Squadron Sergeant-Major Robert James Blakely, LSGCM



Robert James Blakely (or Blakley) was born on 8 August 1871 at James Street, Ballymena, the first of two children of shoemaker William Blakely and his wife Sarah (nee Hill). After serving an apprenticeship with a Ballymena boot and shoe merchant, Blakely worked as a labourer and served in the Antrim Artillery militia.

On 7 November 1889 he enlisted in the 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen's Bays) at Londonderry (No.3486). He served with the regiment in India (from September 1891) and Egypt (from October 1894), returning home on 4 November 1896. By that time he had reached the rank of sergeant, despite being severely reprimanded on five occasions for various disciplinary breaches.

In November 1898 Blakely transferred to the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards (No.4786), serving in India from December 1898 to April 1902, when he returned home. He was promoted to squadron quartermaster sergeant on 4 December 1900.

On 20 May 1902 Blakely was transferred to the permanent staff of the newly-established North of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry, serving as squadron sergeant major of A (Belfast) Squadron.

On 6 September 1905 Blakely married hospital nurse Ella Wright Mather. Their child Ella Mildred was born the following year. The Belfast News-Letter reported on the wedding as follows:

This morning a wedding of more than ordinary interest to military circle in the North of Ireland, and to members of the North of Ireland Yeomanry in particular, took place in Dundalk Presbyterian Church, when Sergeant-Major Robert J. Blakley, the well-known and popular Squadron Sergeant-Major of A (Belfast) Squadron of the N.I.Y., was united in the bonds of holy matrimony to Miss Ella Wright Mather, daughter of Mr. Robert Mather, Rockview Farm, Blackrock, Dundalk. The ceremony was performed ... in the presence of a considerable gathering of civilian and military friends. The bridegroom was attended by Corporal Jack Coulter, of the N.I.Y., and Miss Wilhelmina Mather acted as bridesmaid. The bride was given away by her father, and after the ceremony the wedding party adjourned to the Queen's Arms Hotel, where breakfast was served. Subsequently the happy pair left by the 12.38 train to Belfast, en route for Edinburgh, where the honeymoon will be spent. The presents to both bride and bridegroom were numerous and costly, those to Sergeant-Major Blakely including many tokens of esteem and friendship from the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the North of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry.

In July 1908 the North of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry was disbanded and re-established as the North Irish Horse. Blakely transferred to the new regiment, retaining his position as squadron sergeant-major of A (Belfast) Squadron. The following year he was permitted to continue in the service beyond the usual 21 years, and soon after was awarded a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. (From 1903 to 1914 Blakely was mentioned many times in newspaper accounts of the activities of the regiment. Some of these can be seen here.)

Blakely embarked for France with C Squadron on 21 August 1914, seeing action on the retreat from Mons and advance to the Aisne. He is mentioned in a letter home from Sergeant Hanna of the Royal Field Artillery:

It is wonderful the number of people you meet that you never expected to see again. I've met at least twenty chaps who were in my old brigade in India. The other day a squadron of the North Irish Horse bivouacked just beside a spot where we watered our horses, and I met and had a chat with Jack Wright, of Cliftonville, and Sergeant-Major Blakely.
(Belfast News-Letter, 6 November 1914)

Blakely returned home on 3 November 1914. A week later he was posted to the 4th Reserve Regiment of Cavalry at Tidworth. He had, however, already requested a discharge – he was then aged 43 years – and this was granted on 28 December. His military character was recorded as "Exemplary".

On 12 February 1915, however, Blakely re-enlisted in the Hussars (No.24424) and was again appointed squadron sergeant-major. It is likely he played a training role at reserve cavalry depots in Ireland for the remainder of the war. On 24 March 1919 he was discharged, being "surplus to military requirements, having suffered impairment since entry into the service" (paragraph 392 xvi(a) King's Regulations). He was granted a disability pension (on top of his long-service pension) for deafness, which was attributed to his service.

Blakely died on 8 March 1931 at his home in Trillick, County Tyrone, and was buried in the Kilskeery Cemetery. The Larne Times and Weekly Telegraph reported:

His many friends throughout Ulster, in Army and civilian circles, will learn with great regret of the death of Mr. Robert James Blakley, who was so well-known in Belfast a number of years ago as Squadron Sergeant-Major North Irish Horse. The sad event took place on Sunday at his residence, Keenogue House, Trillick, Co. Tyrone.

He was a native of Ballymena, and in his youth served his apprenticeship with Mr. John McIlroy, the well-known boot and shoe merchants, of Mill Street. Mr. McIlroy took a great interest in high-class horses, and it was whilst in his service that Mr. Blakley acquired that love for and skill in training horses which characterised him throughout his later life.

In 1889 Mr. Blakley joined that crack cavalry corps, the Queen's Bays, and later he transferred to the 4th Royal Irish Dragoons. At the formation of the North Irish Horse, which developed out of the North of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry, at the conclusion of the South African War, Mr. Blakley was appointed in 1903 Squadron Sergeant-Major and Instructor of the Corps, which had its headquarters in Belfast, under the command of the Earl of Shaftesbury, K.P. Associated with Mr. Blakley in the N.I.H. organisation at that period was another smart and popular cavalry warrant-officer, Regimental Sergeant-Major Pittaway.

Mr. Blakley was deservedly popular with all ranks of the corps, and took no less an interest in the sporting and athletic side than in its training operations. He was a splendid horseman, and possessed of wonderful skill with sword and lance. On retirement from the N.I.H. he established and conducted for several years, with great success, a riding school at "Dunmore," Antrim Road, Belfast.

Some five years ago he made his home at a farm which he had acquired at Trillick. Here, shortly before Christmas, he sustained a serious accident by a fall in which his thigh was broken, and since then his health had gradually declined until the regretted end.

Mr. Blakley was an esteemed member of the Meredith Masonic Lodge 380. He was married to Miss Mather, of Claremont Park, Dundalk, to whom and his aged mother deep sympathy will be extended in their bereavement also to his only daughter, who is in the Civil Service, being on the Income-tax Office staff in Enniskillen district.

An article in the Belfast News-Letter at the same time stated:

Former North Irish Horse men – writes a colleague who served with that corps both before and during the Great War – will deeply regret the passing of Squadron Sergeant Major Blakley, who for many years was one of the best known members of the regiment. As recruits some of them may have come under the lash of his withering tongue, for he was a master of sarcasm, and had a caustic wit, but most of them will have pleasant recollections of his interest in their welfare, and his thoughtfulness for their comfort. When "on parade" Blakley was the typical sergeant-major; nothing escaped his eagle eye, and woe to the man who displayed any carelessness either in his personal appearance or in his work. A superb horseman and probably the best man-at-arms in the regiment, he set a high standard, and he expected the same from those under him. But he could unbend, and I have happy memories of his taking a full share in the social side of camp life – in the concerts, sing-songs, and sports that were a feature of the annual training. When in August, 1914, he went out with Lord Massereene's Squadron to France and participated in the memorable Retreat from Mons, Sergeant-Major Blakley retained the respect of every member of the squadron. His passing removes a picturesque figure and a link with the days when service with the North Irish Horse occupied an important place in the lives of many of the young men of the Province.




More images of SSM Blakely, and the above images in their full context, can be seen here, here, here, here and here. He may also be the North of Ireland Imperial Yeomanry sergeant-major in this picture.