As 1916 came to an end, so too did the life of Lieutenant Albert Harper – killed in action on New Year’s Eve.
The 24-year-old officer died instantly when a high explosive shell burst on his dugout, on December 31, 1916, at Longueval, France, according to a statement by a fellow officer, Lieutenant R Freeman.
“He was apparently killed instantaneously by the fall of earth and timber,” said Lt Freeman.
“He was buried – when we were able to clear away the debris, there was only a very slight wound on the side off his head.”
Lt Harper’s body was buried by Padre Woods of the 4th Division Artillery in the nearby Bernafay Wood Cemetery, in the presence of his commanding officer of the 4th Division Pioneers, Major McCrae.
“Major Sanday and company officers of ‘D’ Coy. were present and the firing party was formed from his own platoon,” said Lt Freeman.
In a Red Cross report, Private Arthur Webber said he had been in hospital in Etaples in early January, recovering from wounds received in action in November, when he was visited by some friends from D Company who told him what had happened to Lt Harper.
“They buried him in Sausage Valley between Pozieres and Flers, where a number of ours are buried, and they put up a cross with a name and date on it,” said Private Webber.
“He was very popular and good to us, very generous.”
The contents of his damaged black tin trunk, which was sent home after his death, tell their own story of Albert Harper.
His possessions suggested a young man on a grand tour and included a vest pocket camera – at that time marketed as the soldier’s Kodak because it was so compact – as well as film, photo frames, souvenir booklets, items of fancy work, a piece of alabaster and 13 pieces of china.
Albert had been a student, almost 23 years old, when he enlisted in August 1915.
He left Brisbane on the Clan MacGillivray in May, 1916 and arrived in Suez in June. From there, Albert embarked for England to train with the 4th Pioneer Battalion, part of Australia’s 4th Division.
Each division had its own pioneers – combat engineers who operated at the leading edge of an infantry battalion, rolling out barbed wire and building defensive positions and command posts.
The pioneers also fought as infantrymen and did what they could from their forward positions to breach the German defences.
Albert proceeded to France on November 10, 1916, to the cold, rain and mud of the Somme, which was experiencing its worst winter in decades.
Less than eight weeks later, he was dead.
Albert Harper was a son of Edward and Mary Harper, of Tabragalba, Beaudesert.
His brother, John Vincent Harper, also served on the Western Front, surviving the war only to be drowned while fishing at Cape Moreton on ANZAC Day, 1931.
In March, 1923, Army records wrote to Albert’s father, a Cape Capricorn lighthouse keeper, to see if he had any objection to his son’s British War Medal and Victory Medal being passed to Albert’s mother, who had argued a “distinct moral claim” to them.
Two months later, Mr Harper responded with:
“In reply to your letter dated 8/3/23, re War Medals, I wish to say that anything that would have belonged to my Dead Boy, 2nd Lieutenant A.E. Harper, should be forwarded to his mother at Tabragalba Queensland. I am sorry to keep you waiting for a reply but it is very awkward in getting a mail away from these outside stations.”