Where are they?

While the Battle of Messines was a success its ferocity left more than ten thousand Australian soldiers dead, wounded, missing or suffering severe shell shock.  Soldiers who made it back found their battalions decimated.  Sometimes they had seen a mate fall but that was the last they’d seen of him.  Desperate for news, unable to find out any information in France or Belgium, they cabled or wrote to Annie Wheeler telling her their mate was missing and asked her to to investigate.

In June 1917 Annie’s list of missing was growing.  Some boys, Lonergan and Lupton hadn’t been seen since the Battle of Bullecourt and others Palfrey, Boyd and Dodd since Messines.  Annie gave their names to Mary Chomley who headed the Red Cross Prisoner of War Department who also made enquiries.  In early June Annie got a letter from Lonergan, letting her know he was a prisoner of war and then a few days later Alexander Lupton’s letter arrived.  He was also a prisoner of war.

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A little later Annie located Dodd and Boyd in POW camps but unfortunately she discovered Palfrey had been killed in action.  Arthur Nixen wrote to let her know his brother had been wounded but his brother-in-law Bert had been killed.  Annie was able to tell Arthur, Bert wasn’t dead but was a prisoner of war in Germany.  As soon as Annie knew where her boys were she sent parcels of food and other comforts.  The Red Cross sent parcels for a small fee and families cabled Annie money to pay on their behalf.

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There were often mix ups in the cables but if the money didn’t arrive Annie would pay the Red Cross herself.  William Humphries’s money had been cabled under Humphrey’s but luckily it was the Commonwealth Bank and Annie was able to sort it out.  Annie was scrupulous with her accounting and acknowledged every donation.  In June ten pounds was cabled to Mrs H. J. Wheeler.  The bank manager realised it was meant for Annie but it took Annie months to work out the money was from the Rockhampton Bowling Club.  The Central Queensland community appreciated Annie’s work and with donations increasing Mary Trotman urged Annie to hire some help to “keep pace with the letters”.  In late June Annie took her advice and put an ad in the British Australiasian for a “shorthand writer and typist, Queenslander preferred”.

Annie often ran into boys from home.  Returning to the station after visiting Lieutenant Watts in Harfield Hospital she came across Angus Leitch lying on a stretcher on the platform waiting to be taken to the same hospital.  Going down in a crowded lift in Paddington station two soldiers turned around and exclaimed “Mrs Wheeler”.  It was Private Godsell.  He recognised Annie’s voice.  He had sold Annie boots when he worked at Davis and McDongall’s in Rockhampton.

Sadly one hundred years ago on the 26th June she received news her friend George Hartley had been killed.  George had been a frequent visitor and she had only seen him in May on his way back to France after being wounded at Bullecourt.  His cousin Claude Murphy had cabled her.  George had died in a clearing station and Claude had gone back to the village behind the casualty clearing station to see if he could find the place where George had passed away.  He was unsuccessful at the time but told Annie he would find out the particulars of George’s death.  Annie’s heart went out to Claude who had lost a brother and two cousins within a month of each other.

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman printed in The Capricornian have been digitised by the NLA and are available online.

Soldier’s war records have been digitised by the NAA and are available online

 

 

 

Great Mounds of Earth Flung Sky High

Australian troops were in Belgium in June 1917 for a major push. Months in planning, zero hour for the Battle of Messines was scheduled for dawn on 7th June.  The Germans had held Messines ridge, a key vantage point, since 1915.  The small hill gave them an unobstructed view over Ypres and the Salient.  Soldiers defended their position on top of the ridge inside reinforced concrete pillar boxes.  From the ridge, Allied preparations for any eastward offensive were visible and within firing range.  Winning the war demanded capturing Messines ridge.  An ambitious plan was hatched in 1916 to plant explosives in a series of deep tunnels beneath the German position.  A tunnelling unit was formed and for months they had dug and tunnelled into the distinctive blue clay only found at certain depths.  To keep the plan secret, shallower decoy tunnels were dug and the blue clay was meticulously hidden.

In the days before the battle the Allies launched a relentless shelling offensive to break apart the rows of rolled barbed wire that reinforced the German front line.  The Germans retaliated just as fiercely targeting gun placements and ammunition dumps.  Unable to halt the Allies the Germans launched shells of phosgene and chloropicrin gas.  The gas was heavier than air and blanketed the plains below Messines, suffocating soldiers stranded without their gas masks.  Just before zero hour, as Australian troops moved through Ploegsteert Wood to the jumping off point for battle, they were shelled by explosives and gas.  Around ten percent were killed or disabled by the poisonous gas.

The troops who made it through waited, undetected.  An eerie silence followed.  Seven seconds before zero hour the first mine exploded, then eighteen more in nineteen seconds.  The mines blew the earth and everything on it sky high leaving expansive craters littered with broken bodies.  In those nineteen seconds ten thousand Germans were killed.  The explosions were heard in England and the Germans left alive were panic-stricken.  The next two days, as the Allies advanced and consolidated their position, were a blood bath.  The Germans were ready and not prepared to give in without a fight.  After eight days of fighting often at close quarters the Allies captured Messines, the biggest victory in the war to date.  The price of victory was enormous, the Allies losing more men than the Germans.  24,562 Allied soldiers, more than half of them Anzacs, were killed or injured along with 22,900 German soldiers.

At clearing stations and hospitals nurses were seeing wounds and injuries they had never seen before.  The relentless shelling of the attack and counter-attack also resulted in an increasing number of soldiers with shell shock.  Nurses experienced the horror and felt helpless.  Far from home, many sought the comfort of Annie Wheeler whose care and concern extended equally to the nurses.  In June 1917 following the battle of Messines Annie had a letter from a number of Sisters serving in British Hospitals in France and was struck by the toll it was taking on them.  In her letter to Mary Trotman Annie wanted to know “if anything was being done at home to provide for the future of these brave women of ours.  Many of them will return home broken in health for the hard work and the terrible anxiety that they have gone through.  You have no idea of the hardships they have to endure.”  Annie understood these women needed as much mothering as the soldiers and did all she could to assist and support them in the same way she did with the boys in her care.

Children killed in bomb attack

One hundred years ago, on the 25th of May 1917, 95 people were killed and 192 injured when bombs exploded in the busy streets of Folkestone on the Kent coast in England.  In the late afternoon, as people went about their business, German Gotha planes dropped several bombs without any warning.  More than half of those killed were women and children.  Authorities had decided not to install warnings in the seaside town because they didn’t want to scare off visitors.  Reports in the Dover Express at the time describe “the ghastly scenes in the main street of the town where the dead and wounded were lying about in the streets, mixed up with dead horses and smashed vehicles and wreckage from the shops”.  A large number of people were killed outside the greengrocer’s shop.

The German press was thrilled with the success of the raid which proved the Gothas were capable of dropping bombs from a great height in daylight.  Even though the news was heavily censored in England people feared it was only a matter of time before the bombs reached London.

Annie and Portia Wheeler, like most people in the capital, had grown accustomed to air raids.  As soon as a warning sounded Annie headed to the basement with her writing pad and work book.  Many of the long letters to Mary Trotman, in Rockhampton, were written during air raids.   The air raids gave them a chance to catch up on their increasing workload.  The number of soldiers on Annie’s books doubled in 1917.  Annie’s Christmas present, “Just the Link Between”, written by the central Queensland community left no doubt about the value of her work.  Compiled by Nellie Coar, the book was a 1917 calendar containing 365 expressions of gratitude and appreciation; one for each day of the year.  Dorothy Boyle’s entry on the 26th May sums up the community’s feeling.  A copy of the book is in the SLQ Collection.

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May also contained a military march composed by Helena Miller.  It was called “The Wheeler”.  One hundred years after it was composed Brian Cleary recorded the music. Click on this link to listen to it.  The Wheeler

Annie had become the link between the mothers and their sons which the drawing on the cover represents.  Inside links of chain are a soldier, Annie in the middle and his mother and father reading her letters in the paper.

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Desperate pleas from a POW

Annie Wheeler’s workload increased dramatically after the first battle of Bullecourt.  On the 11th April 1917 1,170 Australians were taken prisoner, the most men captured in a single battle during the war.  Blackall man, William Lonergan from the 15th battalion was one of these men.  William wrote to Annie requesting her help.  In a long letter on the 25th May 1917 he begged her to send a parcel of supplies for him and two friends to a prison camp in Germany.

In the confusion of being captured Will mistakenly told Annie he was captured on the 2nd of April.

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But his war record list him missing in France on the 11th April.

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When Annie cables Miss Annie Russell at Will’s request she tells her he was taken prisoner on the 11th April.

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Annie’s cables were vital.  Will’s family and friends received information months before they heard anything from the AIF.

It took almost six months before Will’s wife Alice Louisa Lonergan was officially told he was a prisoner of war.  She was advised he was missing on the 8th May 1917 and not told he was a prisoner of war until 17th December 1917.

It is difficult to know if Alice Lonergan was upset by this news.  Will and Alice had been living apart for ten years when he enlisted in 1916 which is why he asked Annie Wheeler to cable Miss Russell with news of his capture.  John Lindsay Russell is listed as Will’s next of kin but only Annie Russell is ever mentioned in his letters and it is Annie Russell who writes to Annie Wheeler and sends letters care of Annie Wheeler for Will.  Following is part of Will’s letter to Annie Wheeler which is in his file in the National Archives of Australia.

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Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s letters are part of SLQ John Oxley Library collection and have been digitised – ww.slq.qld.gov.au

William Lonergan’s military file has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia – ww.naa.gov.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Annie celebrates ANZAC Day

Annie and Portia Wheeler commemorated ANZAC day each year during the war.  Their work gave them a deep understanding of the sacrifice of the boys who volunteered and their families, especially mothers, who had no choice but to accept their decision to enlist.

In 1918, there were 1200 Australian men buried in England.  The Australian Natives Association decided to mark ANZAC day visiting each of the graves.  Annie was allotted the Stratford-sub-Castle Cemetery in Salisbury where 22 men were buried.  Martin Rolfe (from the Queensland Agent General office) heard she was going alone and offered to accompany her.

When they arrived at the cemetery they were touched to find women from the village had also visited the graves and left flowers.  Annie and Martin left daffodils and wildflowers on each grave and cards with the inscription, “Australia is proud of her illustrious dead, who have fought a just fight for King and Empire and tenders sincere sympathy to bereaved relatives and friends.”  Annie took down the name and number of each man and wrote to the next-of-kin “to let them know their loved one was not forgotten on our great anniversary”.  She also arranged postcard photographs of the plot to send to the relatives.  There were four boys from central Queensland buried in the cemetery.

Of course, for Annie, while the day was a commemoration and celebration it was also a reminder of the grim reality of the on-going war.  “All day I could not help wondering what our boys in France were doing.”  She hoped “they were celebrating the day by routing the Germans from Villers-Bretonneux” but knew any victory would be bittersweet.  Every battle regardless of the outcome was followed by sorrow when the casualty lists arrived.

While it’s likely they honoured the soldiers in a personal way on Anzac Day in 1917 it is also likely they attended one of the official events organised to remember the storming of ANZAC Cove and the Australians who died in Gallipoli.  These events included, a memorial service held at the War Chest Club, a service and reception at Westminster Catholic Cathedral, a function at the ANZAC Buffet and an evening of entertainment for the Australian and New Zealand troops at the Princess Theatre in Oxford Street.  Andrew Fisher, the Australian High Commissioner, the state Agent Generals and Lady Godley, wife of the Commander-in-Chief of the New Zealand forces were at the War Chest Club with soldiers and guests.  The Bishop, Dr Perrin preached, “the Australians at Gallipoli, though not victorious, were not defeated.  When history was written the most wonderful fact would be that before there was any suggestion of conscription in Australia, Canada or England millions of men volunteered for the Empire.  The blood shed on Gallipoli and elsewhere had made it real instead of a nominal Empire.” Sir John McCall, the Agent-General for Tasmania, told soldiers at the ANZAC Buffet “although our men were making a record in France nothing they had done there exceeded the great deeds of Gallipoli”.

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove – http://www.trove.nla.gov.au

Image courtesy of the Community Website of Stratford Subcastle, Salisbury.

 

 

Heavy Losses at Bullecourt

One hundred years ago William Glasgow was in the thick of things at Bullecourt in France.  Early April 1917, Brigadier General Glasgow, commanding the 13th Brigade, was asked to take over from Cam Robertson.  Cam Robertson (James Campbell Robertson), a Queenslander from Toowoomba, was the commander of the 12th Brigade.  His accidental wounding at the end of March necessitated the temporary change of command.

On the April 12th, Glasgow addressed his wife’s Belle’s complaint that “a letterless day was dreary and endless”.  He explained, “I am very busy and find it difficult to find time to write daily.  I took over from Cam Robertson and am forward again”.  Censorship and perhaps a desire to spare her the full horrors his men endured prevented him from revealing more details except to assure her “when one is forward and pushing there are worries” which do “not allow of thoughts other than the work at hand”.

The day before he wrote this letter, the 12th and 4th Brigades of the AIF with the 62nd British Divisions attacked Bullecourt.  The attack was disastrous.  The tanks which were supposed to support the Australians either became stuck in thick mud and were destroyed or broke down.  The Australian infantry pushed on and managed to break the German lines but because no one was sure how far they had advanced, supporting artillery fire was withheld.  The Australians were trapped and some forced back.  1,170 Australians were taken prisoner, more than any captured during a single battle during the war.  An aditional 2,130 men were killed or wounded.

William Glasgow came out of the line at two-thirty in the morning and received three letters from Belle.  As Belle’s letters to William did not survive the war the only clues about what she wrote are in William’s replies.  Because Belle hadn’t heard from William for a few days, couldn’t imagine his life in France and was separated from her daughters and family in Australia she was feeling lonely and insecure.  William wrote, “You are a queer old thing.  You’re hungry for a little bit of love and affection.  Has it not been forthcoming?”  The incongruity of leading so many men to their death or capture, coming off the line and receiving her letters detailing her domestic life, “so glad you are getting a new frock”, is startling.  It’s possible, the normality of these letters and seeing Belle when he was on furlough were essential for him. All his letters during early April express his feelings for her.  On 7th April, “my whole love goes with this, how I wish I was being enclosed with it” and on the 12th, “how I would like to be alone with you.”  He tells her he will send a wire on their anniversary which is a few weeks away and his pleasure at being her husband. It is unlikely his friend Cam Robertson, who had been away from his wife and family in Toowoomba for more than three years received daily letters. Cam was granted two months’ home leave later in the year but was back in the field by the middle of 1918.

Even though the first attack on Bullecourt achieved little and left the Brigade decimated, Glasgow told Belle he was proud of his men. “Any success that comes to my brigade is the men and the battalion officers.  Once men are launched it rests entirely with them and they do the work.   They had a very strenuous time in and struck appalling weather – the worst I have seen in France.”

Further Information

William Glasgow’s letters to his wife Belle are part of the State Library of Queensland collection and are available online – http://www.slq.qld.gov.au

Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

The Americans Arrive

Living in London in 1917 as winter turned to spring was extremely challenging.  Food was expensive and in short supply.  Food prices were more than twice what they had been in July 1914. Added to this was a feeling that the price rise wasn’t just due to shortages but to profiteering.  Wages were stagnant and discontent on the rise.  Strikes became common place and anti-war protests were increasingly violent.  Fuel shortages led to a ban on private motor cars in April and a dwindling of taxis placed more demands on overcrowded public transport.

Spring also saw a resumption of large scale battles in France and Belgium with their inevitable increases in casualties.  Men were reported missing, never to be seen again.  Families prayed they had been captured and were prisoners of war but often the grim reality was they had been pulverised by the large-scale shelling and there was no body, not even a part of a body to bury.  Mistakes were made by the AIF.  Sometimes families were told their son had been killed in action only to discover later he was alive and well.  Belle Glasgow was visiting Annie Wheeler when a soldier from the 49th Battalion called to tell Annie he was alive.  While he was in France he was handed a copy of the Anzac Bulletin and saw his own name among the list of dead.

The absence of bodies and the bureaucratic mix-ups made grieving even more difficult.  Families wanted proof about the fate of their loved one and begged Annie and Portia Wheeler for information about their missing sons, husbands and brothers.  Annie and Portia hounded the Red Cross and used their time at the Anzac Buffet and hospitals to question soldiers in the same battalion or unit.  They investigated every available lead to gather as much information as possible.  Even confirmation of death was better than endless wondering.

Spring did bring one piece of welcome news.  April 6th, 1917, one hundred years ago today, the USA declared war on Germany and the public celebrated filling the streets, wearing little American flags in buttonholes and flying flags from buildings.  They hoped the influx of Americans would mean a swift end to the war and at last they felt there was something to cheer about.  London filled with Americans over the next few months and a huge crowd turned out to see a baseball match at Lord’s Cricket Ground between the Canadians and Americans in July.

The hope was short-lived as spring thawed the fields of France and Belgium and heavy artillery pounded the earth turning everything to mud.  The slaughter escalated.  In 1917 over 76,000 Australians were killed, wounded and missing on the Western Front; twice the number of casualties in France in 1916 and three times that of Gallipoli.