4) G. Blackman “The Blackwoods”, p. 1
(3) (5) (21) (26) & (27) Pakenham Gazette 14/1/1976 p. 13
(6) & (7) Dandenong Advertiser 2/9/1915, p. 2
(10) Letter from Arch Blackwood from Serapeum Egypt 16/4/1916.
(11) (12) & (13) Letter from Arch Blackwood from “France” 18/6/1916
(15) & (17) “The Light Horse in France 1916-1918” http://www.lancers.org.au/site/Light_Horse_France.asp
(18) Letter from Arch Blackwood from “Somewhere in France” Dec 24 (1916)
(19) NAA B2455 BLACKWOOD A M
(20) Narre Warren & District Family History Group (2016), p. 15
(22) Pakenham Gazette 21/11/1919 p. 2
(23) PROV VPRS 5714/P/0 Unit720 Item 88/12
(24) Dandenong Journal 27/7/1949, p. 3
(25) Dandenong Journal 10/8/1949, p. 12