Education Secretary Michael Gove thinks Blackadder peddles “myths” about the First World War “designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.” How wrong he is, given that Captain Blackadder, Private Baldrick and co really did fight in the trenches.
To mark the First World War centenary, a team of researchers have sifted through six million military records to uncover details of the BBC comedy’s real-life counterparts who battled the Germans between 1914 and 1918.
“We were uploading new information onto our database when we came across a Captain Blackadder,” reveals Dominic Hayhoe, chief executive of Forces War Records. “As fans of the television show, we wondered if we could find the military records of the other fictional characters’ namesakes.
“So we challenged our team of professional researchers and military experts, who are all based in the UK so are familiar with the Blackadder series, to find them, which they did.”
And it turns out, the real-life soldiers shared more than just a name with Richard Curtis’s fictional creations…
Captain Robert John Blackadder was born in Dundee in January 1884 and was a chartered accountant before he enlisted in the army as a rifleman. He worked his way through the ranks to Captain, attached to the North Scottish Royal Garrison Artillery, before fighting in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 for which he was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry”.
Blackadder survived the war and retired to Sussex where he died in June 1968 aged 84 and, according to records, shared the “coolness” which scored Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder plenty of laughs.
The real-life Private James Baldrick fared less well in WWI, killed in the trenches like his fictional counterpart Private S Baldrick (played by Tony Robinson). Born in 1892, he was brought up in Londonderry before signing up for the army reserves and was called up for regular service attached to the British Expeditionary Force. He died in 1914 aged just 23 while fighting at the Battle of Messines in West Flanders. It is unknown whether he was also a cook, entertainer, poet and musician like Robinson’s character…
The real Captain John Darling has less in common with Tim McInnerny’s bureaucratic Captain Kevin Darling, but they do share a relatively upper-class background. Born in June 1887, he was the only son of The Honourable Mr Justice Charles John Darling and was educated at Eton before commissioning from Sandhurst and joining the cavalry. He enjoyed a distinguished military career, retiring in 1923 as a Major and writing a book about his wartime experiences before dying in February 1933, aged just 45.
As for the real Lieutenant George (first names Athelstan Key Durance), he died aged 27, two months after war broke out. Born in 1887 in Brixton, George began studying medicine at Cambridge University (like his character played by Hugh Laurie) where he excelled at rowing and fencing before dropping out to join the army. Both the real and fictional Georges were pilots who could draw extremely well and both met their ends in the trenches, the real-life Lieutenant receiving a fatal gunshot wound to the head.
The one person who continues to elude researchers is General Melchett (played in Blackadder by Stephen Fry). “The only person we haven’t been able to track down, so far, from World War I is a General Melchett,” confirmed Hayhoe. “According to the military records we have, he makes an appearance in World War II.”
Below are a selection of birth certificates, telegrams, medal cards and photographs of the BBC1 comedy’s namesakes, including a letter that begins “Dear Darling…”