Lance Corporal Richard Baxter Copeland +
Pakenham & District War Memorial and Pakenham Upper Roll of Honour
Born: 1877 - Ballarat, Victoria
Enlisted: 4 January 1915 aged 37
Unit: 23rd Battalion, D Company (SERN: 1097)
Served: Egypt, Gallipoli & Western Front
Killed in action: 28 July 1916 - Pozieres, France
Richard was the youngest son of Ware Copeland and his wife Anne Wilson. The Copelands originally came from the Ballarat district but moved to Pakenham Upper around 1905, settling on a property called “The Grange” on what is now Huxtable Rd (1). Richard worked the property with his father (2). He also played district cricket for Pakenham (3). Richard applied to enlist in the AIF on 23 December 1914. He was 37 years old at the time. After spending Christmas with his family, he was officially enlisted on 4 January 1915 at Melbourne. At the Broadmeadows Army Camp, Richard was assigned to D Company, 23rd Battalion, the same unit as Bill Abrehart, another of the Pakenham Diggers. Richard left Melbourne for overseas in May 1915. A month later, presumably after arriving in Egypt, Richard was appointed as a Lance Corporal. On 30 August 1915, Richard proceeded to join the Anzacs at Gallipoli. The only reported incident during his time at Gallipoli was his being admitted to a casualty clearing station in September 1915 suffering from diarrhoea. Along with the rest of the Anzac forces, Richard was evacuated from Gallipoli in December 1915. He arrived back in Egypt (via the Greek island of Lemnos) in January 1916 (4).
In March 1916, Richard’s unit was shipped to France to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front. Richard was initially posted to the 2nd Australian Division Base at Etaples, where he served as a baggage guard at the Anzac kit depot for a period. In May 1916, he was marched out to rejoin the 23rd Battalion near the Front. At the time, the Battalion was being held in reserve near Armentieres, with the men training and working on strengthening defences. In June, the 23rd Battalion moved to the trenches at Rue de Bois, where it undertook raids on the German trenches, but was also shelled by the enemy on a daily basis (5). Richard was killed on 28 July 1916 at Pozieres but amidst the confusion and calamity of war, he was initially reported as missing. When his family was informed of this, they waited anxiously (and hopefully) for further news (6). The Copelands later heard privately from another soldier that Richard had been killed (7). This was confirmed by a military court of enquiry held “in the field” (8). Accounts of his death varied slightly though. One eyewitness reported: “I was with Copeland in the fight at Pozieres and though I did not see what killed him I saw him lying dead just outside the trench, he was killed in the attack as we went over ...”. Another soldier reported that: “Copeland was killed .... by shrapnel in the head, while trench digging beyond Pozieres. He was alongside informant who placed his body at the back of the trench next morning”. Another report stated: “I knew Copeland; he ... was called “Brigadier”. He was in a new trench between Pozieres and Martinpuich (on 28.7.16) which we were making when a shell came over just where he was about 10 yards away from me, and I saw it explode and there was no sign of Copeland or any part of him. We held that trench and we looked all round, even into No Man’s land, but could not find any trace of him at all. He came from Packanham [sic] outside Melbourne, where he had a small farm and orchard. He was very tall, slim build, thin face. I feel quite certain he was blown to bits” (9). Richard was one of 23,000 Australian casualties (including 6,800 killed) during the six week offensive. This was nearly as many casualties as were sustained during the eight month long struggle at Gallipoli (10).
Back in Pakenham, Richard’s death was reported at the same time as that of Bob Slessar: “Amongst the recent lists of those killed at the Front appear the names of two men, who were exceptionally popular here, viz “Bob” Slessar and “Rich” Copeland. Previously they had both been reported as missing (10a). When Richard’s personal effects were returned to his father, it was noticed that his watch was not amongst them, something Ware Copeland deeply regretted, perhaps because he had given the watch to Richard himself (12). In July 1918, the Pakenham upper community presented the Copeland family with a framed certificate recognising Richard’s service and sacrifice. His service had already been commemorated on the Pakenham Upper Roll of Honour unveiled in the local public hall in September 1917 (11). Richard’s service and sacrifice is also remembered on the Pakenham & District War Memorial dedicated in 1921, the roll of honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, and on the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, which honours over 10,000 Australian Diggers who lie in unknown graves on the Western Front (13).
The assistance of Richard’s relative Ian Copeland is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) PG 27/5/1921; SBMJ 20/9/1905, p. 3
(2) AWM Roll of Honour File for Richard Copeland
(3) SBMJ 26/12/1906, p. 3
(4) (8) (11) & (12) NAA B2455 COPELAND R B
(5) AWM 4 23/40/7, 23/40/8 Part 1, 23/40/9 and 23/40/10 - 23rd Battalion War Diaries April to July 1916
(6) DA 28/9/1916, p. 2
(7) Argus 13/10/1916, p. 7
(9) AWM ARCWMEBF File Richard Baxter Copeland
(10) Fitzsimmons (2015) p. 656
(10a) DA 2/11/1916 p. 2
(11) PG 5/7/1918, p. 2 & 28/9/1917, p. 2
(13) Information sourced from www.cwgc.org
Image courtesy of Ian Copeland