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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Black, Percy Charles (1877–1917)

by C. H. Ducker

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Percy Charles Herbert Black (1877-1917), soldier and goldminer, was born on 12 December 1877 at Beremboke, Victoria, eleventh child of William John Black, farmer, and his wife Ann, née Longmore; both parents were natives of Antrim, Ireland. He was educated at Beremboke State School and became a carpenter before going prospecting on the Western Australian goldfields. In 1901-13 he worked claims at Black Range and Sandstone and was mining at Mount Jackson when World War I broke out.

Black enlisted as a private in the 16th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 13 September 1914 and sailed for Egypt in December. He first saw action at the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915 when his unit took over the Pope's Hill zone. Within a week Lance Corporal Black, who headed one of the machine-gun crews, had been highly commended by his commanding officer. Though wounded in the hand and the ear he refused to leave his post until his weapon had been smashed by Turkish bullets. On 2 May he mounted a machine-gun beyond Gully Ridge; his only companion was shot dead but Black, surrounded by Turks and without any assistance, fired into the enemy lines until his ammunition was exhausted. For this action he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and five days later was commissioned second lieutenant in the field. He was mentioned in dispatches on 5 August, promoted temporary captain four days later, and remained at Gallipoli until the evacuation. Charles Bean later described Black and his No. 2 gunner H. W. Murray as 'men of no ordinary determination' and their 'magnificent' machine-gun section as 'possibly the finest unit that ever existed in the A.I.F.'.

Black was promoted major on 27 April 1916. His unit was posted to the Western Front in June and suffered severe casualties in the battle of Pozières. On 28 August it returned to the front line and two days later Black's 'B' Company was detailed to capture Mouquet Farm. In the attack Black immobilized a machine-gun, killing the gunner, before being wounded in the neck and evacuated. He was later awarded the Distinguish Service Order and the French Croix de Guerre for gallantry at Pozières and Mouquet Farm; he was also mentioned in dispatches twice. His next engagement was the first battle of Bullecourt on 11 April 1917. Tanks, sent in to clear a passage through the wire, failed to reach their objective and the infantry found themselves facing intense machine-gun fire along an unbroken entanglement. Black, commanding the battalion's right flank, led his men through a 'hurricane fusillade', captured the first trenches and pressed on towards the support-line, but was then shot through the head; he was one of 640 casualties in the 16th Battalion that day. His comrade Harry Murray made an impassioned search for his body; however, he has no known grave and his name is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, France. The action in which he died is depicted in a diorama in the Australian War Memorial; a near-by painting by Charles Wheeler is entitled 'Death of Major Black'.

Of splendid physique, quiet and unassuming in manner, Black was 'a born leader of men and a natural soldier' and his courage was a byword. Bean once described him as 'the greatest fighting soldier in the A.I.F.'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • C. Longmore, The Old Sixteenth (Perth, 1929)
  • London Gazette, 1 June, 5 Aug 1915, 11 July, 14 Nov, 8 Dec 1916, 2 Jan 1917
  • Reveille (Sydney), Dec 1929, Jan 1930, Apr 1933, Oct 1936.

Citation details

C. H. Ducker, 'Black, Percy Charles (1877–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 2 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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