HAPPY TO SERVE
Cyril Blakney enlisted in the 12th Infantry Battalion 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.
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.
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.
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 in 1936 showed the exact site of the shrapnel. It was clearly outside the heart. A written report for the Repatriation Department included a diagram.
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.
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