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Think Piece – The Charge at the Nek

Thursday 6 August, 2015


James HurstSoon the centenary of the charge at the Nek, Gallipoli, will be upon us. This event was all but forgotten in Australia until Peter Weir’s great film ‘Gallipoli’. On the morning of 7 August 1915, four lines of 150 men of the Australian Light Horse charged successively against Turkish trenches terraced one behind the other, like the ridges on an armadillo’s back. The Turks weren’t supposed to have been there: they should by then have been attacked from behind, shelled out of the position, or forced to ground by artillery fire. In fact it was probably impossible for the artillery of the time to have achieved the latter, and failed assaults elsewhere doomed the former. Yet the light horsemen obeyed their orders, climbed from their trenches and charged to certain annihilation. Unlike some recent television depictions, witnesses said the men went unhesitatingly into the fire.

The last image of Weir’s film depicts the death of one of its two key characters, charging alone at the Turks after those around him had fallen. ‘Archie Hamilton’ was a fictitious character. But his death resembles one described in the Australian ‘Official History’: Wilfred Harper, a young grazier was last seen ‘running forward like a schoolboy in a foot-race, with all the speed he could compass …’ Wilfred, his older brother Gresley, at least one cousin and many friends, were killed as they charged into an enemy fire so heavy that the ‘bullets came like hail, literally mowing the scrub.’ With them, wrote the Official Historian, C.E.W. Bean, ‘went the flower of the youth’ of their state, ‘sons of the old pioneering families … Men known and popular, the best loved leaders in sport and work.’

Gresley and Wilfred Harper were sons of ‘one of the most remarkable men born in W.A.’ Their father, Charles Harper, established a school to educate his children and those of the surrounding district, founded newspapers, was a Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, and ‘a virtual “patron saint” of the man on the land’, yet he remained a quiet man of ‘unostentatious habits’.

Gresley spent his final school years at St Peter’s College, Adelaide, where he captained the First XI and won the French prize for his year. He then studied law in Melbourne, where he contributed much to college and university life, edited his college’s magazine, and was known for a ‘sunny disposition that endeared him to many.’ At Gallipoli he served in the ranks, rather than as an officer as might be expected, and was described as ‘the bravest’ of men, a ‘ball of muscle … could use the pick and shovel with any of them.’ Wilfred had also achieved much in his few years. Their brother Prescott was a sportsman, scientist and Rhodes Scholar, and their other siblings led distinguished and productive lives.

Had Wilfred and Gresley lived, they too are likely to have made great contributions to their young country; among the bodies at the Nek, they represented but two of many wasted lives.

There is another intriguing thread to this story, but that will have to wait …

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