A Boxing Day Casualty – in memory of Private Albert Cooper (1891 – 1914)

This Boxing Day marks the centenary of the death of Private Albert George Cooper [10/380], one of New Zealand’s earliest casualties of the First World War.

Private Cooper, of Hawke’s Bay, never saw battle. Eight days after his arrival in Egypt with the NZEF he was hospitalized, suffering from pneumonia. He never recovered and died on 26 December 1914.

Albert was born in Hastings in 1891, to William and Elizabeth Cooper, of Tarapatiki, Waikaremoana. His occupation on his attestation forms is given as a painter, his last employer S. Sargent, of Wairoa. He is described on enlistment as 5ft 8 inches tall, 126lb, of dark complexion, with brown eyes and hair.

Albert enlisted with the NZEF in the 9th (Hawke’s Bay) Company of the Wellington Infantry Battalion in September 1914 and sailed with the main body on 16 October.

Photograph of Private Albert Cooper (front left), and three other unidentified soldiers take at Electric Studio, 90 Manners Street, Wellington, October 1914, prior to the departure of NZEF. collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,[75041]

Photograph of Private Albert Cooper (front left), and three other unidentified soldiers taken at Electric Studio, 90 Manners Street, Wellington, October 1914, prior to the departure of NZEF.
collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,[75041]

He arrived in Alexandria, Egypt on 3 December 1914 and as a young man on his first trip abroad, would have been impatient to see the sights. The NZEF disembarked at Alexandria and most of the New Zealand force entrained immediately for their camp in Zeitoun, on the outskirts of Cairo. However, Albert, as a member of the Hawke’s Bay Company, was, along with the Taranaki Company and Battalion Headquarters given the task of staying on in Alexandria to complete unloading the transports.

O E Burton wrote in The Silent Division impressions of the arrival of the NZEF in Egypt:

The men went thronging into the city. And what a night they had! At midnight they came back to the familiar holds but not to sleep. They had seen marvels and must recount what they had seen. Excited men talked at the top of their voices. No one listened to anyone else. Everyone was too full of his own experiences—and so the babel flowed on. In one evening they had seen Aladdin’s Cave, the Forty Thieves, and the houris of the Thousand and One Nights; veiled women and others whose draperies were of the most diaphanous sort. French, Greeks, Russians, and Italians, with the brown-skinned Egyptians and black Nubians from the south—all these they had seen and the spell of Egypt had taken hold of them.

The diary of Edward P Cox, a fellow soldier in the Wellington Regiment (and who later noted Albert’s death in its pages) wrote of Alexandria:

Saturday, December 3rd
Went ashore this evening to Club de Anglais of which we have been made hon. members. The best quarter of the city is very well built and very fine at night when all lit up as I saw it tonight. But the native areas about 2 miles of which I passed in a cab going to the wharves, have narrow streets, most evil smelling, and cafés, saloons and open bars etc galore. The work of unloading horses & military stores goes on and trains for Cairo leave every hour or two.

Men of the Hawke’s Bay Company were given a half-days leave on the 5th to visit Alexandria, before departing for Cairo on the 6th.  In the museum’s collection we hold a postcard, likely written on 5 December, to his sister-in-law Alice Maud Cooper. Maud was the wife of his older brother William Edward Cooper, watchmaker of Napier. In the short note, Albert (or Albie, as he signs off) gives his love to Betty, their daughter, his three year old niece.

Postcard, from Albert Cooper to WE Cooper, 1914 [front] collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29

Postcard, from Albert Cooper to WE Cooper, 1914 [front]
collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29

Postcard, from Albert Cooper to WE Cooper, 1914 [back] Mrs W E Cooper, of 13 Napier Terrace 9 December 1914 Dear Maud We have got as far as Alexandria.  We are going to ‘Zeetun’ outside Cairo in Monday.  We have leave here today and town is very interesting. Will write and tell you all about it.  Love to Betty.  Yours etc Albie collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29

Postcard, from Albert Cooper to WE Cooper, 1914 [back]
Mrs W E Cooper, of 13 Napier Terrace
9 December 1914
Dear Maud
We have got as far as Alexandria. We are going to ‘Zeetun’ outside Cairo in Monday. We have leave here today and town is very interesting. Will write and tell you all about it. Love to Betty.
Yours etc
Albie
collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29

Albert reached camp at 6pm on the 6th December after a train journey south through the heart of the Nile Delta. The regiment’s unit history recounts the difficulty of the first days in camp at Zeitoun. The camp was at first no more than a bare patch of desert, and the air described as very bracing after the stuffy conditions aboard ship. On the first night men slept on the sand wrapped in great coats and blankets. The ground was cold, and the air frosty. The author of the Wellington Regiment’s unit history wrote “those who were privileged to experience that first night’s bivouac on the sands of the Egyptian desert will long remember it as one of the coldest of their lives.” The first night’s exposure in the desert produced a mild epidemic of influenza and some twenty men were sent to hospital the first day.

The desert training regime was intense, but outside of their work, the sights of Cairo were an irresistible lure to all ranks. We do not know if Albert had the opportunity to visit Cairo, or see the wonders of ancient Egypt – the Pyramids, the Sphinx on his picture postcard home – before he succumbed to illness.

On the 10th December, five days after this postcard was sent, Albert was admitted to Abbassia Hospital, a British facility, east of Cairo, with pneumonia, along with fellow Hawke’s Bay soldier John Archibald Campbell, driver for Barry Bros of Napier. John Campbell died on the 14th, while Albert remained seriously ill in hospital, eventually passing away on the 26th. Respiratory diseases such as influenza, tuberculosis, pleurisy and pneumonia were rife in Egypt and struck many of the new arrivals from Australia and New Zealand.

We do not have a record of his funeral, but Albert’s death is noted in the diaries of other soldiers in his unit. It is possible that his next-of-kin were cabled with news of his death, and it was widely reported in the New Zealand papers from 30th December. The news must have come as a shock to the tiny East Coast community in which he grew up. His brief postcard from Alexandria, would have arrived in Napier much later and must have been a treasured remembrance of Albert, and his grand adventure, cut tragically short. Thus far, it is the only known letter of Albert’s to survive.

AG Cooper's grave, Cairo War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt Private Cooper is listed as aged 26 on his memorial, though he was actually only 23.  http://www.nzwargraves.org.nz/casualties/albert-george-cooper

AG Cooper’s grave, Cairo War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt
Private Cooper is listed as aged 26 on his memorial, though he was actually only 23.
http://www.nzwargraves.org.nz/casualties/albert-george-cooper

The museum also holds Albert’s Memorial Plaque in its collections. These were issued after the end of the war to the next-of-kin to all British and Empire service personnel who were killed as a result of the war. The full name of the dead soldier is engraved on the right hand side of the plaque, without rank, unit or decorations. They were issued in a pack with a letter from King George V and a commemorative scroll. These plaques were colloquially known as the ‘dead man’s penny’ because of their resemblance to the penny coin.

AG Cooper, Memorial Plaque collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29 gifted by Mr Noel G Cooper

AG Cooper, Memorial Plaque
collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi,75/29
gifted by Mr Noel G Cooper

The First World War was the first major conflict in which the overwhelming majority of military deaths were battle-related, rather than caused by disease. Of the 16,703 New Zealanders who died during the war years, 63% were killed in action, 23% died of wounds, and 11% of disease.

Dedicated to the memory of those of the Regiment who gave their lives in the Great War;
And to our fellow soldiers of the Regiment who remain to serve the country in peace;
And to the present and future soldiers of those battalions that made the Wellington
Regiment N.Z.E.F., in whose keeping is its good name.

For us the glorious dead have striven,
They battled that we might be free.
We to their living cause are given;
We arm for men that are to be.
– Laurence Binyon

Dedication from the frontispiece of the Wellington Regiment unit history, Cunningham, Treadwell and Hanna, 1928

Albert’s story will be featured in MTG’s upcoming First World War exhibition, to open in April 2015. His service record is available online at Archives New Zealand, http://www.archway.archives.govt.nz/

Eloise Wallace, Curator Social History

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Helmet for a Pillow

Image

The soldier, above all others, prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

– Douglas MacArthur, 1962

Every once in a while there are certain individuals who cross our path and provide insight into areas of life that we would not normally venture. Anyone younger than 65 has more than likely never seen the direct effects of, or fought in a war. While our families can recall grandparents and great-grandparents that fought in either of the world wars, conflict in our recent history has been confined for the most part to our television screens. That is why it is important to keep the memories of those who served alive and undistorted; so that we may never forget that war really is hell.

Bernard 1Bernard Madden, photograph courtesy of Barbara Madden.

One of our latest donations, a large collection of letters between a serviceman and his family during the Second World War, has shone unique views onto military service and the home front in this tumultuous time. In April 1941, Bernard Madden, a 26 year-old driver for Amalgamated Couriers of Napier, left his parents and enlisted in the New Zealand armed forces. After undertaking three months basic training at Trentham, Bernard was quickly sent off to the Middle East as a gunner in the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment, 2 New Zealand Expeditionary Force where he served as a gunner and later a driver.

While overseas Bernard sent many letters to his parents in Napier.  They were read and then passed on to his extended family who lived throughout the Hawke’s Bay region as mail restrictions disallowed excessive postage. It becomes apparent reading through these letters that the first priority for Bernard was of the need to reassure the family at every possible opportunity that he was doing well. Surface-sent letters, which were bulkier and took longer to travel, were sent every week, but he did not hesitate to send faster-arriving, smaller airgraphs (at considerable personal expense) in between these weekly letters to reassure the family.

2013.65.10a (1) Letter from Bernard Madden, 20 September 1941, gifted by Barbara Madden, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2013/65/10

Bernard appears deeply involved with both his close and extended family. He at times questions if his father’s health is holding up and asks his mother, Louisa, if she is surviving the rationing period, frequently offering to send items home. When his brother Patrick was listed as missing in action as Axis forces advanced on Egypt in 1942, Bernard took it upon himself to question every soldier from Patrick’s unit about his brother’s fate. After Bernard learnt that he was taken prisoner, first to Italy and then to Germany, he made sure the family was kept up-to-date on his location and on the best way to send him his favourite tobacco. Sister Noeline and Cousin Lola were frequently reprimanded for ‘flirting’ with American soldiers based in New Zealand, while his young niece Moira appeared to be his favourite as he constantly asked about her schooling and after-school activities. The agony of being away from those he cared about shows through in Bernard’s writing, particularly as children in the family, some which he had never met,  grew up in the years he was away.

While Bernard did not see much front line action, he did see his fair share of hospital wards. The infection of a scratch on the leg early in the war was the start of a long list of maladies including influenza, intestinal problems and a significant hernia which, due to lifting heavy objects constantly, kept him in hospital and off the front lines for significant amounts of time. This had the unintended effect of allowing for long periods of recuperation time which, since permanent hospitals and respite camps were well behind the front lines, meant Bernard took the time to travel throughout the Middle East and Italy. Bernard’s letters tell of the large orchards scattered throughout Palestine, visiting Jewish communities and learning about their culture, visiting seaside resorts and tours of the countryside with other servicemen. Bernard was also in the right place at the right time during his Italian tour of duty; he writes of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in March 1944 and of arriving back at base minutes before a grand tour of Rome left for the capital.

By the time he had finished his service, Bernard Madden had served with 2 NZEF throughout its major operations in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Italy. In addition, he had managed to see the sites of Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Bernard left the armed forces after returning to Napier in August 1945 with six campaign medals, later settling in the suburb of Otahuhu, Auckland. His medical conditions, however, lingered, as the effects of war always do, and he was in and out of hospital until late the next year when he was officially discharged from the armed forces. Bernard passed away in Auckland aged 54 years and is survived by his wife Betty, seven children, 12 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren. He is interred in the soldiers’ section of the Manukau Memorial Gardens.

All 150 of Bernard’s letters are now available on the MTG Hawke’s Bay online collection.

Evan Greensides
Archivist
April 2014