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Robert Rainy Harper (1894–1941)

by Guy Verney

This article was published:

Robert Rainy Harper (1894-1941), soldier and business manager, was born on 18 February 1894 at Toorak, Melbourne, son of Rev. Andrew Harper, professor of Hebrew and Old Testament studies at Ormond College, University of Melbourne, and his second wife Barbara Harriet, daughter of Dr Robert Rainy, principal of New College, Edinburgh. He was a half-brother of Margaret Hilda Harper and nephew of Robert Harper. His father resigned his chair in 1902 to become principal of St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, and Robert attended Sydney Grammar School in 1907-12 and the university in 1913-14, studying arts. Awarded blues in Rugby football and rowing, he also reached the rank of sergeant in the Sydney University Scouts and in December 1914 joined the 26th Infantry Regiment (militia), Australian Military Forces, as a second lieutenant. In January 1915 he enlisted in the 18th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, but on 10 May was commissioned in the 20th Battalion. He embarked for Egypt in charge of the unit's 1st Reinforcements in June, and served on Gallipoli from August until the evacuation. He was promoted lieutenant in November.

Harper sailed from Egypt for France in March with the 20th Battalion. Though wounded in action at Bois Grenier on 5 May, he remained on duty and on 26 July, while participating in the taking of Pozières, was promoted captain. He led one of four parties in an attack aimed at capturing the Old German lines south of Pozières and, although the other parties were checked, he and his men took their objective and held it for an hour under heavy fire. Harper was wounded in the head and leg but continued to direct his troops until they ran out of grenades; his party then retreated across no man's land with Harper refusing to be removed until he had seen all his men to safety. He was evacuated to England late in August. For his leadership at Pozières he received the Distinguished Service Order, a decoration rarely awarded to a lieutenant; he also received the French Croix de Guerre and was mentioned in dispatches. He was invalided to Australia in December 1916.

Harper's A.I.F. appointment ended on 1 May 1917. By this time he had recovered sufficiently to join the staff at Liverpool camp near Sydney and trained reinforcements for the Western Front. He also commanded the Sydney University Company of A.I.F. Reinforcements. In 1919-21 he studied medicine at the university but did not complete his degree. He became a captain in the Sydney University Scouts in February 1921 but in 1922 was placed on the A.M.F. reserve of officers when he moved to Melbourne to work for Holden's Motor Body Builders; he was sales manager by 1924. That year, on 28 May, he married Sylvia Lance at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney. He was manager of Holden's Melbourne branch from 1928 until his death from meningitis on 2 May 1941. He was cremated. His wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916 (Syd, 1929)
  • G. E. Hall and A. Cousins (eds), Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the Great War, 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, The Andrew's Book (Syd, 1964)
  • London Gazette, 26 Sept, 8 Dec 1916, 2 Jan 1917
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 May 1941
  • private information.

Citation details

Guy Verney, 'Harper, Robert Rainy (1894–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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