Captain Blakney – a hero of WWI

HAPPY TO SERVE

Cyril Blakney  enlisted as soon as war was declared in 1914.  He was a compositor from Hobart, and also an accomplished  musician and amateur actor. Such a fine looking young man.

Captain Cyril Blakney

Captain Cyril Blakney

After the Gallipoli campaign Cyril  served on the Western Front.   On June 10 1917 he took the full force of an exploding  shell  during the Battle of Messines. He was  injured in the arm (a compound fracture), leg, cheek, back and chest (including a punctured lung).  Many Australian died at Messines. Others, like Cyril Blakney, sustained  injuries that  were life changing.

 

Messines World War One

Memorial at Messines

Many pieces of shrapnel were removed when Blakney was operated on at  Boulogne later that day however, a fragment about the size of a pea remained, located very close to his heart.

Later he would undergo more treatment in England, where he met a young nurse, Florence.  They married in March 1918.

Back home in Tasmania the case was  irresponsibly sensationalized by one of his doctors  A completely false picture was created in an article published  by Smith’s Weekly in 1925.  The shrapnel  was said to  be in his heart.  Nevertheless he was portrayed as suffering no side-effects, and happily going about his work.

 

Boxed text from the Smith’s Weekly article.

In reality, Cyril Blakney was extremely  fragile due to shellshock and seizures.  Despite his best efforts, he was unemployable.   His marriage began to crumble as his drinking became a problem. In 1921 Florence filed for divorce, withdrawing the petition when Cyril fell ill.

The following note is from his Repatriation Department records.

11/11/21 – Occasionally gets severe mental disturbances. Bodily health looks well, but F.B. (foreign body)  is evidently causing mental trouble.

At the time the article appeared  in 1925, he was classed as 100% incapacitated due to debilitating seizures . His  mental health  had also continued to deteriorate  and he  was experiencing delusions of grandeur.  He  kept the newspaper cuttings and subsequently  talked incessantly about  the piece of  shrapnel  ‘in his heart’.  His wife had left, due to his alcoholism and ‘maniacal’  behavior.

An  x-ray taken at the Hobart Hospital showed the  exact site of the shrapnel.  It was  clearly outside the heart.  A written report for the Repatriation Department included  a diagram.

 

Blakney shrapnel location

Diagram of the shrapnel fragment close to Blakney’s heart.

BLAKNEY’S DESCENT INTO MADNESS

Despite a detailed history of his condition since  discharge, Blakney’s mental illness was not properly  recognized  or understood at the Repatriation Hospital. His treatment from a doctor  there was heartbreaking;

10/8/1935  – Is holding himself quite rigid, and his relatives state that he has been like that for an hour. Obviously he is putting it on. When given a “biff” over the head and some harsh words he came out of his “faint” at once,  but still persisted in his rigidity combined with periodic, violent jerks of his head. He showed me with great pride his “write-ups” in the press about the piece of shrapnel in his heart and about a multiplicity of other wounds etc.

13/8/1935 – Was up when I called today and at first appeared quite normal, but soon began his head jerking again. I told him he was no better than a hysterical old woman and that it was high time he pulled himself together and got a job of work.  I regard this man as a mass of hysteria, made so by too much talk about him and information about himself being given to him.

16/9/1935 – Re-admitted as out-patient. …..Talks a lot of rubbish – is either an arrant humbug or just plain silly. Bit of each probably.  Prescribed for. Came in like Rip Van Winkle and left like Sir Malcolm Campbell.

In  November 1938 Cyril Blakney was admitted to The Lachlan Park  mental asylum at New Norfolk.  He died there  in 1947.

FOOTNOTE – In  March 1938 Smith’s Weekly published a follow-up piece on Captain Blakney.  It claimed that late in 1937, while  attending  a Returned Servicemen’s  Congress in Tasmania, Blakney approached  Bob Lloyd,  state secretary of the R.S.L. in Queensland. Lloyd had been a company  sergeant-major  in the same battalion as Blakney.  He said Blakney thanked him for saving his life by dragging him to the  relative safety of a shell hole after he was wounded at Messines.  Given Blakney’s  medical and psychological state  by 1937, this seems highly unlikely. However, Bob Lloyd died a few months after the article appeared, aged 48. Perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

 

FEEL FREE TO LEAVE A COMMENT IN THE BOX BELOW. THERE IS A SIMPLE ANTI-SPAM SUM TO COMPLETE.

 

4 Comments
  1. Desperately sad, Pauline. We know about PTSD nowdays, but they didn’t then – even so, the ‘medical’ examiner’s comments seem unduly harsh, and no doubt contributed to his decline. I’ve often thought that those who survived that terrible war were worse off than the ones who were killed.

    • Pauline

      I knew this would resonate with you, Ann. Yes, I was completely shocked by his treatment in the repatriation hospital. And the way Dr Ratten exploited the case for his own ends.

  2. Oh this is a heartbreaking read. I’m sure Cyril wasn’t the only one in this terrible predicament – giving selflessly in his war efforts and on his return to be treated as less than rubbish. I’d like to give that doctor a ‘biff’ on the head (and I’m not at all a violent person)!

    • Pauline

      A few people needed a biff on the head regarding poor Cyril. Just awful.

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