Rufus Cooper and Arthur Rabnott, 47th Battalion

They sleep not in their native land, but under foreign skies

Rufus Cooper and Arthur Rabnott, enlisted together 5 December 1916

Two families who probably never met, grieved together for their sons, Rufus Cooper and Arthur Rabnott - two mates - who enlisted, trained, served and died together during the First World War.

Rufus Cooper a Moree lad, was one of 7 children born to George Cooper and Alice Marsden, a Kamilaroi woman. Arthur Jacob Rabnott, was one of 9 children born to Arthur William Rabnott and Matilda Henricks of Rockhampton.

Rufus and Arthur probably stood in line together at the recruiting office in Emerald on 5 December 1916, where they were assigned sequential regimental numbers, both arrived at the training camp in Enoggera 4 days later. Appointed to the 9th reinforcements for the 47th Infantry Battalion they sailed from Sydney aboard HMAT Ayrshire, in late January 1917 bound for England and a life they could never have imagined.

In August 1917 they found themselves in Belgium, where the battalion was readying to move via Bailleul to La Motte. The unit diary records "The Battalion moved out … over roads recently submerged by heavy rain and over which men moved in single file, a weary job … with heavy packs but accomplished without mishap".

View of the swamps of Zonnebeke on the day of the First Battle of Passchendaele, Belgium, 12 October 1917

On 11 October the 47th were ordered to attack Passchendaele Ridge and moved off around 12 midnight via Zonnebeke, through almost impassable country, already devastated by the battle of the previous day, the treacherous shell holes full of water. Having taken up their assigned position they were heavily shelled - the majority of the casualties were signallers, runners & scouts - which took out the bulk of their communications.

It was during this operation that Rufus Cooper and Albert Rabnott were found to be missing in action. Many men were lost on this day, fighting under extreme weather conditions, and sheltering in shell holes full of freezing water. Initially recorded as missing, the AIF were reluctant to acknowledge they had been killed in action until there was corroborating evidence, as wounded men were regularly taken prisoner and removed from the battlefield.

In February 1918 Alice Cooper was asked by the authorities if she had received any communications from or regarding her son Rufus, after he had been reported missing on the battlefield three months earlier. The Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing files show several letters written by Rabnott's grandfather in London enquiring after his grandson, after his letters were returned marked 'believed wounded'.

Also, at this time, with no further word of his son, Arthur William Rabnott enlisted in the AIF perhaps hoping to search for him or determine his fate. Having understated his age, Arthur age 49, was medically discharged at the training camp at Enoggera.

Gravestone, Arthur Rabnott, Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood

Both Rufus and Arthur are recorded on their service records as being "Buried 1000 yards SW of Passchendaele & 1000 yards NE of Zonnebeck. Sheet 28 NE D18AC D17BD" but the war raged on, disregarding the fallen, many graves were obliterated by shell fire as lines and trenches were gained and lost.

For the Rabnott family there is some solace in knowing that their soldier was buried at Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood; but for the Cooper family there is no such comfort, and his remains cannot be returned to country.

The Menin Gate, Ypres. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Rufus Cooper's service is commemorated at the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, a site chosen because of the many thousands of men who passed through it on their way to battle. This memorial bears the names of more than 54,000 officers and men whose graves are not known.

Whatever way the families grieved, both felt the need to express their loss in memorial messages in the newspapers of the day, and it is here that we find the connection between Rufus Cooper and Arthur Rabnott. In October 1918 the following message was inserted by the Rabnott family:
"Rabnott and Cooper - in memory of our dear son and brother Private A J Rabnott; also his mate Private Rufus P Cooper who was killed in action on the 12 October, 1917"

There followed similar messages in 1919, 1920, 1921 & 1923 through to the 1930s. Alice Cooper and her family, placed similar memorial messages in the papers of the day in 1918 & 1919.

They sleep not in their native land, But under foreign skies. Far from those who loved them, In a hero's grave they lie. They never shunned their country's call, But proudly gave their life, their all; They died the helpless to defend - An Australian soldier's noble end.

Further information …

The information in this blog post has been researched by State Library staff and volunteers, it is based on available information at this time. If you have more information that you would like to share or further research uncovers new findings, this post will be updated.

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Their story is one that has been known and shared through the generations within our family (Rabnott). They really were a couple of boys from the bush who personified the mateship value.
Forever thankful for their service and sacrifice, their story will always be remembered.