George Hugh Willoughby Blackman

The Blackman family’s connections with Welford were established by George’s grandfather, Reverend Thomas Blackman (1829 - 1894), who was Curate of the parish from 1872 to 1884.  The family home during this time was The Cottage, a large house at Hoe Benham now known as Crossways.  Reverend Blackman and his wife Anne are both buried at Welford.

In 1879 the family’s links with the parish were further strengthened when Reverend Blackman’s eldest daughter Henrietta married Alfred Stephen Batson, who became Rector of Welford the same year.  Mrs Batson is remembered as a prolific and scholarly writer with a keen interest in local history who published 12 books, including several novels, a transcription of the Welford Parish Registers, and a Terrier and Inventory of Church possessions in the parish.

George himself was born at Oudtshoorn, South Africa, on 21st May 1896, the youngest child and only son of Alfred Blackman, Reverend Blackman’s eldest son, who had left England in the 1880s to work for the National Bank of South Africa, becoming its Chief Agent in the Cape Province.  Alfred married Florine Sophia Lovemore of Bushy Park, Port Elizabeth in 1889, and George’s birth was preceded by that of three daughters.

The South African branch of the Blackman family maintained strong links with England.  George was largely educated in this country, attending Cholmondely House Preparatory School, Eastbourne, and later Marlborough College, from January 1910 to Easter 1913.  The 1911 census shows George, age 14, as a resident pupil at the College.  He then spent the last year or two of his education at The Diocesan College in Rondebosch, Cape Town.  They all regarded Hoe Benham as a second home whenever they were in the country, particularly as Reverend and Mrs Batson had also chosen to live there rather than at the Rectory at Wickham.  Reverend Batson died in 1908 but Mrs Batson continued to live in the hamlet, at nearby Low’s Hill Cottage, and George was a regular visitor to his Aunt’s home.

Around October 1914, George Blackman and three friends arrived at The Castle (the Army Headquarters in Cape Town) asking how they could “get to the war”.  They were interviewed by the Garrison Adjutant, Capitan Edward Gordon of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, as being possible officer material.  However, they all became somewhat embarrassed when asked about their educational qualifications and it transpired that they had all run away from college just before their main examinations the following month.  Clearly, like many young men at this time, they were attempting to join up ‘under age’, and the Adjutant advised them to go back to school, take their punishments, and come back to him in January with their Matriculation certificates.

Due to the boys’ age, Captain Gordon had to obtain the necessary signatures of permission from their families, and it was while visiting the Blackman family that he met George’s sister Maude, whom he was later to marry.

In January 1915, as arranged by Captain Gordon, the four young men entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and took the short ‘War Course’.  George Blackman passed out in May 1915 and was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers (2nd RSF) in July 1915 at the age of 19, having decided to join this particular Regiment on the recommendation of Captain Gordon.

George left for the Front on 19th July 1915, the day of his sister’s wedding to the now Major Gordon.  He arrived in France the following day, and was part of a draft of three officers and 58 other ranks which joined the Battalion in reserve trenches near Croix Barbée, a few miles north of Béthune, on 24th July 1915.

On 7th September 1915 George wrote to his sister Maude from the trenches, ‘c/o Mrs Batson, Hoe Benham, Newbury, Berks’.  The letter provides an interesting insight into the day-to-day life of the Battalion at this time.  They had just returned from billets in the Brigade Reserve at locations in and around Béthune, relieving the 2nd Gordon Highlanders in reserve trenches east of Vermelles, about two miles behind the front line.  This move had apparently been made at a few hours’ notice, just when it seems the men were expecting a fortnight’s rest.

They found the trenches in a poor condition, with George not even having a dugout to himself and having to sleep in the ‘dining room’.  “Our job here,” he wrote, “consists of digging – morning, afternoon, and night – mostly night!”  The Battalion War Diary for this date likewise states, “Battalion employed for 7 hours in digging communication trenches” and adds: “Casualties:- 1 killed and 6 wounded” - a reminder that even ‘in reserve’ the threat to the infantryman from enemy fire was ever present.

Another danger in this landscape, where new trenches were being constructed and old ones constantly being repaired, was that of getting lost.  “The weather just at present is very warm”, George added as a p.s., “as we found out to our cost this morning when we lost our way in some communication trenches and walked about 3 miles before finding it – only to find that we were just about where we started from!”  The letter obviously makes light of the situation here, but it was not unknown for troops becoming disorientated and approaching their own lines from an unexpected direction to come under fire from their comrades.

During the last week of September 1915, during the Battle of Loos, the 2nd RSF acted as a reserve for an attack on the village of Hulluch.  On the 28th, during heavy enemy artillery action, a shell pitched directly into the trench, killing the Commanding Officer, Captain A H Connell, and two other officers.  The Battalion War Diary records that George was hospitalised as a result of this incident, not returning until 12th October, by which time the Battalion had been moved to reserve trenches at Cambrin.

In June 1916 George was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, and on 1st July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, he took part in the attack on the village of Montauban carried out his Battalion as part of 30th Division, on the extreme right of the British front.  This proved to be one of the very few places where the first-day objectives were gained as planned; in fact Montauban (or rather its ruins) was the first village to fall in the entire battle, albeit at a cost to the Regiment of 170 casualties.

As the month progressed, the British were able to push the Germans back to their heavily fortified second line in this sector, and the village of Guillemont, about two miles beyond Montauban, became one of their next main objectives.  On Sunday 30th July, following several previous unsuccessful attempts, an attack on Guillemont was planned in which the 2nd RSF and 18th Manchesters would act as the assaulting battalions for 90th Brigade.

The Fusiliers assembled just to the east of Trônes Wood, astride the road from the wood to the village, on a frontage of about 260 yards.  ‘B’ Company – in which George Blackman was serving - was deployed about 100 yards south of the road.  The approach to the village lay over completely open country, the Germans having excellent observation from Leuze Wood to the right, and holding several strong defensive positions in the vicinity with very effective machine gun cover.

The attack began at 4.45am in thick fog, and as John Buchan states in his history of the Regiment, “almost from the first things went wrong”.  The 18th Manchesters started late, and two companies of the 16th Manchesters who were to move forward in support were unable to participate due to heavy casualties.  The Fusiliers continued to head for their objective and all four Companies actually managed to get at least part of their troops into and through the village, with ‘B’ Company advancing on its western face, but the Battalion became a ‘lone spearhead’ with no support on either flank, extremely vulnerable from German artillery and machine gun fire, and with no hope of reinforcements.  The Fusiliers in the village found themselves isolated, cut off by artillery fire, and were eventually overrun by a German counter-attack.

It was at some point during the events of this day that George Blackman was killed in action, two months after his twentieth birthday.  In fact, no less than nine of the 20 officers who had gone into action with the Battalion that day were killed and a further eight were wounded or missing, and the total casualties for the Battalion including wounded and captured were 633.  The 2nd RSF had carried out the task entrusted to it but had suffered greatly, “not for its faults but for its prowess” (John Buchan).

On 25th September, Edward Gordon, now Commanding Officer of the 6/7th RSF, went with one of George Blackman’s college friends to Guillemont to look for signs of his grave, but, as he recorded in his diary, “no result”.  Bearing in mind the condition of the village and surrounding area after the battle this is not surprising; much of the village in the area attacked by ‘B’ Company was never rebuilt after the war.  However, the family believe that George is buried in the Guillemont village cemetery, in one of the large number of graves whose occupants are unknown.

George is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20th March 1918 and have no known grave.  His name is also recorded on the Memorials at Marlborough College and the Diocesan College in Rondebosch, Cape Town, and, by virtue of his strong family connections with the parish, the War Memorial at Welford.

In 1922 the War Office forwarded to George’s father the three medals with which his son would have been awarded, had he lived – the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal.  George’s family in South Africa today keep the medals and the letter which accompanied them together with the bronze commemorative plaque (nicknamed ‘The Dead Man’s Penny’) which was presented to the next of kin of all the British and Commonwealth dead; the plaque shows Britannia and a lion and is inscribed, ‘He died for freedom and honour’. Please see gallery below for photographs of George's medals.