Sunday, 29 November 2015

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Sword of honour

The ‘Blair Sword’: Awarded to local hero Captain Robert Curwen Richmond Blair, DSO, EM, by Whitehaven Borough Council during Word War One.

T HIS ceremonial sword – the Blair Sword – was awarded to local hero Captain Robert Curwen Richmond Blair, DSO, EM, by Whitehaven Borough Council during Word War One.

It is part of The Beacon’s museum collection and was last given an airing at a presentation in Whitehaven entitled The Treasures of The Beacon by the museum’s Averil Dawson.

It generated much interest, being the first time the sword had been seen by the general public since the museum moved from the Market Hall to The Beacon back in the 1990s.

Robert Blair, familiarly known as ‘Bertie’, was the son of John and Nina Blair (née Richmond) and was born at Harrington. The Blair family originated in Scotland and had interests in the Harrington iron works and other industries throughout West Cumberland.

He was baptised at St Mary’s parish church by the Rev Alfred Curwen, a family friend of the Blairs and probably the source of his second middle name.

By profession Bertie Blair was a mining engineer and assistant mine manager. He was one of the men awarded the Edward Medal for the rescue attempt following the Wellington Pit explosion at Whitehaven in May 1910. He was also a Territorial Army officer, serving in the 5th Battalion, Border Regiment.

The ceremonial sword awarded to Captain Blair was in recognition of his having been awarded the Distinguished Service Order) for conspicuous gallantry at Armentieres on September 27, 1915.

As the council presented the sword to Captain Blair they also recognised the parents of Abraham Acton of Whitehaven who had been awarded the Victoria Cross. Private Acton was later killed in action on May 16, 1915. In fact it was Captain Blair who had recommended Acton, originally a Territorial, to enlist with the Border Regiment as a regular soldier.

On one side of the sheath of the Blair Sword is shown a representation of the DSO medal; the coat of arms of the borough of Whitehaven; the motto: Consilio absit discordia (conciliation without discord); the embossed initials of the recipient; the crest of Clan Blair and its motto Amo probos (“I love the virtuous”); the cap badge of the Border Regiment (Territorial); and a battle scene of an army officer leading his men to victory.

On the other side of the sheath there’s a miniature view of Wellington Pit inscribed and a sailing ship.

Captain Blair subsequently returned to France to serve on the Western Front. He lost his life on July 21, 1916, after being shot by a sniper. His grave is in Drantoure Military Cemetery, France (Grave Ref . No I.G.19).

A first cousin of Captain Blair, Lieutenant Claude Leslie Blair, MC, from St Bees, was killed in action on June 16, 1917 and was also laid to rest at Drantoure (Grave Ref. I.J.50).

Robert Curwen Richmond Blair is commemorated on a number of local memorials, including those at Hensingham and St Nicholas’ Church, Whitehaven.

Capt Blair’s connection with the Armed Forces had begun two years before the Wellington disaster, when he was commissioned on June 26 1908,as a Second Lieutenant into the 5th Battalion of the Border Regiment. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1909.

At 6pm on August 4 1914, the order to mobilise was received at the headquarters of the 5th Battalion at Workington. The following evening the Battalion left for its war station at Barrow and sailed for France on the SS Manchester Engineer on October 26, 1914. It had 30 officers and 878 non-commissioned officers and men and amongst the eight captains was Capt Blair who commanded ‘A’ Company.

Blair received his DSO for “Conspicuous gallantry on the night of 27th September 1915, at Armentieres. He went out with a party of 10 to bomb the enemy’s trenches. Finding conditions unfavourable, the party lay down and waited about 50 yards from the enemy’s wire. Soon afterwards a party of 14 Germans were seen advancing towards them. Capt Blair held his fire till they were 10 yards away when he shot four of them with his revolver. His party accounted for all the remainder except two and returned unscathed. Capt Blair has constantly taken part in arduous and enterprising night work.”

There is a report that Capt Blair had been recommended for the VC but there had been insufficient senior eye-witnesses to confirm his deeds (at least one officer of field rank, a Major or above, is required as a witness).

In July 1916, the 5th Battalion’s War Diary goes on to relate how Capt Blair met his end:

“5th July 1916: During night of 4th-5th, officers patrol went out... and reported no sign of enemy patrols, but sounds of work indicated great activity in the repair of the enemy trenches. Enemy snipers have shown more activity yesterday and today using dummies and devices for attracting attention, then firing persistently at our periscopes... Transport shelled at Vierstraat at 11.30pm (no casualties.)

“21st July 1916: Machine gun and rifle fire again persistent. A patrol under Captain R.C.R. BLAIR, DSO, went out from (point) D.5. and reach [sic] the German wire, but they could find no Gap.

“They returned about 1.45am owing to bright moonlight fearing that it would expose the patrol. Going out a few minutes later to point out a spot where some small repairs to our own wire could be made in a very little time, CAPT BLAIR was hit by a bullet and died two hours later without regaining consciousness. The loss of such a gallant officer is keenly felt throughout the battalion.”

Brigadier-General Clifford, commanding 140th Infantry Brigade, to which the 5th Battalion was at that time attached, sent messages of condolence: “I cannot tell you how distressed I am to hear that Captain Blair has been killed. There never was a more gallant officer, and I know what the loss must be to you and your Battalion. Please convey to all ranks my deep sympathy with them in their loss.”

Although the Blair Sword is part of The Beacon’s collection, the whereabouts of Capt Blair’s DSO, Edward Medal and other First World War medals are unknown.

The sword was just one of the items brought out of storage for the recent Treasurespresentation. Others included two 16th century golf balls filled with goose feather; sheets of music entitled The Scottish Shedishe supplied by the firm JT Hall of Cleator Moor (later Lowther Street, Whitehaven); and a Whitehaven-made pocket watch.

Our thanks to local researcher Joseph Ritson for information included in this article.


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