Thursday 27 October 2016

Charles Blackader: Old Black's military court fired volleys

Robert D Marshall on the soldier without legal training who condemned seven rebels

Published 18/02/2016 | 02:30

Brigadier-General Blackader at his headquarters Le Sart, France]. July 2015. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood. Credit: British Library
Brigadier-General Blackader at his headquarters Le Sart, France]. July 2015. Photographer: H. D. Girdwood. Credit: British Library

Major General Charles Guinand Blackader was born in Richmond, southwest London in 1869. His father was a teacher, and his mother Charlotte Guinand was German, possibly from Alsace. Charles regarded himself as half French.

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A career soldier, Blackader had been commissioned into the Leicestershire regiment in August 1888 and served in Bermuda, Nova Scotia, and West Africa. During the Boer War, Blackader's battalion was besieged at Ladysmith where he won the Distinguished Service Order.

Less heroically, his subsequent administrative responsibilities at Balmoral in the Transvaal, included the railway station and the concentration camp. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1912, he was given command of a battalion. In October 1914, Blackader was on rotation in India when his battalion was posted to France as part of the Garhwal Brigade, seeing action for much of 1915.

Known in his regiment as 'Old Black', Blackader - following a recommendation by Lieut-Col Haig - commanded 177 Brigade, 59th (2nd North Midland) Division from January to the end of June 1916. He was also an extra Aide-de-Camp to the King from 1 January 1916 to 31 December 1917.

Blackader's brigade was posted to Ireland to quell the Easter Rising and he was one of the officers chosen by General Maxwell to sit on the military courts. While William Wylie - prosecutor in the trials at which Blackader presided - regarded him as not particularly imaginative, the Countess of Fingall (with whom Blackader dined on 2 May 1916, in the midst of the trials) considered him dreadfully affected by the work he had to do.

Blackader, like the other judges, had no legal training, although Maxwell who convened the trials, had a lawyer on his staff and informal advice from James Campbell MP, the Irish Attorney General. The courts convened were military courts to try those coming before them under military law. The law of the army was English and applied whether in India, France, or Ireland. The army courts were structured to administer discipline, not necessarily the same as justice, and could not try soldiers for crimes such as murder or assault which were matters for the civil courts.

From the middle of Easter Week, Dublin was a proclaimed area under Defence of the Realm Acts (DORA). Martial law was also declared so that the military could not be restrained by the civil courts. Wimbourne's proclamation declaring DORA operative, made civilians in Dublin subject to military law to the extent that they could be tried by military rather than civil courts for breaches of the DORA code. DORA envisaged an invasion and hostilities within the King's realm when those waging war with the intention of aiding the enemy - broadly, treason - would be exposed to the death penalty before a military court. The insurgents were so charged in trials conducted hastily and in secret, organised by General Aloysius Byrne from Derry.

Initially, no evidence of "intention to aid the enemy" was available. Pearse provided the evidence. A postscript on a letter to his mother from Arbour Hill Prison read: "I understand that the German expedition on which I was counting actually set sail but was defeated by the British." This letter was produced at the trial presided over by Blackader and relied upon to convict Pearse. MacDonagh and Clarke were charged similarly on the same day before the same judges, and found guilty.

During MacDonagh's trial, Blackader, possibly concerned that the proofs being presented were thin, enquired about the Proclamation which referred to "gallant allies in Europe". Wylie, the prosecutor, conceded he could not rely upon it, as a signed copy could not be found.

On the night of their trial, Maxwell confirmed the sentences on Pearse, MacDonagh and Clarke, who were shot at dawn the next morning. He had before him the terse blue forms signed by Blackader which précised the evidence, and, it appears, additional information from the RIC and DMP files not produced to the court.

All those accused denied an intention to aid Germany. While not produced at any other trial, the damage had been done by Pearse's letter, despite his care to confine the admission to himself. There were 160 trials in two weeks, imposing 90 death sentences, of which 75 were commuted. The court Blackader chaired sentenced seven of the 15 executed in Ireland. An aide on Maxwell's staff wrote to Lady Maxwell that General Byrne had been a marvel and the trials would not otherwise have been completed before the civilians intervened.

Controversy surrounds the demeanour of Constance Markievicz at her trial presided over by Blackader. Publicly she was forthright but afterwards Wylie, her prosecutor, alleged she pleaded emotionally at the trial that a woman could not be shot: shrewdly raising the spectre of Nurse Edith Cavell shot by the Germans in Belgium in November 1915. The court recommended the Countess to mercy, solely on account of her sex.

Blackader, on promotion to Major General, left Ireland in June 1916, to command the 38th Welsh Division at the battles of the Somme in July. He was invested with the Order of the Bath (Military Division) in January 1917 for valuable military services in the field and, like many other senior British officers, received decorations from Belgium and France. He contracted lockjaw in May 1918 when licked by his dog and was treated at the Pasteur Clinic in Paris before returning to Ireland in November 1918 to command the southern district.

Blackader, who married with two daughters, died on April 2, 1921 and is buried in Putney Vale Cemetery near Richmond.

Robert D Marshall was President of the Irish Legal History Society from 2012-2015. He is the author of Lieutenant WE Wylie KC: the Soldiering Lawyer of 1916 published by Four Courts Press (2013) in Larkin and Dawson eds. Lawyers the Law and History


Charles Blackader

Born: September 20, 1869, London

Educated: Royal Military College, Sandhurst

Affiliation: British Army

Career: Soldier

Died: April 2, 1921, Millbank Military Hospital

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