For many Australians the story of Gallipoli is told by Peter Weir's film of the same name. The last image of this film depicts the death of one of its two key characters, Archy Hamilton, in the tragic dismounted charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek on August 7, 1915.
Those who have read C.E.W. Bean's The Story of Anzac, will be aware of the similarities between this scene and the last sighting of a young WA grazier of the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment, Wilfred Harper. Harper was killed in the charge, as were his brother Gresley, at least one cousin, and many friends.
Gresley Tatlock and Wilfred Lukin Harper were sons of Charles Harper, "one of the most remarkable men born in WA". Charles Harper established a school in the billiard room of his family home, Woodbridge House, to educate his children and those of the surrounding district. This evolved into Guildford Grammar School.
Charles Harper, who was known as Walter, became Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, inaugurated the first farmers' newspaper, the Western Mail, and made The West Australian a daily.
Gresley, his third son, was born in 1884, studied law in Adelaide and Melbourne, worked as a barrister, was much liked and known for a "sunny disposition that endeared him to many".
Despite his peace-time occupation, Gresley would be described by a light horseman at Gallipoli as "the bravest" of men, a "ball of muscle . . . as brown as a Turk". Wilfred, six years Gresley's junior, captained Guildford Grammar's Cricket Eleven before farming at Gingin and Balingup.
In 1914 Gresley and Wilfred enlisted in the 10th Light Horse Regiment and, despite their education and background, served in the ranks. Both wrote eloquent and entertaining letters to their mother, describing life aboard troopships and in camp, the experiences of friends and the colour of an exotic, troop-filled Cairo.
Fighting as infantry, the 10th Light Horse underwent its baptism of fire in the deep and tangled trenches of the notorious Quinn's Post, where the bomb fighting was deadly and a Turkish advance of only a few yards could have proved catastrophic. On May 29 the dreaded news raced through the trenches - the Turks had broken into Quinn's.
By 7am the entire 10th and troops from other units had been committed to the defence. After intense fighting and heavy casualties, the Turks were finally evicted, killed or captured.
Early the following day, it was discovered the Turks had established fortifications in mine craters a few yards in front of Quinn's. Venturing from the post in daylight was virtually suicidal but Gen. A.J. Godley ordered that these positions be assaulted and destroyed. The operation was given to the 10th Light Horse's lieutenants and peace-time farmers T.A. Kidd, from Geraldton, and J.W. Colpitts, of Winchester, WA.
At 1.05pm on May 30 each scrambled from Quinn's Post with a party of volunteers. They were seen to pause briefly to shoot and lunge with bayonets down into the craters before jumping in and disappearing from view. In the "tempest" of fire that followed it was feared the Australian parties had been annihilated but they had in fact occupied both positions, and discovered and taken a third. In Kidd's position, the last two Turks fought on until one of them was killed, whereupon the other threw down his rifle and surrendered.
The Official History notes that in the hours to come the light horsemen gave the prisoner cigarettes, food and water, and he shared his sour bread ration.
Both Australian parties were subjected to a hail of bombs from Turkish trenches. Their only defence was to attempt to catch and return them, with fuses smoking, before they exploded. Turkish rifle muzzles appeared over the parapet of Kidd's position and poured a "hot fire" into the defenders.
Kidd was hit in the face by a bullet fired at a range of only a few yards before a Trooper Williams shot his adversary dead. Turks were swarming around the position, 19 of Kidd's 22 men were wounded, and the position was untenable.
Kidd ordered a charge back through the enemy to Quinn's Post. The light horsemen decided to spare their prisoner's life and leave him behind. They scrambled from the trench, but a "Trooper Robson slipped and fell back". Suddenly, the Turk who had only minutes earlier been a prisoner, "picked up a discarded rifle, shot" dead two Turks attempting to seize Robson "and grappled with a third allowing Robson to escape".
Two months later, the 3rd Light Horse Brigade was ordered to attack the formidable enemy trench system on a ridge so narrow it was called "the Nek". The circumstances of this attack on August 7 are well known, largely as a consequence of the film Gallipoli. After the first two attacking waves of the 8th Light Horse Regiment had been virtually annihilated it became the turn of the 10th Regiment.
Their first line was to consist of men from A Squadron and a portion of B. Corporal Henry Foss, C Squadron, sat with his troops waiting for orders and noting the weakness of the supporting barrage that "could have done little damage" when D Troop of A Squadron filed past. "They halted for a while . . . and I spoke to Gres Harper and Wilfred, Bob Lukin, Hassell, and Geoff Lukin, and some of the others I knew, little thinking of all those chaps I knew well within half an hour Geoff would be the only one alive."
Attempts were made to stop the futile attacks but the first line of the 10th steeled themselves for their deaths and scrambled over the parapets, "the men running as swiftly and as straight as they could at the Turkish rifles", "to meet death instantly". "With that regiment," wrote the official historian C.E.W. Bean, "went the flower of the youth of Western Australia, sons of the old pioneering families . . . Men known and popular, the best-loved leaders in sport and work in the West". With them, over the parapet and into a withering fire, went the Harper brothers and their cousins, the Lukins.
At Quinn's Post the light horsemen had scrambled without hesitation onto some of the deadliest ground at Anzac, and despite the odds, had fought splendidly. At the Nek, trusting their orders and superiors, and that their sacrifice must somehow assist the overall effort, they again charged, this time into a horrendous fire and almost certain death. Few, if any, would have the opportunity to display their fighting qualities, as bullets, bombs or shrapnel cut them down before they reached the waiting Turkish bayonets.
Bean wrote that Wilfred Harper "was last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot-race, with all the speed he could compass". Another account noted that "Wilf was the only one to reach the trenches", and Major Love, writing to the Harper boys' mother, wrote that "Wilfred I believe was one of the few who got at most twenty yards".
Perhaps he was not alone. Sgt W.L. Sanderson charged with the fourth wave, who were "absolutely certain that they were going to be killed". After those around him were hit Sanderson fell near the Turkish parapet. To his right were "two dead men . . . lying on the Turkish parapet - they looked like the Harper brothers". Perhaps the brothers, realising the attack would be virtually suicidal, had decided to charge together.
Jack Russell, a stockman of West Perth, had left the trench next to Gres, with O.D.H. Hassell, a 23-year-old stockman from Albany, on his other side. Hassell was among the killed. Russell told Walter Harper that all the bodies "were recovered within a day or so either by our men or the Turks".
Two light horsemen, including a man named Black, probably drover 104 Joseph Leo Black, told the Harper family that they had seen the boys killed. Both had been hit in the head and neither moved after being hit. This intimates that the boys' death was painless, and the account continues that their bodies were "not left to rot in the sun".
No-man's-land at the Nek was too deadly a space to allow either side to venture from their trenches to recover corpses, and the official historian noted that after the war 300 Australians were found and buried there, in an area "the size of three tennis courts". Today the cemetery is believed to contain the remains of 326 Commonwealth servicemen of World War I, only 10 of whom have been identified.
Like the majority of the 10th Light Horse killed that day, Wilfred and Gresley Harper have no known grave. Nearly 500 dead Commonwealth servicemen lie or are commemorated in Baby 700 Cemetery, of whom 450 have not been identified.
James Hurst is author of Game to the Last: The 11th Australian Infantry Battalion at Gallipoli (Oxford University Press), a history of the WA unit.