The Tragic Destiny of Basil Blackwood
The battle for Fort Dufferin, March 1945: Indian machine-gunners on Mandalay Hill where Blackwood was mistakenly reported to have died (credit: Popperfot/Getty Images)
Basil Blackwood, the clever and charming fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, died in Burma at the age of 35 in the final months of the Second World War. Neither family nor friends ever knew how he had died. My recent discovery of 80 pages of unpublished documents in the National Archives at Kew reveals for the first time his military mission and the exact place and precise circumstances of his death. These papers provide a brief history of his short life. They list his interests, the books he read during military service, his personal possessions and instructions about returning them to his family in Northern Ireland. They contain a sorrowful account of the failure to recover his body and his presumed burial in an unknown place by the Japanese.
Basil Blackwood's grandfather, a descendant of the 18th-century playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was the cultured and worldly 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (1826-1902). Dufferin is in County Down, Northern Ireland; Ava, near Mandalay, was the ancient capital of the Burmese kings. Tennyson celebrated Helen's Tower on Dufferin's 3,000-acre estate, Clandeboye, built in 1800:
Helen's Tower, here I stand,Dominant over sea and land.Son's love built me, and I holdMother's love in lettered gold.
But according to Dufferin's great-granddaughter Caroline Blackwood, who portrayed Clandeboye as Dunmartin Hall in her autobiographical novel Great Granny Webster (1977), it was chilly, damp, smelly and filthy, with no hot bathwater and stone-cold food.
One of the most prominent diplomats of his time, Dufferin was Governor-General of Canada, ambassador to Russia and the Ottoman empire, when he helped settle the future of Egypt, and author of a successful travel book about Iceland, Letters from High Latitudes (1857). He became Viceroy of India and in 1886, after a brief military campaign, annexed Upper Burma to the British empire. He was painted by the Symbolist artist George Frederick Watts, and was a friend of Kipling, who praised him in the pedantic dramatic monologue, "One Viceroy Resigns", in which the poet assumed the viceroy's voice and advised his successor. After India, Dufferin continued his diplomatic career as ambassador to Italy and France. In 1900 he was innocently involved in a financial scandal with the notorious swindler and suicide Whitaker Wright.
The Viceroy's four sons fought in Britain's early modern wars and had a tragic history. His oldest son, Archibald, born in 1863, was killed in 1900 in the siege of Ladysmith in the Second Boer War. Terence, his second son (1866-1918), was a British diplomat who became the 2nd Marquess and died of pneumonia at the end of World War One. His third son, Basil, was born in 1870 and killed in action in July 1917. Frederick (1875-1930), the fourth son, a soldier and politician, became the 3rd Marquess. The father of Basil Blackwood, he was wounded in the Boer War and (twice) in the World War One, and killed in a plane crash in 1930.
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