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Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac


Chapter 11



Gordon and Robin Harper and the Anatomy of Bravery

Jock Phillips


Fig. 11.1 Gordon and Robin Harper in the Sinai desert 1916. Harper collection.1

This is the story of two brothers, Gordon and Robin Harper, who joined up with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles in August 1914. They fought side-byside at Gallipoli and in the Sinai Desert where the older brother, Gordon, was fatally injured in August 1916. The two were not nation-wide heroes. But they were unusually brave soldiers. This paper seeks to explain that bravery.

Normally historians start with an intellectual problem and then look round for evidence to test it. This story did not begin that way, but through the accident of my marriage. I first became interested in the Great War in the 1980s while exploring the nature of the New Zealand male stereotype. To illustrate the power and costs of the stereotype, I read soldiers’ letters and diaries. I gravitated to those who had had been victims of the war mythology – soldiers who had become disillusioned, those who were malingerers, or conscientious objectors. I was interested in war heroes only in terms of their mythology. Yet the Harper Brothers were in many respects Boys Own heroes. Their story was not well-known, but they believed in the military traditions of the British Empire and achieved actions on the battlefield that their peers applauded. So when I read their letters in the 1980s I gave them less attention than perhaps they deserved.

Then I married into the family and discovered that my brother-in-law had been conscientiously collecting material about the brothers in the Great War. He asked me to produce a family publication. Initially, prejudices intact, I resisted. But not for long. I took another look at the letters, mostly written by Gordon to his mother. I was struck by the quality of the writing – rich descriptions, powerful sentiments. Gordon took the epistolary task seriously. His major complaint was shortage of paper and on one occasion at Gallipoli he wrote to his mother immediately because he had found some paper in a raid on a Turkish trench. He composed two different accounts on Gallipoli – one written immediately which passed through the military censor; and a second long diary/letter which he wrote up periodically and sent once he was away from the front to avoid censorship. Then there were the photographs – four albums and a number of loose ones which had been kept in a bottom drawer. Some were taken by the younger brother Robin – we have a photograph of Robin with his Kodak camera on the beach at Gallipoli. The photos were put together in albums, at least one by their mother because they are captioned in her writing, and a second by Robin. In my experience it is unusual to find photographs which showed the people and incidents described in accompanying letters. What clinched my interest was when I crawled into the family attic to look at the objects there. They included two guns – a Maxim machine gun originally used by a territorial unit, the Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry (CYC), taken to Egypt and used by Gordon throughout his war; and a German-made machine gun captured from the Turks. There was a photo of it back in the New Zealanders’ trench an hour later. Loaned to the Canterbury Museum, the gun was returned to the family as of no interest in the 1950s. There were other remarkable objects – Robin’s prayerbook with the path of a bullet which had been in his breast pocket presumably saving his life; an artillery marking flag from Gallipoli; the last orders issued to Robin as one of the final ‘C’ party at the evacuation from Gallipoli; Gordon’s bivvy bag from his time in the desert. For a historian these sources were simply too rich to resist. I agreed to put together a book combining the letters, photographs and objects and tell the story of Gordon and Robin at Gallipoli and the Sinai Desert.


Fig. 11.2: Robin Harper with camera at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli.

As I began to know the brothers well, especially Gordon, I became intrigued, and a bit horrified, by their bravery. What had made them unusually courageous? This paper provides my answer. I describe their background and war, and then explore various explanations.

Gordon and Robin Harper were the two youngest of seven boys, who with one girl were the children of George and Agnes Harper. George was a lawyer in Christchurch and his father was the first Anglican Bishop of Christchurch. Agnes, however, was a devout Roman Catholic and the boys were brought up as Catholics. George’s law firm failed spectacularly in the early 1890s, and as a result the two younger boys were sent, not to the elite Anglican school of Christ’s College, but to the state secondary school, Christchurch Boys High. The red-haired Gordon was obviously a character. One of his teachers, O.T.J. Alpers, later a prominent judge, wrote in the school magazine in 1917:

The ‘gay Gordon’, with his close-cropped ginger hair, his firm set jaw, the twinkle of humour in the eye that never left him, – his was the individuality that impressed me most strongly of all the boys I ever taught. I suppose it was partly because he was a rebel. On the morning after he left school he walked up and down Worcester Street in front of the windows of the Masters’ room for a full hour – puffing at a huge pipe to show his independence; that was characteristic of him.2

Gordon, despite his rebellious streak, was a monitor (prefect), captain of cadets, and editor of the school magazine. His younger brother Robin spent his last four school years at Christ’s College.

On leaving school Gordon drifted. Failing to qualify as a dentist, he became a cowboy in Canada and finally joined Robin to go farming in north Canterbury.3 When New Zealand found itself at war on 5 August 1914, the two boys took little time to offer their services. In less than three weeks they had sold the farm and come into Christchurch to enlist. Already members of the volunteer unit, the CYC, and with experience riding horses, they joined the Canterbury Mounted Rifles as machine gunners. In October they sailed with the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and set up camp at Zeitoun near Cairo. They did what most Anzac soldiers did – trained in the desert, visited the pyramids, enjoyed time off in Cairo. When the infantry left for the Gallipoli Peninsula in April, the Mounteds were left behind – the peninsula’s steep slopes were no place for men with horses. But as casualties increased, they were summoned and landed on the peninsula on 12 May, 1915.

Three incidents highlight the brothers’ considerable bravery. The first was the offensive of early August 1915. The Canterbury Mounteds’ task was to clear the foothills. At 9.30 pm on 5 August they stepped out of their trenches to be met by rifles and machine guns, but, writes Gordon, ‘the line never wavered’. They climbed up the open hillside leapt the parapets and, in his words, ‘the silent swish of the bayonet did its work.’4 The Mounteds had won the foothills, ‘a magnificent feat of arms, the brilliance of which was never surpassed, if indeed equalled during the campaign’ was Charles Bean’s judgement.5 In the accounts of the action the Harper Brothers are not singled out. They carry out the task which their fellow members of the Mounteds had also been asked to do.

But in two other actions, their particular achievement is noted in the accounts. One came two weeks later. The August offensive had failed – the heights of Chunuk Bair were held for 36 hours but then abandoned. Yet Sir Ian Hamilton had not given up. He wanted to strengthen his position for possible future attacks by capturing Hill 60, a small knoll north of the foothills. Hamilton believed it might improve the boundary between Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay where British troops had landed. Most subsequent observers have considered it a pointless exercise. It was territory which had been captured in the earlier offensive and then abandoned; and was unlikely to provide much gain.

Despite their exhaustion and injuries, Andrew Russell’s mounted regiments were asked to capture Hill 60 on a hot Saturday, 21 August. The artillery fire, significantly curtailed, did little damage but warned the Turks of an impending attack. The Canterbury and Otago Mounted Rifles had to cross 700 metres and two minor ridges to reach the Turkish trenches in broad daylight without covering fire. The men were weakened by dysentery and fatigue, but they kept going forward – in Fred Waite’s words ‘a triumph of resolute minds over wasted bodies.’6 The survivors raced downhill and then climbed up the slopes of Hill 60 to reach the forward trenches. They leapt into them, bayonetting the defenders and throwing grenades. Gordon and Robin captured a machine gun and immediately used it on the Turks. Eventually the Canterbury and Otago rifles were able to hold about 100 metres of Turkish trench, but it was well below the summit. The next morning there were under 20 Canterbury men in the trenches. One veteran, D. Templar, remembered: ‘Luckily we had Robin Harper there with a machine gun’. An ‘elderly Otago Major’ gave orders that when the Turks counter-attacked, fire was to be held until he gave orders. ‘However’, the veteran continued, ‘at last Robin Harper let fly with his machine gun. Then we all let fly and those we didn’t hit vanished in the dark. The first one that Robin bowled over was so close that the blast of the machine gun set his clothes on fire.’7 With the help of Australian reinforcements the Mounteds held on until the evening of the 23rd August.

The two South Island regiments had gone into the battle with 400 men; they left with only 191 unwounded. Among those wounded was Gordon Harper, hit in the neck. Robin carried him out of the trenches, and down to the beach. He boarded the RMS Franconia and sailed for England to recover.

As for Hill 60, General Birdwood was determined to claim it; so on 27 August 150 men of the Canterbury and Auckland Mounteds, Robin among them, were ordered to jump out of their trenches and advance uphill in broad daylight towards the Turkish trenches above. Three times they captured a line of trenches, wrestled with the Turks there and then advanced once more to the next line. Casualties were high, and the survivors totally exhausted. By the time the operation was called off on August 29 with the highpoint still uncaptured, the Canterbury Mounted Rifles had only 18 fit men left, from the 119 who had set off on the 27th. Robin was one of the injured.

Hill 60 was the tragic climax of Gallipoli for the Mounteds and the Harper brothers. It showed extraordinary bravery on their part, despite the exhaustion and pointless nature of the exercise. Their efforts were clearly recognised as worthy of note. Both were awarded a DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) for their efforts and mentioned in despatches, and on 21 October 1915 both became commissioned officers as Second Lieutenants.


Fig. 11.3: Robin Harper injured and awaiting evacuation from Gallipoli, late August 1915.

The third incident, this time in the Sinai Desert, came a year later. After being injured at Gallipoli Gordon spent almost four months recovering in England and Wales; Robin recovered from his injuries in Malta and returned to Gallipoli where he was chosen to be one of the ‘C’ party, the last group to depart Gallipoli on the early morning 20 December 1915. The brothers were then reunited in Cairo with each other and their horses in January 1916. Gordon was serving under Robin who was now commanding the machine gunners in the Canterbury Mounted Rifles. Their job was to defend the canal from the Ottomans. In May the Mounteds went eastwards to Romani in the Sinai desert.8 The heat was extreme – regularly over 40°C –, the water brackenish, and eating was, as Guy Powles said, ‘one long fight between hungry men and hungry flies’.9 Gordon wrote ‘I have not the same ‘internals’ that I started with’.10 On 4 August the Ottomans attempted to capture Romani, and although they took two high points, the Mounteds responded. The next day the Mounteds attempted to capture Katia and two days later unsuccessfully attacked Oghratina. The Turks withdrew to Bir el Abd. So on 9 August, for the fourth time in six days, the Canterbury Mounteds were in action, this time attempting to defeat the Turks at Bir el Abd. They set off at 5.30am and advanced before the Turks counterattacked. The temperature was reportedly 38°C. Eventually, at 5.30pm, the order was given to withdraw. It was a perilous operation. The men held on until night began to fall, and then withdrew section by section, with the Canterbury Rifles in the rear-guard. They had lost the help of supporting troops on both flanks, so the machine gunners kept up a fierce protective fire to allow the squadron to withdraw. Robin wrote later, ‘The accepted practice in a withdrawal is for the squadron to cover the machine guns as they came out of action, but Gordon who was never orthodox, kept his guns firing at point blank range – thereby saving the lives of many of the squadron.’11 According to J.H. Luxford’s history of the machine gunners, ‘The bold decision of 2nd Lieut. Harper to hold his dangerous position in order to cover the Canterbury Regiment’s withdrawal, with the slight chance of successfully fighting his guns back to safety, was an outstanding example of self-sacrifice.’12 Then the machine gunners withdrew a pair at a time. As they did so, they became obvious targets. At some point Gordon was hit, either by a bullet or by the intense Turkish artillery shellfire. Robin, who was commanding the machine guns, rode a mile under fire to rescue him. Gordon made it back to a hospital in Cairo, but died three days later, on 12 August 1916.13


Fig. 11.4: Spent bullets from Gordon’s last position in the Sinai Desert 9 August 1916

Robin stayed on with the Mounteds in the advance across the Sinai and into Palestine before he too was wounded in November 1917 – this time a sergeant rescued him and carried him across a river to safety. He returned to New Zealand in 1918.

So there is no question about the extraordinary bravery of both brothers. Three times, in the August 1915 offensive at Gallipoli, in the attacks on Hill 60 and at Bir el Abd a year later, the two brothers showed a denial of fear, which to someone brought up in a relatively benign world appears incomprehensible. How do we explain their actions? We recognise of course that many soldiers at that time displayed considerable bravery. But the two brothers were seen as exceptionally courageous. What made them different?

There has been much investigation of the reasons for men’s abilities in war, especially the First World War – a considerable body of writings about how men endured the horrific conditions of the Western Front; and some writings about how to explain courage on the battlefield. Explaining endurance and explaining unusual courage are slightly different problems, but they both throw up interesting theories. Let’s test some of these ideas to try and isolate the factors behind the Harper brothers’ bravery.

There is general agreement that belief in a larger cause strengthens men’s commitment on the battlefield.14 In the Harpers’ case, at least initially, they were strong believers in the values and traditions of the British Empire. In 1900 New Zealand was overwhelmingly settled by people of English or Scottish background, and the proportion of Irish Catholic origin was comparatively low (about 14%15). Christchurch was deservedly known as the most English and Anglican part of the country. In school, pupils in the years before the war had a steady diet of British history and were well-schooled in the heroic military traditions of the British Empire.16 What strengthened this broad cultural environment were the Harpers’ strong family links with the old country. On their father’s side their grandfather had been the first Anglican Bishop of Christchurch; and three of his sons, the boys’ uncles, were living in England at the time of the war. Gordon visited them while recovering there in late 1915. On the mother’s side her father had been a judge with the East India Company and after spending time in Canterbury the judge had returned to London. In 1915 Gordon visited his widow who was living in Kensington in her 90s, and stayed with two of her daughters, Gordon’s aunts. Gordon had been named after General Gordon, the hero of the seige of Khartoum who was killed the very year (1885) that Gordon was born. The boys’ uncle on their mother’s side, Robert Loughnan, had written an enthusiastic account of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall to New Zealand in 1901. Gordon had been a member of the school cadets when the Duke, son of the Queen, had inspected them.17 There can be no doubt of the boys’ commitment to the British Empire. Evidence for this became apparent once news of the war’s outbreak arrived. Gordon with his old teacher O.T.J. Alpers immediately organised a patriotic meeting in the aptly-named Victoria Square, Christchurch. The meeting featured waving Union Jacks and speeches by both Gordon and Alpers. Gordon was by this time a parliamentary candidate for the conservative party, Reform – a position he quickly resigned in order to enlist.

So initially the two boys, and Gordon especially, were staunch upholders of imperial values. As with so many New Zealand soldiers the war experience raised questions. Gordon had no doubt that it was right ‘that Germany’s influence in the East should be properly rooted out’ and to settle ‘who is going to be boss in the East’.18 But he did start to wonder whether ‘Belgium has been overdone’.19

Once he reached England to recover from his wound, Gordon was glad to be ‘home’; but he raised questions. He described as ‘unedifying’ the contrast between the mass of the population turning out shells and filling the trenches with men while the politicians blundered and failed to deal with situations. He criticised the censorship and secrecy in the country and felt that Britons tended to ‘muddle through’ crises. Such responses did not lead to a major questioning of the war’s aims. Indeed part of his anger was the legal protection offered to German companies. He fulminated at ‘this tenderness towards the enemy’ and was amazed that the House of Commons included men of German birth, ‘naturalized of course, but how much is a German ever naturalized’.20 When he returned to fight in the Sinai desert Gordon expressed disillusionment with some of the English forces. He reports coming across the bodies of some English yeomanry ‘who were living like lords and paying more attention to golf and luxurious camps than their duty’. He concludes, ‘The whole way things are run are scandalous.’21 He even decides that Johnny Turk ‘fights square too, which can hardly be said of some of the forces which have been sent against him. I am afraid the old name which Britain had in the past will not be so strong after this. We have descended to telling lies and found the Mohammedan sticking to the truth.’22 In other words while Gordon was brought up with an exceptionally strong belief in the values and honour of the British Empire this came under some question by 1916. His belief in the cause helped carry him through Gallipoli but does not explain his bravery at Bir el Abd in August 1916.

The second common explanation for endurance and bravery in war is the support of ‘the primary group’ – the group of friends with whom the soldier fought and before whom he dare not show cowardice. S.L.A. Marshall wrote, it was a man’s fear of losing ‘what he holds more dear than life itself, his reputation as a man among other men’.23 This was undoubtedly a strong influence in the case of the Harper brothers. The Canterbury Mounted Rifles had grown out of the territorial force, the CYC; and many members would have been known to the brothers from their shared territorial service. Even if they had not been in the territorials the Mounteds required men to be good horsemen and provide their own horses. So they were likely to be Canterbury farmers, whom the Harpers would have met in rural society. Gordon’s letters home to his mother frequently refer to fellow soldiers killed who were known even to his parents: ‘I hope you will have seen Jack Petre’s parents as he was a great friend of mine. He died most bravely in a bayonet charge’.24 The most intense circle of friends was those with whom Gordon had gone to school, of whom Jack Petre was one. When the Main Body got to Cairo they brought together the old boys of Christchurch Boys High School and had them photographed to show their collective commitment to the British Empire.


Fig. 11.5: Stephen Archer and Gordon Harper at No. 1 outpost

Within two weeks of his landing at Gallipoli Gordon wrote back, ‘It was rather sad meeting only two out of a batch of 14 of our Old School boys who were left. They all seemed a bit down about the whole business but they have made a name for themselves.’25 While on Gallipoli Gordon wrote to Annie Bevan-Brown, the wife of the school headmaster, describing what had happened to every old boy. He then discovered that the letter had gone down in a lighter, so after receiving a gift from her at Christmas 1915 including a piece of school ribbon which he pinned to his tent door, he wrote once again with details of their deaths. Once more he lists those of his ‘band of 14 mates’ who were killed. He concludes, ‘I can only say that the great bond of sentiment which unites us all in times of peace has proved itself by the times we have been through, to be a never failing source of help when help is most needed’.26 There were two particular mates who had not gone to the Boys High School but to Christ’s College where they developed close friendships with Robin. One was Tony Hanmer, the boys’ cousin whom they had known all their lives, and the second was Stephen Archer. The two were in the machine gun section of the Canterbury Mounteds and in the earliest photograph of that section were positioned each side of Robin. They frequently appeared in the snaps sent back – one showed Robin and Stephen playing affectionate fisticuffs. At Gallipoli the two men worked extraordinarily closely with Gordon. Stephen shared a dug-out at No 1 outpost in June with him and when he died Gordon had photographs taken (or took them himself) of Stephen’s grave and headstone.


Fig. 11.6: Tony Hanmer firing the Maxim machine gun with Gordon Harper as observer. The gun is now in the family’s possession.

Tony Hanmer was the No. 1 gunner for the machine gun operated by Gordon and there is a famous photo of Tony firing the gun during the attack on Chunuk Bair in early August, one hour before he was killed. Gordon is standing beside him as the observer. There can be no question that the support of these mates was extraordinarily important, as Gordon himself acknowledged.

Yet of the 14 school mates, every single one, except Gordon himself, lost their lives at Gallipoli. So too did the special mates, Tony Hanmer and Stephen Archer. When Gordon returned to the Mounteds in January 1916 he discovered ‘only a sprinkling of the old faces is left but it … just makes life bearable after so many have gone’.27 Even they did not last. By March he was moaning that many of his wounded mates had been transferred to the infantry or artillery and sent to Europe. They had lost many men this way, taken ‘much against their will’ – ‘Sorry one feels leaving the mates he has fought with for so long’.28 By the time of the Sinai battles Gordon and Robin had few old mates left; so this cannot be a full explanation for their bravery in those battles. To be fair new relationships were built up, and indeed when Gordon died another Old Boy wrote back to the school magazine, ‘The men of his own gun-section wept like children when they heard the bad news’.29

The writer goes on, ‘I feel very much for Robin Harper. The two brothers meant so much to each other’. This is getting to the heart of it. Important as were the relationships with former school friends, old acquaintances from the CYC, and mates with whom the brothers had shared the torment of battle, what really explains the brothers’ unusual bravery is their relationship with each other and their wider circle of brothers. As already noted there were seven Harper boys, with Gordon and Robin the two youngest. They grew up among a sea of brothers. They apparently had a reputation around Christchurch as ‘those Harper boys’ known for carrying out pranks, including on one occasion getting a train to stop by faking a murder on the railway tracks.30

Once war broke out the brothers’ relationships became hugely important. Gordon and Robin, who had farmed together, joined up together on the same day and in the same force. They both became machine gunners in the Mounteds. There was also an older brother Philip in the Army Service Corps. He too travelled with the Main Body, and Gordon and Robin made every effort to see him in Cairo. The brothers agreed that each would carry a whistle, presumably a dog whistle from their days on their Canterbury farm, and if they ever needed help from the others they would whistle. Twice this worked – once when they first landed at Anzac Cove, they whistled and the older brother, Philip, came running. Once when Gordon had been injured and he whistled to summon Robin so they could have a final confession together.31 Barely a letter goes by when Gordon does not talk about Robin. They fought together in those fierce actions in early August 1915 and then in the attack on Hill 60. When he was injured Gordon’s first concern was that Robin was still in the firing line – ‘What worried me more than the pain is having to leave Robin behind still in a very dangerous place… But I am going to hurry back as soon as possible if Robin is still there’.32 Brotherly love once again came to the fore in the third action at Bir el Abd in the Sinai Desert in August 1916. When Gordon was hit, Robin was about a mile away. He heard the news, galloped across the sand exposed to heavy fire, put Gordon across his horse and carried him to a safe shaded place. After Gordon’s death, Robin wrote to his parents, ‘You can understand my feelings during this last awful week which has been much worse than the same week of last August when Tony [Hanmer] and many were killed and Gordon wounded…. Gordon has always been more than a brother, if that is possible, especially during the last two years when we have fought side by side all the time’.33

This was not the end of the brotherly feelings. Eric, the third brother, had been medically examined for military service in July 1916 but rejected for varicose veins. When he heard of Gordon’s death, he decided that he needed to replace him. He had an operation for the veins and despite being 37, married and having a child and a second on the way, he volunteered again and was accepted. He did indeed replace Gordon joining the brother’s old unit, the Canterbury Mounteds in Palestine. There while quietening horses one night he was blown up by a shell in the Jordan Valley. Nor was this all. When in September 1939 the radio news announced that the empire was once again at war with Germany, the family recalls that Robin stood up, tightened his belt and said, ‘I’m off. They got Gordon and I’d like another go at them’.34 He was 52. There can be no doubt that the relationship of brother to brother was a strong bond which goes a long way to explain their courage in the heat of battle.

One aspect of the brothers’ relationship leads to yet another possible explanation which also appears in the historiography – the effect of culture.35 The brothers formed for the two youngest an initiation into male culture – pranks and humour, but far more importantly sports and war. At the turn of the century a powerful set of expectations about the central place of male culture emerged in New Zealand. The outbreak of the South African War led observers, especially premier Richard Seddon, to trumpet about the superior ability of New Zealand soldiers, who, because they were allegedly brought up on farms and the outdoor life, were said to perform better than the urban-bred English. Then in 1905/6 the New Zealand All Black rugby team toured England and Wales achieving astounding results. This came soon after the British had set up a special committee to investigate the physical deterioration of the race as shown by the poor quality of recruits to the South African War.36 Observers in Britain saw the All Blacks as evidence that although weedy urban Englishmen were imperilling the long-term strength of the British Empire, New Zealand could offer strong men able to perform as well on the battlefield as on the rugby pitch. New Zealanders accepted that rugby was an important training ground for war – Tom Ellison the inventor of the All Black uniform described it as a ‘The good, manly and soldier-making game’.37 So through rugby and the boys’ performance in South Africa, New Zealand conceived a special national role as providers of strong men, territorials of the empire. This expectation was well expressed in mainstream media and institutionalised in the secondary school system. It was imposed with particular strength on the younger Harper boys because of the example of their brothers. The Harpers were known as good sportsmen. The third brother, Eric, represented Canterbury at athletics, cricket and rugby and had indeed been a member of the famous 1905/6 All Black rugby team. The fourth brother Cuthbert played rugby for Canterbury.

The influence of the brothers was intensified at school where Gordon played in the 1st XV rugby team and captained the 2nd XI cricket team; while Robin reached the Christ’s College 1st XV. The brothers also provided a model as imperial warriors. Three of them served in the South African War; while the father had been active in the volunteer movement captaining the Christ’s College Rifles. It was not surprising that when he reached high school Gordon immediately displayed his interest in things military. School cadets at this stage was voluntary, but in his first year Gordon volunteered to be the bugler in the cadet force. He was active for the next seven years, eventually becoming captain of the force. He was usually in charge of one side in their regular sham fights in the environs around Christchurch, such as ‘the second battle of Waimakiriri’.38 Yet the brothers’ military tradition was not unsullied. While serving in South Africa, Edmund, the second brother, had caught syphilis; and during the time the boys were at Gallipoli and Sinai, Edmund was suffering the later stages of the disease and died in 1918. Gordon constantly asked his mother about Edmund’s progress. One can but speculate about the impact of this, but arguably it might have reinforced the intense desire to serve honourably in case the family name and brothers’ reputation be further sullied. What is clear is that New Zealand male expectations reinforced by the brother’s example helps explain the younger boys’ bravery at Gallipoli and the Sinai.

Another factor that is often cited as providing the basis for both soldier’s endurance and courage in battle is defence of the family.39 Men fought because they wished to defend the family home. It is hard to accept this for New Zealand soldiers whose homes were half a globe away and which they did not see again once they had left for war. Yet in the case of the Harper brothers there is no doubt that family relationships are important, leaving aside those with their brothers. Gordon writes almost exclusively to his mother, not his father, and it is obvious that the two had an intense and loving relationship. There are two aspects of the family that may be important here. One is that the family had suffered a notorious scandal in the 1890s. The boys’ father, George, was a lawyer and he joined forces in a law firm with his older brother Leonard. Leonard ran an investment operation attracting large sums from overseas investors and the local landed elite for investment in mortgages at a promised high rate of return. But New Zealand suffered an acute depression in the late 1880s and Leonard was only able to pay the interest by taking in more funds. Eventually the deck of cards collapsed, the law firm was declared bankrupt, Leonard and George were disbarred, and Leonard was brought back from England to face charges of embezzlement. Leonard was acquitted but the ‘Harper crash’ as it was known hurt many people locally and was widely remembered in Canterbury society.40 It is at least possible that the Harper brothers saw their performance in war as a way of re-establishing the family name.

The second aspect of the family story is that although the boy’s father, George, was the son of the Anglican Bishop, their mother, Agnes, was a devout Roman Catholic. This was not only a cause of discussion among respectable Christchurch Anglicans but created some family dissension. When Edmund was born, Agnes insisted on baptising him into the Catholic faith; but George with the Bishop’s support then scurried him off to be received into the Anglican Church.41 In the end Agnes’ faith won, for all the boys were brought up as devout Roman Catholics and are buried with her in the Catholic plot of the Barbadoes St cemetery, across the road from their father who is beside the Anglican bishop. Catholicism was clearly important to Gordon and Robin. Barely a letter to their mother does not include some mention of attending mass. On Gallipoli Father Dore regularly held prayers every Sunday amid ‘the continuous roar of shells and cracking of rifles’.42 On one Sunday 25 July 1915 Gordon wrote to his mother:

Father Dore said Mass on a bomb proof altar and we knelt in the open and strange to say not a single shell burst near us, only a few stray bullets whistling over us. We went to Communion (everyone who is there does) and sang hymns. Some of the Maoris were there too and sang with great vigour and said their prayers aloud in Maori, while a little way off some pious Indians, Mohammedans, were flattening themselves out towards the sun and invoking the same ‘Allah’ as the Turks. Altogether it was a strange setting for Mass and it had a distinct spirit of its own pervading it throughout, as it always does when everyone is on the edge of things. You need have no fear of our needs in this direction, being well looked after.43

There is no doubt that religious faith provided comfort and reassurance. One Sunday Gordon wrote to his mother, ‘We all realise what we are going through by whatever fate may be selected for us it must be a most happy and most glorious one’.44 And when Gordon died Robin wrote home, ‘Dearest Mother and Father, it is the will of God and we are only suffering what thousands of others are doing every day in this terrible war. Only we have far more consolation than many of them’.45 Obviously for many soldiers religion provided no consolation; it was merely seen as time-wasting propaganda. But for the Harpers, brought up in a deep religious faith by their mother, it provided comfort and a reassurance that death was no defeat. While Niall Ferguson has argued that many soldiers held on to an optimistic belief that they would escape death, this was not the case for Gordon.46 He repeatedly implies that he is fully expecting death, but has little fear of it because his religious faith promised eternal life.


Fig. 11.7: Mass in the Sinai Desert

There are several other factors which have been suggested by historians to explain the endurance of other soldiers in the Great War but which clearly do not apply in this case – the idea that British infantry were able to survive the trenches of the western front because that experience replicated the boredom and discomfort of industrial work.47 But the Harpers were self-employed farmers and to the extent that their prior occupational life helped, their experience riding horses and shooting animals on farms is probably of more pertinence. Similarly the argument put forward persuasively by J.G. Fuller that working class leisure activities such as football and music hall entertainments greatly helped in building morale is convincing with respect to British infantry on the Western front, but has little relevance here.48 There is no mention of such pursuits in the Harper letters and although there are some photos of sports at Zeitoun, there clearly was no opportunity for such activities at Gallipoli or even the Sinai desert.

Yet some of the factors that have been used to explain the endurance of other soldiers in the Great War are undoubtedly relevant to the Harper brothers – their belief in the larger purposes for which the war was fought, the signifance of the support given by the primary group such as friends and unit colleagues, the sense that family values were being maintained. But if we want to explain, not simply men’s ability to endure the travail of war, but to carry out fearsome acts of courage, such as those exemplified by the actions of the Harper brothers on Gallipoli and the Sinai, then we need to look for elements which made them different from others and intensifed their ability to overcome pain and fear. Explaining excessive bravery is a harder question than accounting for endurance. To a limited extent Gordon’s unusual enthusiasm for the imperial cause is one aspect, but it did not last. More important was the unusually strong relationship between the brothers. This ensured that in any action they were determined not to let the other brother down, or to disgrace their common name. They continually looked to meet up and give the other support. The fraternal relationship was also important in establishing for the boys a model of masculinity in which sporting and warrior achievement were central. That culture, mediated through the brothers, was obviously a powerful factor. Religion was also a strong influence. It was a comfort to the Harpers boys, and took away fears of death in a way not shared by many others. Finally one wonders how far the embarrassments that the family had suffered – the ‘Harper crash’ and Edmund’s syphilis – acted to create a desire that the family name needed to be restored.

We must conclude that it is difficult to generalise about the origins of unusual bravery. Unusually brave men are by definition different from their fellows; so we need to look for explanations that are particular to their own situation. What made them different becomes the central question. For the Harper boys, it was their intense fraternal relationship, their religion and their deep-suited desire to uplift and restore the family name.


1 All photos and objects illustrated are from the private collection of the Harper family.

2 Reprinted in O.T.J. Alpers, Cheerful Yesterdays (Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1930), 80-82.

3 ed. Jock Phillips with Philip Harper and Susan Harper, Brothers in Arms – Gordon and Robin Harper in the Great War (Wellington: NZHistoryJock, 2015), 14-23.

4 Gordon Harper, diary letter to Mother, May-August 1915 reprinted in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 82-83.

5 Quoted in ed. C.G. Powles, The History of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles 1914-1919 (Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1928), 49.

6 Fred Waite, The New Zealanders at Gallipoli (Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1919) 252. For Hill 60 see also Terry Kinloch, Echoes of Gallipoli in the words of New Zealand’s Mounted Riflemen (Auckland: Exisle Publishing, 2005), 237-251; ed. Powles, Canterbury Mounted, 55-66; Christopher Pugsley, Gallipoli: the New Zealand Story (Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984), 301-320.

7 Quoted in Pugsley, 319.

8 See ed. Phillips, Brothers, 94-126 and Terry Kinloch, Devils on Horses in the words of the Anzacs in the Middle East 1916-1919 (Auckland: Exisle Publishing, 2007).

9 C. Guy Powles, The New Zealanders in Sinai and Palestine (Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1922), 15.

10 Gordon Harper to mother, 19 June 1916, in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 155.

11 Robin Harper, undated notes in family’s possession.

12 Major J.H. Luxford, With the Machine Gunners in France and Palestine (Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1923), 185.

13 ed. Phillips, Brothers, 160-162; Robin Harper to mother and father, August 1916, in Phillips, Brothers, 163-167.

14 e.g. S.D. Wesbrook, ‘The potential for ‘military disintegration’’ in Combat effectiveness: Cohesion, Stress and the Volunteer Military, ed. S. Sarkesian (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1980), 244-278.

15 Rory Sweetman. ‘Catholic Church – The Catholic Church in the 2000s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 16-Dec-14 URL:

16 E.P. Malone, ‘The New Zealand School Journal and the Imperial Ideology,’ New Zealand Journal of History, vol. 7 (April, 1973): 12-27.

17 See ed. Phillips, Brothers, 28-29

18 Gordon Harper to mother, 29 April, 1915 in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 52.

19 ed. Phillips, Brothers, 54.

20 ed. Phillips, Brothers, 104.

21 Gordon Harper to mother, 1 May 1916 in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 146.

22 Gordon Harper to Leonard Tripp, 14 June 1916 in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 153.

23 Quoted in John Keegan and Richard Holmes, Soldiers: a history of men in battle (London: H. Hamilton, 1985), 18. See also Alexander Watson, Enduring the Great War: Combat Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and his chapter on ‘Morale’ in Cambridge History of the First World War, vol II, ed. Jay Winter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2014), 174-196; J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: reflections on men in battle (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1959).

24 Gordon Harper to mother, 23 May 1915 in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 67.

25 ed., Phillips, Brothers, 67.

26 Gordon Harper to Mrs Bevan-Brown, 1 March, 1916 in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 136-138.

27 Gordon Harper to mother, 17 January 1916, in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 127.

28 Gordon Harper to mother, 17 March 1916, in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 139.

29 Boys High School Magazine, 1917.

30 Dola Derham, oral history with Philip Harper, 1991; Katrine Brown, oral history with Philip Harper, 1991.

31 Gordon Harper to mother, 15 May 1915, 23 August 1915, in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 64, 93.

32 Gordon Harper to mother, 23 August 1915, in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 92.

33 Robin Harper to mother and father, August 1916, in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 163.

34 ed. Phillips, Brothers, 172, 174.

35 e.g. Michael C.C. Adams, The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War 1 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).

36 John Springhall, Youth, Empire and Society (London: Artchon Books, 1977) 53-64; Jock Phillips, A Man’s Country: The image of the Pakeha male – a history (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1987), 152-153.

37 Thomas Ellison, The Art of Rugby Football (Wellington: Geddis and Blomfield, 1902), 80.

38 ed. Phillips, Brothers, 21, 28.

39 See Watson, 76-84.

40 ed. Robin Cooke, Portrait of a Profession: The centennial book of the New Zealand Law Society (Wellington: Reed, 1969), 259-262; Geoffrey W. Rice,Christchurch crimes and scandals, 1876-99 (Christchurch: Christchurch University Press, 2013), 193-211.

41 Richard L.N. Greenaway, Barbadoes Street Cemetery Tour (Christchurch: Barbadoes Street Cemetery, 2007), 15.

42 Gordon Harper to mother, 23 May 1915 in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 67.

43 Gordon Harper to mother, 25 July 1915 in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 80.

44 Gordon Harper to mother, 13 June 1915 in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 73.

45 Robin Harper to mother and father, August 1916, in ed. Phillips, Brothers, 163.

46 Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 357-366.

47 John Bourne, ‘The British Working Man in arms’ in Facing Armageddon: the First World War Experienced, ed. Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddle (London: Cooper, 1996), 336-352.

48 J.G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990).

Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

   by Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates