ANZAC Day came to have a particularly sad significance for the family of John Harper – not because he was killed at Gallipoli, but having survived the slaughter of the Western Front drowned while fishing on April 25, 1931.
Enlisting in the AIF in 1918, John had stated his occupation as light keeper and had been working as the assistant lighthouse keeper at Cape Moreton since November, 1930, when he vanished from a favourite fishing spot.
According to reports in the Brisbane Courier, the 33-year-old had left the lighthouse around 9.30am on Saturday, April 25 to go fishing, saying he would be back before noon. Fears grew for his safety after he had not returned by 12.30pm and the head lighthouse keeper, Mr W Power found only his fishing rod and basket lying on the rocks.
“It is regarded as almost certain that either Harper slipped and fell into the sea or was swept off the rocks and was drowned,” said the story, published on April 27.
“This view is suggested by the fact that Harper’s pipe was found at the water’s edge.”
A thorough search by police and water police failed to find any trace of the missing man and was called off on April 30.
An obituary published on May 4 said John Harper had served with a machine gun section during the war and was wounded three times. He had been the only surviving son of Mr E.J. Harper, of the Lighthouse Service, and Mrs Harper of Boyland. His brother, Albert Harper, had been killed in action on the Western Front on New Year’s Eve, 1916.
According to the obituary, John had been married with four children. Memorial notices “In Fond Memory of our Daddy” were printed in the newspaper for a number of years on the anniversary of his death, with the words Lest We Forget.
John Harper was 18 years and seven months old when he joined up in August, 1918.
He had the permission to enlist from his parents, Edward and Mary, in a handwritten letter on notepaper of the Catholic Federation Field Service, whose logo was a map of Australia superimposed with a cross and the words ‘God and Country’.
John was assigned to the 9th reinforcements of the 7th Machine Gun Company and, after a month at Seymour, left Melbourne on the Orontes on December 23.
Arriving in England in February, 1917, he went first to Perham Downs before proceeding to France in late April.
In early May, John was taken on strength of the 13th Machine Gun Company, part of the 4th Division, and entered the world of trench warfare – and industrial scale slaughter – on the Western Front.
The men of machine gun companies served in crews, usually of six to eight, operating their trusty tripod-mounted Vickers guns from fixed positions, providing support to the infantry.
The Vickers’ water-cooled barrels meant they could deliver blistering rates of fire – up to 500 rounds of .303 a minute, at ranges of up to 4000 metres.
On August 23, John was wounded in action in France, suffering gunshot wounds to the left leg and head. With a possible fracture at the base of his skull, he was evacuated to England and remained in hospital until the end of September.
John did not return to France until April 1918, joining the 4th Machine Gun Battalion which had formed in March from the 4th, 12th 13th and 24th Machine Gun Companies.
In May, suffering severe cellulitis, a potentially serious bacterial infection, he was transferred to hospital in Rouen and then London.
John returned to France in October and rejoined the machine gun battalion on November 3, eight days before the Armistice.
In April 1919, he embarked for Southampton on the first leg of the trip home. He left England on the HT Swakopmund in June, arriving in Australia in August, and was discharged from the Army a month later.
Two years after his death, John’s mother, already in possession of his late brother’s medals, wrote to Army records attempting to claim his British War Medal and Victory Medal. She argued that he not received them after the war, but was told her son had claimed and signed for them in June 1924.