Captain Charles Arblaster

by Doug Hunter

Charles Arblaster was a young man who packed much into his short life. He was schoolboy, cadet, soldier, inspiring leader and consummate diarist. He served with 8th Light Horse Regiment on Gallipoli where he was wounded, and later with the 53rd Infantry Battalion on the Western Front.

The chaplain of the 53rd Battalion, Captain J J Kennedy wrote of him in his history of the Battalion: 

 

… though only twenty-one [he] was my ideal officer, he was a clear cut athletic and handsome fellow. Had he been spared his career as a soldier would be a brilliant one.” He also wrote: “Charlie Arblaster, At the mention of whose name even now our men salute and give earnest tribute to an ungazetted hero and VC.

Charles Arblaster was born at the rural settlement of Pennyroyal, Victoria, 21 Feb 1895.

He attended Inglewood State School and later Melbourne High School.

He was part of the second intake of cadets to the Royal Military College Duntroon, in March 1912. His class was graduated early on 2 November 1914 and Arblaster enlisted in the AIF the following day.

He was posted to the 8th Light Horse Regiment as a Lieutenant and given command of the regiment's machine gun section which comprised two Vickers Machine Guns. The Regiment embarked for overseas at Melbourne on 25 February 1915, aboard HMAT Star of Victoria. In his diary Arblaster wrote:

Up fairly early. Prepared to receive horses - laid down mats etc. Horses came on at about 8. Embarkation finished at about 11. Letters from Ruth, Mary and at last moment - one from Nina. Lost & found keys. Left at about 1 o'clock.

Above: Charles Arblaster, 8th Light Horse Regiment AIF

Left: Troops aboard HMAT Star of Viotoria

The 8th Light Horse trained in Egypt for a short time then sailed for Gallipoli landing at Anzac Cove 16 May. Arblaster recorded:

16th Sunday Woke up at about 5.30 & heard firing going on. Waited about for bit & then got orders to disembark. Got ready & disembarked at about 5 p.m. … Came ashore by lighter. Marched up to our dugout. Artillery & rifle fire kept up the whole time. We must have plenty of ammunition.

Bang! Bang! going on all the time … We put into dugouts in sides of hills. Got our infantry equipment issued. Men enjoying the game so far.

 

On 7 August, Arblaster and his MG Section were positioned ready to follow up the ill- fated advance at the Nek. It was not to be as he recorded:

7/8/15        Woke up in a.m. about 4 a.m. tremendous heavy firing opened up on neck & from Pope's. We got ready to go, but could see no sign of advance anywhere & just got to work on Abdul near Pope's. Latter was a terribly poor affair. Losses there were few but on the neck machine guns spelt the story. Line after line mown down. Could not advance. Muster a pitiable thing p.m. 194. Very few ofrs came back. Andy hit badly in head he pegged out later. Crawford & Robinson hit. McLaurin broken up. Deeble, myself, Higgins the only 3 ofrs fit for duty. Gave a bit of a hand to get regt settled down. Watched attack on 971 in p.m. Was told I would be A/Adj to regt & left MG in evening. Went into bivouac on terraces. P.m. CO & Charlie Dale still out there too. I hope they may come back tonight.

Arblaster spent a month as Acting Adjutant before taking up position as Brigade Machine Gun Officer. On 26 September he was wounded and evacuated first to Malta then on to England for treatment.

The wound proved serious and it was not till late February he returned to Egypt where he found the 8th Light Horse a very different regiment from that which he had left. His Gallipoli promotion to captain had been cancelled and he was unable to obtain any posting in the Light Horse. He transferred to the newly formed 53rd Infantry Battalion which was desperate to find experienced officers. Arblaster was again promoted to captain and posted as Company Commander, D Company.

The 53rd Battalion arrived in France on 27 June 1916 for service on the Western Front. Along with many other Australians, Arblaster was struck by the beauty of the French countryside.

The country we passed through was the same beautiful green and well cared for. Plenty of people out to see us go by. Keen on Australian pennies and bully beef (above all things!) They gave us some beautiful flowers. Jove the garden flowers as we passed through looked & smelt beautiful. The whole country was artistic. The French man has something worth fighting for and no wonder that they are all out to win.

The 53rd moved up to the front line near Fromelles on 10 July.

Left at 2000, plans at thirty paces distance. Took wrong road for a start & had to about turn. Roads very hard & marches were rather long. Passed SaiIIy, Bac St Mur & went on wrong road near Fleurbaix. CO a treat! Saw flares & flashes & heard the firing as we approached. Had to advance in small parties in single file along one side of the road. At one time some shells that were being fired at a gun in our vicinity lobbed near us & caused some excitement. Reached out billets at about 0100. Took over from no less than Capt Fulton! Mutual recognition by the aid of electric torches. To bed at about 0300. Letter to Dorothy.

15th Saturday  Instrns on moving out & getting ready for a stunt in a.m. Had to go over & reconnoitre the ground in p.m. Went over with Noble & saw the trenches from which we are to charge. None too sweet but that's a mere detail. …

16th Sunday   Woke at about 0700 & had breakfast in Madame's house. Buzzed about looking for things & after orders but none available. Letter to Mother. Down to Bn orderly room at 0845 & got our preliminary orders to shift. Had tea & passed on orders & got ready.

This was the last entry in Charles Arblaster's diary. The 53rd Battalion along with other battalions of the 5th Australian Infantry Division and the 61st British Division moved into the frontline on the morning of 17 July to launch an attack on the German line near the village of Fromelles. The attack was delayed nearly 36 hours during which time the waiting troops were heavily shelled.

The attack was launched at 6.00 p.m. on 19 July with fluctuating success. The 53rd suffered heavy casualties immediately the attack began. By the time it had reached its objective, Captain Arblaster was the senior officer left alive and unwounded. He reorganised the remnant of the battalion and had it dig in along a line of captured ditches. The right flank of the 53rd battalion was completely exposed.

 

Arblaster led the desperate fight to hold that flank. For more than 24 hours he and his men held out, but by then the enemy had infiltrated along an unoccupied trench line behind his position. This prevented supplies of bombs and ammunition reaching him. Out of ammunition, Arblaster led a bayonet charge to clear his supply line. It failed and Arblaster was seriously wounded. He was taken prisoner and died in a German military hospital four days later. He was 21 years of age.

A typescript of Arblaster’s diary is on Victorian Collections catalogue for 8th/13th Victorian Mounted Rifles Regimental Collection.

Case with C A Arblaster stenciled on the lid. It was returned to the family with his effects following the war.  Now on display at 8th/13th Victorian Mounted Rifles History Room Simpson Barracks, McLeod.

A Footnote

Captain Charles Arblaster died of his wounds in St Clothilde Military Hospital for Prisoners near Douai, four days after his capture. Septicaemia had set in.  He was commemorated at a Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial on 1 Sep 2013 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1424507 . In 2020 his name is scheduled to be projected onto the exterior of the AWM’s Hall of Memory on Wed 06 May at 7.19pm, Sat 13 June at 12.51 am and Fri 18 Sep at 3.46 am.