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

Our Boys in Camp – Hawke’s Bay goes to war (part 2)

By the spring [1]  of 1914, Hawke’s Bay’s first contingent of volunteers were settling in to soldiering life at Awapuni mobilisation camp in Palmerston North.

Awapuni was the largest of New Zealand’s four initial mobilisation camps and the muster point for the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment, the Wellington Infantry Battalion, the New Zealand Field Artillery, Field and Signal Troops of the NZ Engineers, Company of Divisional Signallers and Mounted Field Ambulance.

The transformation of the site from picturesque country racecourse – with stock grazing on the oval, and spring flowers opening on carefully tended flower beds – to one of the busiest spots in New Zealand, took place over a matter of days in mid-August. Hundreds of Territorials and civilian volunteers from Palmerston North and Fielding joined fatigue parties to assist in construction of the camp – doing everything from lay water pipes to pitching tents, all in the abysmal weather typical of early spring. As soon as the camp was complete, thousands of men began to stream in from across the Wellington military district.

It’s easy enough to understand the fervour of these first volunteers – eager for adventure in defence of the British Empire, buoyed by childhood stories of the South African War and the daily reports of great battles and Allied victories in the papers. After youthful years spent at war games in the Territorials, their chance had come.

As Ormond Burton wrote in The Silent Division, “There was enthusiasm and a haze of rather splendid feeling. A great adventure was opening up. All the humdrum of life suddenly fell away and men were like young gods in a new world of romance.” [2]

Captain Jickell’s ‘Dreadnought’

On arrival at Palmerston North train station, after the journey down the line from Hawke’s Bay, the new recruits were met by a vast steam motor-lorry, owned and driven by Captain Jickell. Men and bags were piled on Jickell’s ‘Dreadnought’ to the upmost limit, “swarming upon it like flies” [3] (up to 63 men and 23 swags in one load) and transported down to camp, navigating a constant stream of traffic, on what had become one of New Zealand’s busiest thoroughfares.[4]

Tent on Tent

Mobilisation camp, Awapuni, August or September 1914. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 3162, gifted by Mrs Florence Le Lievre

Mobilisation camp, Awapuni, August or September 1914. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 3162, gifted by Mrs Florence Le Lievre

On arrival at camp new recruits would have been greeted by the impressive spectacle of orderly lines of tents, horse lines of patiently tethered horses, and a busy scene of vehicles, artillery, cookhouses, smoking fires, and khaki uniforms of every description.

The numbers of men at Awapuni grew over August and early September, until there were well over 2000 men in camp, and over 850 horses. Each bell tent housed eight men, as well as their kit, rifles and equipment.[5]

‘For the benefit of our feet’

Training commenced at once and largely consisted of physical exercises and route marching, musketry and drill. There was every expectation that the men would have to entrain for Wellington, and sail to Europe within days.

The daily route marches, of 12 – 15 miles, in full outfit, were as one trooper put it, “for the benefit of our feet”.’6] A popular route was to Ashurst and back. On one occasion the Wellington Regiment took a route march to Fielding, where they were entertained on arrival at the racecourse, with delicacies provided by the women of the town.[7]

Equipping the men for the front was another important activity at the camp. All the military equipment available in New Zealand at the outbreak of war was on issue to the Territorial Force, and while men left for camps as thoroughly equipped as possible by their local Regiment, shortages had to be made up. Public calls were made for all manner of items from saddlery to binoculars.

Despite the pace of activity, there were opportunities for leave and the public of Palmerston North undertook all manner of activities to entertain the troops. Ormond Burton wrote that “Khaki … seemed to have a very potent influence over the youth and beauty of the towns, and this was as it should be for all felt themselves to be heroes in advance, as it were, and therefore due for a little hero worship.”[8]

In camp, the YMCA marquee was well attended by soldiers, with supplies of games and reading materials (donated by the public), concerts and religious services. The YMCA also forwarded letters home for the men in training, over 4000 had been sent by the 4 September.[9]

‘Bundled off home’

Discipline in camp was strict. To encourage good behaviour men were told that on view of the large number of volunteers anyone who committed a breach of discipline would be excluded from the final selection.[10] Examples were made of any volunteers who ignored regulations, even for comparatively minor offences. Among those dismissed were two Napier volunteers (identities as yet undiscovered), absent without leave for two days, who were “bundled off home” on 8 September.[11]

At Awapuni underage men were also gradually discovered and returned home from camp. Young men under 20 were not eligible to sign up, and although care was taken, many slipped through the net. Anxious parents up and down the country lobbied the government to ensure the young men were sent home and to improve enlistment procedures, by requiring the production of birth certificates.

An imposing spectacle

There were a number of opportunities for members of the public to visit Awapuni, and on 23 August the gates were thrown open to the public to inspect the goings-on in camp, and for many to see their husbands, brothers and sons, one last time before their departure. Up to 8000 visitors attended on the open day, and would have included many people from Hawke’s Bay, who would have travelled down for the day.

On the 24 August, Major General Sir Alexander Godley, commander of the NZEF, made an inspection of the camp. At 11 o’clock the various units, to a total strength of 81 officers and 2680 other ranks, drew up in front of the grandstand.

In Godley’s speech to the men he hoped they would “all remember that in their hands lay the honour of the New Zealand territorial regiments, from which the regiments of the NZEF were formed. I wish you bon voyage and God speed and remember that the whole of New Zealand will be watching you, this district in particular, and they will expect to see, as I have said before, something more than ordinary from the men who are here today.”[12]

The reporter for Napier’s Daily Telegraph, present on the day of inspection, reported that the Hawke’s Bay men he spoke to were in good spirits and excellent health and getting ‘good tucker’. He also loyally reported, that the 9th looked one of the best on parade and took back a report from one young contingenter who said “Our kits presented by the ladies of Napier are easily the best of the lot, and it was not until we had arrived her that we really valued so highly as we should.”[13]

‘Toe Footry and Frowsy Grooms’

9th (Wellington East Coast) Mounted Rifles squadron at Awapuni.  Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, M2004/6/3 [91283], Gifted by Dale Connelley The squadron was commanded by Major Selwyn Chambers (d. 7 August 1915); 2nd in command was Captain Charles Robert Spragg (and possibly pictured on lead horse), with Lieutenants Norman Donald Cameron (d. 30 May 1915), Percy Tivy Emerson (d. 30 May 1915), Arthur Frederick Batchelar, and 2nd Lieutenant Henry Beresford Maunsell (possibly the four men behind Spragg).  Chambers may have taken this photograph. The Gallipoli campaign would destroy the original NZMR Brigade.  Half of those who served at Gallipoli died, or were wounded. All would fall sick.

9th (Wellington East Coast) Mounted Rifles squadron at Awapuni. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, M2004/6/3 [91283], Gifted by Dale Connelley
The squadron was commanded by Major Selwyn Chambers (d. 7 August 1915); 2nd in command was Captain Charles Robert Spragg (and possibly pictured on lead horse), with Lieutenants Norman Donald Cameron (d. 30 May 1915), Percy Tivy Emerson (d. 30 May 1915), Arthur Frederick Batchelar, and 2nd Lieutenant Henry Beresford Maunsell (possibly the four men behind Spragg). Chambers may have taken this photograph.
The Gallipoli campaign would destroy the original NZMR Brigade. Half of those who served at Gallipoli died, or were wounded. All would fall sick.

For these men, thrown together from across the lower North Island at Awapuni, it was the first step in an increasing circle of identification, comradeship, and rivalry that would take them from their local unit and tie them to their regiment, to the NZEF, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and finally to the 8.7 million men [14] who would serve in the British Army.

Of the friendly rivalries which sprang up at Awapuni, one of the keenest was between the infantry and mounted men. One unnamed volunteer reported to his local paper that “the horsemen call the footmen the “toe footry” and smile pityingly as they pass them on the road, while the man with a pack on his back and a rifle on his shoulder calls his mounted friend the “frowsy groom”.[15]

Anxiety to go

Throughout the busy weeks of training at Awapuni, was a current of impatience and anxiety that the war might be over before the New Zealanders had a chance to fight. The fleet of troopships was almost ready but the government was close-lipped about a departure date for the force. Rumours abounded, equipment was packed and unpacked, finally, over the three days of 21st, 22nd and 23rd September the camp was emptied of men, as they left for Wellington by train, on the next stage of the journey.

 

Today, even at a 100 years distance, it isn’t easy to write about these first small steps in New Zealand’s path to war with composure. Knowing what was to come, that by the end of the following year, almost all of these young men of the first contingent would be casualties of the Gallipoli campaign, has lost none of its impact.

In my next post I’ll write about the preparation of New Zealand’s fleet of troopships, and activity in Wellington before the eventual departure of the convoy on 15 October 1914.

Eloise Wallace
Curator of Social History

1 An Awapuni spring joke, as reported in the Evening Post, 26 August 1914.
“One of the best that has gone the rounds – whether it was invented in Awapuni or not cannot of course, be said – has relation to the trees which surround the racecourse. The narrator will inform you gravely that it has been decided to shift the camp to some other spot because the present site is considered dangerous. You do not believe him of course and he replies with the reason “Why?” he replies “because the trees are shooting!” And then it occurs to you that it is springtime.”
2 The Silent Division
3 The Daily Telegraph, 25 August 1914
4 Evening Post, 19 August 1914
5 The Press has recently digitised a number of 1914 lantern slides, some of which show the Wellington contingent at Awapuni, and can be viewed here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/last-post-first-light/photos/6659839/WWI-era-photos-unearthed-by-The-Press
6 Evening Post, 4 September 1914
7 The Wellington Regiment
8 The Silent Division
9 Evening Post, 4 September 1914
10 The Wellington Regiment
11 The Dominion, 8 September 1914
12 The Daily Telegraph, 25 August 1914
13 The Evening Post, 25 August 1914
14 The number 8.7 million is the number given for all men who served between 1914 and 1918 in the British Army, including all Dominions. http://www.1914-1918.net/faq.htm
15 Taranaki Daily News, 1 September 1914

References

Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919 by AH Wilkie, 1924.
The Silent Division: New Zealanders at the Front, 1914-1919 by OE Burton, 1935.
The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914 – 1919 by Cunningham, Treadwell and Hanna, 1928.

All these publications can be accessed online at the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/