Tramway ANZAC: Archibald Blair

Tragedy of lost youth

Archibald Blair, the eldest child of Charles Baird and Margaret Hunter Blair, was born on 17 June 1896 in Maybole, a Scottish town 80km south-west of Glasgow, and was schooled at the local Carrick Academy.

His father was a boot clicker – a highly skilled tradesman who cut the leather uppers for boots and shoes. The trade’s name came from the sound made by the clicker’s hand-wielded blade against the brass binding used to protect the edges of the pattern being shaved away.

In the late 19th century Maybole was renowned for its shoe factories. By 1891 there were ten factories employing 1500 workers – one fifth of the town’s population – with an annual production of one million pairs of boots and shoes. However in 1907 the largest of the factories closed, which triggered a wave of migration due to the lack of alternative employment opportunities. This is likely to be the impetus for the Blair family’s move to Australia.

When he came to Melbourne in late 1912, Blair was 16 years old, and accompanied by his mother, two younger sisters and a younger brother. It appears that his father had arrived in Australia some time before.

Just over four years later Blair was a clerk with the Melbourne Tramways Board (MTB). He was 20 years old and lived with his parents at Craigmore, 70 Cobden Street, Kew. His job at the MTB entailed reconciling the clippings from the conductors’ bell-punches with the collected takings. At that time, no tickets were issued to passengers – the focus of the tramway operators was to minimise employee fraud rather than passenger fare evasion.

As was common amongst young men of the time, Blair had served in the cadets and with the Citizen Military Forces where he held the position of Company Clerk. From 1911 compulsory militia service (known as ‘universal training’ and legislated in the Defence Act 1909) was introduced for times of peace – the first instance of universal liability in any English-speaking country.

Males who were British subjects and had resided in Australia for six months, unless exempted, were required to undergo training:

  • up to 120 hours for junior cadets (boys between 12 and 14 years)
  • four whole-day drills, 12 half-day drills and 24 night drills for senior cadets (boys between 14 and 18 years)
  • 16 days of training each year for two years in the citizen forces for men between 18 and 26 years.

Exemptions were made for those who were deemed medically unfit, ‘not substantially of European origin or descent’, school teachers qualified as instructors for junior or senior cadets and members of the permanent naval or military forces. Those residing in certain proclaimed districts or remote from training locations could also be exempted. The universal training scheme was abolished in 1929.

Cadets at St Thomas Grammar, Essendon, 1910. Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria Cadets at St Thomas Grammar, Essendon, 1910.
Photograph courtesy State Library Victoria.

In times of war, the Defence Act 1903 gave the government power to conscript for citizen militia forces (for home defence, but not for overseas service). All male inhabitants between the ages of 18 and 60 (unless exempt) were required to serve. In this case exemptions applied to those who were medically unfit, non-Europeans, members and officers of Commonwealth and State parliaments, judges and magistrates, clergymen and theological students, police and prison officials, lighthousekeepers, medical practitioners and nurses in public hospitals and those with conscientious objections to bearing arms. However, medical practitioners, non-Europeans and conscientious objectors were not exempt from non-combatant duties.

In an environment of almost universal militia training it is not surprising that many were eager to sign up for overseas service.

Men seeking enlistment in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were required to meet defined physical standards. As at August 1914, volunteers needed to be between 20 and 40 years, at least 5 feet 6 inches (167cm), with a minimum chest measurement of 34 inches (86cm). As the war progressed, these standards were relaxed, enabling many previously rejected volunteers to enlist. In June 1915 the age range increased to 18-45 years, and minimum height reduced to 5 feet 2 inches (157cm). The minimum height was further reduced to 5 feet (152cm) in April 1917. For certain units – such as ordnance, medical, service and mining corps – minimum standards for general health were also relaxed.

The Australian War Memorial notes that the quality of men recruited under the revised physical standards was a concern for commanding officers.

“I am trying to arrange transport for two or three thousand “B” class men; they are absolutely unfit for service. Many of them do not disclose any organic disease upon a carefully conducted clinical examination, but are in and out of hospital, and are quite useless for front line, and practically useless for Home Service….Far better no reinforcements be sent from Australia as they do no duty, and only cause congestion in our hospitals and Command Depots. The class of reinforcements you are sending are not up to the old standard. Headquarters AIF Depots report that 20 per cent are unfit for the front line”. (Communication from General Howse to General Fetherston, 30 March 1917)

In February 1917 Blair enlisted. As he was under 21, parental consent was required – his father signed the form. On enlistment Blair was 5 feet five and a half inches (166cm) tall, with a fully expanded chest measurement of 34 inches and weighing just 115 pounds (around 52kg).

Blair’s enlistment was conditional that he joined the artillery – he was clearly too slight for infantry operations as standard equipment required infantry to carry 60 pound (27kg) packs. However despite a letter of recommendation from Major Dudley of the Citizen Military Forces, when he reported for training at the Broadmeadows camp he was declared too light. His father wrote to the Minister of Defence, pleading for his son to be accepted – this appeal proved successful.

After training, Blair embarked from Melbourne on 9 November 1917, travelling via Suez, Alexandria and Taranto, arriving in Southampton on 5 January 1918. He was shipped to France on 7 March 1918.

On 22 March he was transferred to the 5th Field Artillery Brigade in the 2nd Australian Division and the following day was taken on strength with 14 Battery.

By the time Blair enlisted, field artillery batteries were equipped with six 18-pounder guns. These had a range of around 6500 yards (about 6km). Field artillery brigades provided support to infantry brigades and were one of the key unit types on the Western Front. The combination of weather and artillery bombardment created the muddy quagmire that became synonymous with that campaign.

An 18 pounder of the 4th Field Artillery Brigade, Clery, 2 September 1918. Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial An 18 pounder of the 4th Field Artillery Brigade in action near Clery, France, 2 September 1918.
Photograph courtesy Australian War Memorial (E03197).

Artillery in World War I had two functions. The first was harassing fire, to inflict a constant stream of casualties and to prevent build-up of enemy troops. The second was bombardment in support of infantry offensives where the main object was to cut the barbed wire emplacements to allow infantry attack. Artillery shells were a mix of high explosives (for anti-fortification bombardment), shrapnel (to inflict casualties) and gas (inflicting casualties and area denial).

The period from March to April 1918 was the last major German offensive of the war. Australian troops were pivotal in halting the offensive but casualties were high – there were over 15,000 Australian casualties around Amiens and Hazebrouck alone. This was the environment into which Blair entered combat operations.

Blair’s physical stature is likely to have prevented him from servicing the guns due to the weight of the ammunition which was all manually handled. He was most likely assigned to other duties.

On the evening of 22 May 1918, after a quiet day, the enemy initiated a determined aerial bombing in the Pont Noyelles – Frechencourt area. One of the three unit casualties of that night bombardment was Gunner Archibald Blair. He was killed in action one month before his 22nd birthday, after less than three months on the Western Front.

Blair was buried at Frechencourt Communal Cemetery, near Amiens, France.

Bibliography

The AIF Project (2015), Archibald Blair

The Argus (1918), Deaths, 12 June 1918

The Argus (1918), Bereavement Cards, 17 June 1918

The Argus (1926), In Memoriam, 22 May 1926

Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 5th Australian Field Artillery Brigade, May 1918

Australian War Memorial, Enlistment standards

Defence Act 1903

Defence Act 1909

James T. Gray (1972), Maybole: Carrick’s Capital, Alloway Publishing

R. Jones (2012), Fare enough: A systems view of ticketing and fare evasion on Melbourne’s trams, from bell-punch to myki

National Archives of Australia (1914-1918), Archibald Blair –Service Record

Public Record Office Victoria, Passenger Lists