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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland



08 January 2019

The history of an ‘old boy’ from the Royal School Dungannon has inspired a fascinating journey into the past by two current college students.

As part of a Northern Ireland wide history project, members of the Dungannon Detachment Army Cadet Force were challenged to find out more about World War I by researching stories of ‘local heroes’.  Hollie Burton and Sarah Boyd chose as their subject Lieutenant Ernest Magowan Harper, a past pupil of their school, acclaimed for the exceptional gallantry he showed as he tried to protect the men under his command in Gallipoli. 

The teenagers discovered that their own ‘local hero’ was born in 1890 in Dungannon, the youngest son of Henry and Annie Elizabeth Harper Nee Forbes.  He was raised at the family home at Northland Place in Dungannon alongside his seven brothers and sisters.   

Ernest began his education at Union Place National School before following in the footsteps of his elder brother, Edgar, and entering The Royal School Dungannon in 1903 where he studied until 1909. A talented rugby player, Ernest featured on the first XV, winning the Schools’ Cup in 1906, and captaining it in 1908, but he also had exceptional academic abilities, notably in Chemistry.  He came second in the whole of Ireland for Chemistry in 1907, and first the following year when he received a medal for his efforts. 

In 1909, Ernest earned a scholarship to the Royal University of Ireland, which allowed him to begin undergraduate studies at Royal School Dungannon, before progressing on to Queen’s University to study Mathematical and Physical Science. In 1913 Ernest was awarded the Andrews Scholarship before successfully completing his BSc with Honours in 1914.  His aptitude for science led to his appointment as a Demonstrator in Chemistry at QUB.

War was declared on Tuesday 4th August 1914 and just a month later Ernest was gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant with 7th Battalion of the Munster Fusiliers. The battalion underwent training at the Curragh, where he was promoted to Lieutenant, just prior to sailing to the Eastern Mediterranean as part of the 10th Irish Division in July 1915.

Ernest arrived at the Dardanelles, landing at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli peninsula on the 7th August 1915.  Having volunteered for action, adventure and service, Lieutenant Ernest Magowan Harper would experience just over 48 hours in the ruthless battlefield before being killed by a Turkish marksman.

During the very first attack Ernest distinguished himself. When approximately one hundred troops of his battalion were trapped in a captured Turkish trench and under heavy fire, Lieutenant Harper led them back to safety. In a second attack Ernest was wounded in the head, but continued to lead the assault, before again being shot in the head, this time fatally. 

Aged just 24 when he died, Ernest has no known grave, although his name appears on the Helles Memorial on the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey.

The loss of their youngest son left the Harper family, back home in Dungannon, coping with immeasurable grief, but worse was in store, for their eldest boy, Edgar, was to die in action barely a year later.

Reflecting on the sad story, Cadet Sergeant Hollie Burton said, “When you study World War 1 in school or at the Cadets you learn about how young many of the soldiers were, but following Ernest’s life story really reinforced that lesson for us.  It’s dreadful to think that he was just 24 when he died and that his career in action spanned just a matter of days.  It was a real tragedy for his family right here in Dungannon and it is just unbearable to learn that his brother died just a year later.”

Cadet Corporal Sarah Boyd added, “The ‘Local Heroes’ research project made us think more deeply about the real people who were caught up in the war and encouraged us to think about those losses.  It has been an interesting challenge for us – a bit less adventurous than the majority of Cadet exercises - but something that has enriched our lives and which we will always remember.”