In 2016 I was awarded a QANZAC 100 Fellowship by the State Library of Queensland to research Annie and Portia Wheeler and their extraordinary work during the first world war. This research is the basis for a television series focusing on Portia, Annie and other women who shared a boarding house in Westminster, London, the heart of wartime military operations. I have written the pilot episode ‘The Red Boxes” and am in the process of finding a producer. I tell a little of their story in this blog and two SLQ Vimeo videos – Discovering Annie Wheeler, and my 2016 Fellowship video. If you think you are the right producer or know someone who would be perfect and would like to read the draft screenplay, please contact me.
One hundred years ago as the guns fell silent, twenty thousand Australian soldiers were missing. Of the sixty-thousand men killed during the war at least a third had no known grave.
Amid the Armistice celebrations, Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia continued to search for the missing and care for the boys still to make their way home.
By the end of 1918 Annie had almost 3000 soldiers on her books, 3000 boys and families she traced. With erratic mail and constant troop movements Annie was the most reliable and trusted source of information about her boys. She sent cables and letters and continued her weekly letters to Mary Trotman listing all the soldiers who contacted or visited her.
Following the Armistice finding missing soldiers was increasingly difficult. On the 15th November Annie explained the difficulty to Mary Trotman, “It is difficult at times to find a boy, e.g. according to H.Q. he was supposed to be in Third Australian General Hospital. I wired the Commandant, after five days waiting received a reply, he had already been in England but could not tell which hospital he was in nor could the Red Cross. After a fruitless search lasting a fortnight, a female Queenslander who is working in the casualty inquiry room at H.Q. thought of ringing up the base postal office to find out if the boy had notified of change of address and found he had written to them for his letters from St James Infirmary, Batham (London). I am telling you this to let you know how difficult it sometimes is to trace a man owing to the carelessness of some of the British Hospital in not notifying either Australian H.Q. or our Red Cross of his arrival. Obtaining the address I went to see him but he was out for the afternoon and the next day he came to see me.”
While the fighting was over, thousands of soldiers remained in France and Belgium as the Germans decamped and civilians returned home. Prisoners of war were suddenly free. Annie received news from Arthur Moore on the 22nd November who was “now walking the streets of Liege at leisure”. He was lodging with a woman who spoke very good English and looked after him like a mother. While they waited for the British soldiers to arrive they occupied themselves going to the theatre or music halls. The Germans had been set a deadline to leave Belgium and Moore was skeptical they would meet it. ‘it is a sight to see the German transport going to Germany”, horses, cows and donkeys pulling wagons. He asked Annie to let his family know he was well and told her he hoped to be in London for Christmas.
Most soldiers would spend another Christmas in Europe and Annie was busy sending parcels and letters. In addition to the usual warm clothes and cigarettes soldiers asked for film.
“Bert Spilsbury has asked for films for his camera as they are very hard to get in France and the boys are now allowed to use their cameras. He says there is nothing in the country they are passing through except civil population who look very worn out. He adds, ‘I do not think they got too much food from Fritz. They will take anything we give them.’ Bert was hoping to get some good snapshots. ‘This town we are in, which is fairly big, is not too bad. Fritz has paintings on all the walls. One is of John Bull standing in the middle of England, scratching his head and surrounded by U boats. Another is of a U boat torpedoing a big liner and many others all worth snapping. The French people are bewildered to be free’.
Soldiers also sent “souvenirs” to Annie to mind. Charlie Dolgner sent her an unusual parcel he picked up at Mont St. Quentin. “The Australians had got through the German first line of defence and were surrounded by the enemy. A German officer was up on top of his trench trying to buck up his men who were running away. Charlie got within twenty yards of him under cover of the trench and fired at his head but missed and he jumped into the trench and put his hands up. ‘He had a first-class Iron Cross and I wanted him to give it to me. He could speak English well and he said he would give me anything but not to take the Iron Cross, so I left him with it. That is where I got the revolver and field glasses.”
Some were lucky enough to be shipped home not long after the Armistice.
Sister Nellie Lawson wrote to Annie from sea before landing in Port Said, Egypt. “There are a few cases of mild influenza. The boys are all very happy. It is lovely to hear them singing at night. They all get out on the hatch and the officers and sisters go along and join in. We could not get a piano before we left so a wireless has been sent to have one ready at Port Said.
1918 was Annie’s and Portia’s last Christmas in England.
The British Australasian in London published a soldiers’ tribute to Mrs Wheeler on the 12th December 1918 called “The Mother of Queenslanders”. The writer, Pot Jostler, described her work and why she was given her title. He concluded, “No one except a soldier can possibly realise the magnificent work carried out by Mrs Wheeler, who sad to say enjoys anything but the best of health. It is nothing but her indomitable spirit and the pride of her native state that has enabled her to carry on so long, and now that our labours are finished and therefore hers, we Queenslanders will go back to our hearths and homes with the happiest of memories of and our hearts filled with deep gratitude to ‘The mother of all Queenslanders’”.
Annie and Portia still had work to do. They kept working through 1919 until almost all the boys on their books returned home or were located.
During the summer Portia visited the battlefields of France and Belgium where many of her friends lay dead.
5000 people met their train when they arrived home in November 1919.
Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman were originally published in “The Capricornia” . Digital copies are available on Trove – http://www.trove.nla.gov.au.
Photograph of one of the index cards in the State Library of Queensland Annie Wheeler Collection.
In the lead-up to Christmas 1917 Annie Wheeler had a breakdown. She had been unwell in July and this was similar but lasted much longer. When she recovered she told Mary Trotman, her Rockhampton Deputy, she had been “swinging the lead”, a military term for malingering. But Annie was no malingerer. The responsibility of looking after so many boys had taken a toll on her health and she was forced to spend five weeks in Eastbourne with her sister-in-law, recuperating and resting. Since October, the number of boys on their books had increased from 900 to over 1500 amazing Annie’s daughter, Portia, at how immense and suddenly the operation had grown. But demand for their services was now so great they had to limit their reach and Portia requested Mary Trotman publish a note in the local Queensland papers explaining they could only accept money, parcels and letters for boys from central and western Queensland.
Christmas was particularly busy because families wanted to send parcels to their boys. The unreliability of the postal service meant most families sent mail and parcels via Annie who had much greater success in tracking the intended recipient. Annie requested parcels weigh less than seven pounds because heavy parcels were difficult and expensive to forward. As an iced Christmas cake often weighed slightly more than seven pounds families transferred money to Annie so she could buy Christmas parcels in England. But in 1917 this created more problems for Annie, and with Annie out of action, Portia, because most food was terribly scarce. It was impossible for civilians to buy even enough for their own consumption. Butter and margarine was impossible to buy and meat was dreadfully expensive. As the army canteens were stocked with luxuries that civilians couldn’t buy at any price Portia solved the problem by sending the cash to the boys explaining the purpose of the money and who it was from. What Portia needed for her parcels were socks and lots of them. The demand for socks, scarves and helmets over winter was tremendous and everything the women of central Queensland could knit was sent to a grateful soldier.
Portia’s management of the operation during Annie’s illness was exemplary. When Annie returned in mid-January she told Mary Trotman, “Portia has got the work on a more businesslike footing than when I had it, and it ought to be easier to manage”. During Annie’s absence Portia used a large donation from Mrs Donaldson to rent two additional rooms in the building they lived, Westminster Gardens, to be used as offices. The staff moved all the work out of their personal residence and into the offices. Portia also hired more staff; Peggy Sugden, her father was a doctor in Bundaberg, was taken on permanently. Portia also transferred all their records from journals to the index card system and ensured it was kept up to date. Each soldier had his own index card with his details on the front and their family’s details on the back. By the end of the war there were more than 2300 boys on their books, 2300 cards crammed inside three red boxes. Portia’s diligence preserved the index boxes and all the stories they contain. One hundred years later these boxes are in the State Library of Queensland.
Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and are available on Trove.
Annie’s collection of letters and papers and the red index boxes are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection.
One hundred years ago Australian soldiers were resting away from the line. After enduring nine months of sheer hell in the deadliest battles of the war men were moved to the south of France. During this time most tried to forget about twisted body parts, suffocating mud and death and took leave in London and Paris, immersing themselves in all these cities offered. Scotland, Wales and Ireland were also popular destinations because of their physical beauty and peacefulness.
Brigadier General William Glasgow and his wife Belle spent time in Wales. Glasgow had been in hospital in London with a severe cold and they chose Wales to recuperate and reconnect. Glasgow referred to his leave as a late honeymoon. Belle describes her husband, his throat still scratchy from his cold, serenading her before bed with the song “Ding, dong, ding, dong, ‘tis my wedding morning.” Croaky as an old frog he held a paper in his hand and imitated the antics of a tenor singer. William was the reason Belle left Australia and every moment together was treasured. When they arrived back in London William was granted a few more days leave which they spent at the Berners Hotel. London with William was everything Belle craved; they dined with the Queensland Agent General, Sir Thomas Robinson and his wife and watched the Lord Mayor’s Procession from the offices in the Strand. It was the first time women took their place in the procession with the military and navy. They were part of the land army and carried forks, spades and reaping hooks. Belle was fascinated by the captured German tanks, guns and Gotha planes that were part of the procession. She talked to Lady Dawson whose husband was the King’s physician and admired her three daughters who wore claret coloured velvet dresses and fur trimmed toques to match. Farewelling William at Charing Cross Belle met Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent and other high-ranking officers and told her daughters “father holds such a high place in people’s opinions you must live up to the same standards. A general’s daughters have many eyes on them.”
Feeling flat and lonely without William, Belle suggested they spend Christmas in Paris. Even though this was possible as William was scheduled to be out of the line for several months he felt he should spend Christmas with his men; they couldn’t get back to their people so he should be with them. Disappointed, Belle hatched a plan relocate to the south of France and William encouraged her to investigate the possibility and enlisted a property agent to find them a house near Cannes. Belle soon found wives faced many obstacles getting to France. Eventually she found a contact in the AIF to assist but when she asked William if she would be able to visit his quarters when she was there he immediately dismissed the idea, “I would not care to have you here as it would open up to all sorts of questions and people would be only too quick to ask questions”. Undeterred Belle continued to plan until William told her to stay put. Plans had changed and William was on the move again to the “one place she hoped he wouldn’t be sent.”
The Glasgow papers are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection.
October 1917 was a catastrophic month for the Australians as they pushed towards Passchendaele. With gale force winds and heavy unrelenting rain, moving forward was almost impossible and with hindsight, murderous. Exploding artillery had created huge craters and many men drowned in mud before mates or stretcher bearers could get to them. Trapped horses were shot but nothing could be done for the dying men and the sounds as they died were horrific. 38,000 Australians were killed or seriously wounded by the end of the campaign. Nearly half a million men from both sides were killed fighting for Passchendaele.
Survivors were deeply traumatised by what they had experienced. Injuries from bullets, heavy artillery and gas presented new challenges for doctors and nurses who pioneered surgeries and healing techniques. Emotional trauma was often left untreated.
Fortunately, by the end of October the Australians were pulled out of the line and rested. Away from the carnage men were desperate to connect with family and hundreds wrote to Annie Wheeler. They wanted her to know where they were so she could forward mail and parcels. Many asked her to cable their mothers to let them know they were well or their wounds were not serious. Sister Poslar from the Second Australian General Hospital told Annie they were all very busy and “after seven weeks of the push are beginning to feel fagged out”. Mothers in Australia were incredibly grateful Annie was able to look after their boys. On the 26th October 1917 Mrs Rendell wrote to Annie to express her gratitude.
At the end of October William Glasgow wrote to his wife Belle that the weather was the worst he had ever seen and that he was fit and well but concerned about his men who were having a “trying time”.
But relief was in sight for Glasgow and his men. The Australians were to be rested out of the lines for the winter months.
Annie Wheeler’s correspondence is held by the State Library of Queensland.
William and Belle Glasgow’s letters are part of the State Library of Queensland.
Annie Wheeler’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and are available via trove.
The Australian War Memorial has information and statistics about the Passchendaele campaign.
One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler’s boys, protected by a barrage of heavy artillery, charged German pillboxes at Polygon Wood. Thousands of shells pounded the ground creating a dust and fire storm that slammed into the terrified German soldiers. Charles Bean described the barrage as “the most perfect that ever protected Australian troops.” William Glasgow’s 13th Brigade comprised of the 49th,50th,51st and 52nd Battalions were part of the charge. Polygon Wood, a clump of forest near Ypres, already battered by previous battles was razed. Victory was achieved in just under four hours.
Two days later William wrote to his wife Belle in London revelling in the success, “We have been in and had a most successful show – everything went according to programme and our own casualties are very light. From our point of view the most successful we have ever been in.” Unfortunately, while it was the most successful battle since Messines, casualties as a whole were not light; 15,375 allies were killed, wounded or missing for the capture of 3.5 square miles. William and Belle wrote to each other almost every day and on the 28th September, he reassured her “you poor old thing you think that I am unsympathetic. No girl never when you are concerned and my actions have never shown it. What you have read is apparently my bad way of expressing myself. I am sure when we meet we will be only too glad to help one another.”
Belle’s chief complaint was her husband’s lack of leave. She had left her young daughters in Australia and moved to London to be closer to William but the reality of war meant long absences and shifting promises of leave. William’s letters often portray an emotional needy and self-centred Belle in need of soothing reassurance. In fairness to Belle only William’s letters survive; she may have had reason to be anxious about their relationship. That aside, being adrift from her family and friends, living in the centre of London in 1917, in one of the worst weeks of the war would have made most people fret.
The harvest moon bombings in London from the 24 September to 1 October killed hundreds and created widespread fear and panic. The nightly raids while the moon shone brightly became intolerable as hundreds of thousands of people took to the underground stations for protection. On 28 September, a woman was killed in a stampede at Liverpool Street tube station. Once people were in the stations it became impossible for the passengers to get in and out. And there were concerns about sanitation, prompting buckets of sand and disinfectant to be handed out to be used as toilets. Hospitals and schools were forced to open their basements as shelters and people fled London, the poor sleeping in parks on the outskirts of the capital.
The harvest moon raids forced Londoners to experience some of the anguish and carnage of war but as the moon waned and the raids stopped the panic lessened. Not so in Ypres. The success at Polygon Wood would soon fade as the push for Passchendaele resumed and the rain fell.
William and Belle Glasgow’s letters are part of the State Library of Queensland collection.
Zeppelin Nights – London in the First World War by Jerry White published by Vintage Books 2015.
One hundred years ago today Selby Russell left Southampton for Belgium. He was part of the 47th Battalion and the next wave of young men to be thrown at the Germans in Ypres with the hope of wearing them down. The battle to occupy Polygon Wood was imminent and the third battle of Ypres, the battle of Passchendaele, or as it was termed by those who witnessed the carnage, Armageddon, yet to come.
Selby had become a dear friend of Annie and Portia Wheeler and volunteered in the office whenever he was on leave in London. A conveyancer from Brisbane, Selby was smart, capable and efficient; before he joined in 1916 he worked at the estate agency Chandler and Russell which he formed with his brother Joseph and his grandfather. Annie appreciated Selby’s assistance. Men moved about so much Annie and her team spent large amounts of time locating soldiers and sending and forwarding letters and parcels and Selby was a great help re-addressing mail. He made friends easily and knew which battalions were resting in training camps, on the move or at the front. Selby’s Rockhampton connection was his sister, Sophie Alexander and Annie corresponded with Sophie, Selby’s mother Louisa and his other sister Olive who was a nurse serving in India. Annie’s fondness for Selby was mutual. In letters home, he referred to her as “Our Darling”.
Selby’s leaving, added to the challenges of living in London in September 1917. The daily anxiety of never knowing if loved ones were safe was compounded by the scarcity and expense of food and coal and the looming winter. Gotha bombers had also reached the capital and night bombings had intensified. Annie never went to bed without her little electric torch and a stack of letters ready to take to the basement if there was an air raid.
Annie’s friend, Belle Glasgow, writing to her daughters Joan and Beth on 19th September 1917 described how unsettling the air raids had become. One night, when everything seemed quiet, they’d returned to their beds only to hear the bombers again. “I shall never forget the noise of their machines. Their engines hummed like dozens of telephone wires. It made my ears ache.” The next morning Belle learnt the hospital off the Strand had a miraculous escape. Casualties were limited because the bomb dropped on the road beside the hospital but every window in the entire street was either broken or cracked.
Meanwhile in Southampton, Selby boarded a boat for Belgium to take part in the battle that would decimate his battalion, the entire division and change his life forever.
Selby Russell’s war record has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia.
47th Battalion war diary has been digitised by the Australian War Memorial.