Second Lieutenant Gordon Gerald Harper was born in Christchurch the sixth son of George and Agnes Harper of Christchurch. The Harper family were a well known Canterbury family and a deeply religious one - Gordon's grandfather Right Rev Henry J.C. Harper had been the first Anglican Bishop of Canterbury (Agnes Harper Gordon's mother was a Roman Catholic and the children were baptised Catholic). When Gordon enlisted with his brother Robert, known as Robin, in August 1914 they had been a sheep farmers in Waiau, North Canterbury. Gordon had recently been selected to be the Reform Party candidate for Riccarton however he withdrew his candidacy before embarking.
Press, Volume L, Issue 15071, 12 September 1914
Both Gordon and Robin embarked with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles as part of the Main Body on 16 October 1914. Another brother Philip Hamilton Harper who had served in the Boer war also embarked with the Main Body. Once at Gallipoli all three brothers saw plenty of action. Philip took part in the Anzac day landing and Gordon was wounded at Suvla Bay on 21 August 1915 with a gun shot wound to the neck and medically evacuated to England.
Gordon and Robin were both awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.C.M.) for their actions at Suvla Bay. Their citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry between the 21st and the 30th August, 1915, at Kaiajik Aghala (Dardanelles), when in charge of machine guns. He invariably displayed great bravery and devotion to duty. L.G. 11 March 1916, p2746.
Both brothers were also Mentioned in Despatches (M.I.D.): in connection with operations described in General I. Hamilton's dispatch dated 11 December 1915. L.G. 28 January 1916, p1210.
In a letter printed in Glyn Harper's book 'Letters from Gallipoli' Gordon writes to his mother of his concern at leaving his brother Robin behind in Gallipoli:
"What worries me more than the pain is having to leave Robin behind still in a very dangerous place.... Robin deserves the V.C. carrying me out of the trench to the doctor..."
Whilst in England Gordon received his commission and was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in October 1915. He also received the news that Robin too had earned a commission and that he had been invalided to Malta which came as a great relief to Gordon knowing that Robin was away from the firing line. Philip too was invalided and a letter written by Gordon to his mother mentions that he had seen Philip in England recovering from gastritis.
By January 1916 Gordon was back in the Middle East and reunited with his brother Robin. On 9 August 1916 Robin together with his horse would again carry his brother wounded from the battlefield. Sadly this time Gordon's wounds were fatal and he died a few days later on 12 August 1916 in Cairo hospital. Below is an extract from the 'History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, 1914-1919' which recalls the event:
A great fight was put up by the machine guns. Lieut. Gordon Harper, the gallant commander of the section of machine guns attached to the Canterbury Regiment, was mortally wounded and brought out with great difficulty by his famous brother, Captain Robert Harper, O.C. Machine Gun Squadron.
In a letter from Robin to his parents George and Agnes after Gordon's death recounts Gordon's last words to him:
"I am not the least afraid of death but it is only for Mother and Father and the others that I am thinking"
Robin was heartbroken at the death of his brother telling his parents in the same letter:
"he was more than a brother if that's possible... the last 2 years... we have fought side by side all the time"
In Gordon's personal effects which Robin sent home to his parents was a rosary that Gordon had apparently carried with him to the operating theatre in the Cairo hospital where he died. Gordon was a devout Roman Catholic and I am sure his family and especially his mother were comforted by the return of the Rosary beads. In many of his letters to his mother Gordon had often mentioned his faith, telling her in a letter dated Sunday, 25 July 1915 that:
"Robin and I are safe and sound so far, thanks I am sure to the continued prayers sent up for us by you and so many at home..."
In a further letter dated 22nd August 1915 he mentions how Father Dore had heard their confessions before Gordon was medically evacuated from Gallipoli (in August 1915). He also told his mother how "I never forget to say the two hymns of the Vespers and Compline every night as they are so appropriate."
Gordon was 31 years old and was buried at Cairo War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt. Robin and Philip sadly missed the funeral. Although Robin did arrange his brother's headstone and hoped that one day his parents would see Gordon's resting place.
I found this wonderful tribute to Gordon in 'The Press' newspaper by one of his old school masters Mr O.T.J. Alpers, which gives us a real insight into Gordon's personality:
Press, Volume LIII, Issue 16081, 11 December 1917
Robin survived the war despite being badly wounded in November 1917. He was by then commander of the machine gunners he was wounded three times and carried to safety. In Terry Kinloch's book 'Devils on Horses' there is an account of his rescue by Sgt Sydney Emmerson:
'...worked his (Sgt Emmerson) machine gun until it was disabled, then picked up his wounded officer, ran down the hill and swam with his officer across the river to safety.'
Sgt Emmerson won a D.C.M. for his actions but tragically he died of disease on 19 October 1918 in Palestine he is buried at Jerusalem War Cemetery, Israel.
Robin Harper was decorated several times during WW1 receiving a Distinguished Service Medal (D.S.O.), Military Cross (M.C.) and the D.C.M. he won with his brother. He was also M.I.D. three times. He went on to serve in WW2 returning to Egypt for a short time which must have been a very emotional and poignant time for him. He died at the age of 85 in 1972. His wife Barbara edited letters sent by Gordon and Robin during WW1. A copy is held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum and have been invaluable in putting this piece together.
Philip Harper survived the war too however he died after complications from a fall aged 50 in 1933.
Following in his brothers footsteps a further brother Eric Tristram Harper embarked for the Middle East with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles on 31 May 1917. Eric was a former member of the All Blacks from 1904-06. He married Beatrice Randall at Westminster R.C. Cathedral, London in 1913 returning to New Zealand shortly after and at the time of enlisting they had two small children. Eric was sadly killed in action less than a year later in Palestine on 30 April 1918 at the age of 40 years old. Eric is remembered on the Jerusalem Memorial, Jerusalem War Cemetery, Israel.
The Harper family undoubtedly served their country well and I am certain George and Agnes Harper were proud of all their sons but it had come at an enormous cost with the death of two sons. To add to their grief a further son Edmund died of illness in 1917 at home in New Zealand. He had served in the Boer War with Philip and another brother Cuthbert.