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"Legless" at the front line; WO2 H S Blackburn

Worn by 1272 Warrant Officer II Harvey Stanley Blackburn. Blackburn was born on 30 November 1876 and served as a Private with 4 (2 Imperial Bushmen) Contingent from Tasmania during the Boer War. 

In December 1914, aged 38, he sent in his application for service with the AIF. Having already served in South Africa he requested to be sent to Officer's school. 

As the number of officers available was quite high at that time the adjutant advised him to wait, promising to call him up when required. 

In February 1915 he was requested to enlist, but was involved in a railway accident before he could join his camp. 

Blackburn was an engine driver with the Tasmanian Railway Department and had slipped under his moving train as he climbed back into the cabin after getting out to inspect the track.

Below knee artificial leg with hinged wooden foot. The calf is made from brown blocked leather with two buckled straps attached to tighten the fit. This section is supported by two lengths of steel running from either side of the ankle up the sides.

At mid calf the posts are joined around the back by a curved steel piece. A leather strap runs from this curve down under the heel of the foot. The steel posts are stamped 'SIMPSON & SON MELBOURNE'. 

The calf is attached at the ankle by a pivot and padded in between with felt. The ankle is reinforced with another strip of leather sewn into place. The foot is made of wood and has a hinge at the toe. This is reinforced by a strip of leather along the top of the foot. 

The toe hinge is operated by a raw hide cord running from the foot to the top of the left steel post. The sole of the foot is reinforced by three leather strips nailed into place over the ball and along the sides of the heel. A small steel plate is screwed into place at the heel.

This accident resulted in 18 months in hospital, 6 operations and the amputation of his left foot. During his recovery Blackburn received several communications from the military authorities asking him to present himself at camp. He wrote back explaining his circumstances and restating his willingness to serve. He was told to report when he had recovered.

While Blackburn was convalescing the Railway Units were formed and on applying he was told by the officer in charge that his experience both on the railways and in South Africa would make him an ideal candidate. He presented himself to the doctor at Devonport and persuaded him to send him onto to the medical staff at camp. At the medical check up Blackburn bared only his good leg, keeping the artificial leg covered and slightly under the table behind him. 

He proceeded to distract the doctor with questions and then reminded him to check his other leg, but instead presented the good leg again. 

Blackburn almost succeeded in the ruse until another doctor walked in and spotted what he was doing. An argument ensued, with the second doctor arguing that Blackburn was useless. Blackburn pointed out that if the doctor had been more observant he would have noticed that the leg was clearly marked on his attestation papers. He also mentioned the railway officer's testimony and argued that he was perfect for the front line as he couldn't retreat as quickly as the others and would be forced to stay with his locomotive and hold his ground. The doctors then made him remove his trousers and walk around the room. 

The first doctor declared that he would pass fit a thousand men like Blackburn and he enlisted on 10 January 1917 with an A1 rating. He notes proudly that he never missed a parade or route march and his drill instructors never realized the extent of his disability, assuming he was suffering from a bad corn. 

Serving in France with 4 Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company Blackburn drove engines around Peronne and in Flanders without mishap. The only problem he experienced with his leg was a severe numbing in the coldest months. These conditions caused his calf to shrink from 16 to 9 inches. On his return to Australia Blackburn discarded the leg for one with a better fit and donated the original to the Memorial in 1925. 

  • Blackburn maintained that his was the only artificial leg accepted for service in the AIF, and possibly the entire Allied Forces. 

After the war Blackburn returned to Australia and resumed his work with the Tasmanian Railway Department. In 1942 he presented himself for enlistment in the second AIF, but to his displeasure was passed unfit for service. Blackburn died in October 1967, a few months after his 90th birthday.

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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces