The Emotional Toll

One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler was unwell and the doctor ordered her to rest.  She left London for Eastbourne leaving everything in Portia’s capable hands.  With so many missing and wounded the number of letters increased every day.  Every post brought bags of mail, all needing answers.  ‘Mothering’ so many boys was taking a toll.  Working as a nurse in Rockhampton, Annie knew many of these boys and their families personally; some she had delivered.  Each death was a blow.

Not long before Annie left for Eastbourne she heard a Court of Enquiry had determined Andrew Fraser had been killed in action.  She had been looking for him for almost a year.

Andrew was 18, a year younger than Portia, when he enlisted in 1916.  He had brown eyes and brown hair and a “fresh complexion”.  He was only five feet and five inches.  In August 1916 he was fighting in Poziers.  In October his mother, Mary Fraser, received a cable telling her Andrew had been wounded.

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After unsuccessfully trying to find what hospital he had been sent to she cabled Annie Wheeler.  Annie spent four weeks trying to locate Andrew; turning over every stone only to conclude Andrew was missing.

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Mary wrote to the AIF telling them Mrs Wheeler’s conclusions and a couple of weeks later received news Andrew was now listed as missing.

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She kept writing to the AIF for information telling them in May 1917 “any news is better than this suspense”.  On the 1st June there was still no more information.

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Eventually a Court of Enquiry was convened to investigate and on the 2nd July determined Andrew was killed on the 21st August 1916.

Mary kept writing wanting more information, wanting to know where her son was buried and in 1921 received an account from a witness.

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Andrew’s legs had been blown off.  After he was bandaged he was taken away to a dressing station but he never got there.  The suspense was over.

Further Information

Andrew’s war record has been digitised by the NAA – http://www.aa.gov.au

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman published in the ‘Capricornian’ have been digitised by Trove – http://www.nla.gov.au

Some Blind Trick of the Weather

The sheer brutality of artillery pummelling human flesh and thick viscous mud, created chaos.  Men leapt from their starting-off points never to be seen again. Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean’s war diaries describe the conditions, one hundred years ago today, as the worst the men had ever been in.  Stories of men falling into shell holes and disappearing from sight while their mates tried to pull them from the sludge before they drowned, abounded.  Travelling with the 49th and 50th battalions, Bean described tanks and guns abandoned, almost completely buried in mud, leaving men without artillery support. The guns were meant to destroy German defence posts so the men could charge forward, clear out any remaining Germans and gain ground. Without the heavy artillery, stuck in mud, men were sitting ducks.  Conditions were so bad the battle of Passchendaele was suspended until the rain eased.  When the push resumed, many of the men were lost, buried in the Belgium mud.

By the end of the war 25,000 Australian soldiers were listed as missing, presumed dead.

In London, oblivious to the horror of Passchendaele because of government censorship, Annie Wheeler was focused on finding men still missing after the Battle of Messines.

One of these men was Charles Findlay.  Initially, his mother, Ann, was told he was missing but then one month later, she received news he was dead.  They told her he was killed in the battle of Messines on the 7th June 1917 but they didn’t know where he was buried and they couldn’t find any of his belongings; no discs, no photos, no wallet, no kit, nothing.  Ann Findlay thought maybe there had been a mistake.  Maybe he was a prisoner of war.  It made no sense to her that there were no personal effects and no one could tell her where Charles was buried.  She wrote to Annie Wheeler in August praying there had been some mistake.

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If he was dead Ann asked Annie to find out something about his last moments; she wanted to know if he spoke about his people.  Annie did all she could to find out what happened – she wrote letters and spoke to men in his battalion.  She liaised closely with the AIF, Australian Red Cross and the YMCA.

The Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau was headed by a young Australian woman Vera Deakin.  The bureau engaged searchers who investigated missing men, spoke to witnesses and prepared reports.  They wrote to the families giving them an honest, if sometimes brutal account to help families understand what had happened to their sons or brothers.

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The bureau  looked for Charles Findlay.  His file has a statement from his friend who said Lieutenant Pott was with him when he died.

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The bureau wrote to Pott but no statement exists.  If Pott did give a statement it isn’t on file and it is unlikely Ann Findlay received any information.  Ann continued to write to the AIF until 1922, always a similar letter, wanting to know where Charles was buried and if there were any photos or letters.  Wanting anything.  The Red Cross continued to look for him after the war ended but there was no sign of him in Germany.

Further Information

  • Ann Findlay’s letter to Annie is part of Annie Wheeler’s collection in the State Library of Queensland – http://www.slq.gov.au
  • Red Cross Missing Files have been digitised by the Australian War Memorial – https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/red-cross-records-from-the-first-world-war.
  • Charles Findlay and Ann Findlay’s records are available at the NAA – http://www.aa.gov.au
  • Charles Bean’s diaries have been digitised by the AWM – https://oldsite.awm.gov.au/images/collection/bundled/RCDIG1066614.pdf
  • The image, H07970, courtesy of the AWM, is the Index Card Department at the Prisoner of War Information Bureau.

Our Baby Brother

One hundred years ago today James Fitzroy Foot lay dying.  Driving rain turned the ground beneath him into thick mud which oozed into his uniform and quickly embraced him.

He lay with others from his battalion near the border between France and Belgium.  Officially they were in France but so close to the border, when their mates found them they buried them together in the vicinity of Messines in Belgium.  Reverend Cutten reported their burial on the 12th of August.  James was barely nineteen, from Springsure in central Queensland.  Annie Wheeler grew up in Springsure and knew James’s family well.

James was part of the 42nd battalion which was attached to General Plumer’s Second Army.  Since the battle of Messines their efforts were focused on destroying German resistance along the Warneton Line in preparation for the major offensive to capture the strategic Passchendaele ridge.  The 42nd battalion would be part of a supportive feint attack to the south, designed to weaken the German defence by drawing it away from the main battle.

The feint and the main battle of Passchendaele began at the same time, 3.50am on the morning on the 31st of July.  The battalion made good progress but despite the unprecedented shelling by the British in the weeks leading up to the battle the counter attack was fierce and they were heavily bombarded.

Then the rain fell, in great torrents, and the battle of Passchendaele, already ill-planned turned disasterous.  The fields of Ypres became a human slaughter-house.

James was killed on the 31st of July but news of his death took time to filter through.  His family were devastated.  He was the baby.  They needed more information about his death and wrote to Annie Wheeler.  “I am writing to you because you will most likely meet some of the 42nd who were with James at the time and if you could gain any information about his death.  Only a few particulars would be so comforting.  He was our baby brother – only 19 and 2 months when he died.”

The family also wrote to the AIF and were told all that remained were discs, a wallet and some photos.  They were told where he was buried.  In 1928, the Graves’ Commission found the remains of the C.O. of the 42nd battalion, Lieutenant Norman Freeman and five other soldiers near Messines.  Paper work confirmed one of the soldiers was James Foot.  Another was Private J. Fallon also from the 42nd battalion. James was exhumed and reburied in Sanctuary Wood Cemetry at Zillesbeke. His mates were buried beside him.

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Further Information

Map courtesy of the “Unofficial History of the Australian and New Zealand Armed Services” – http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-battles/ww1/france/warneton.htm.

Annie Wheeler’s papers have been digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are available online – www.slq.gov.au

James Foot’s war record has been digitised by the NAA and is available online www.naa.gov.au

Information about the 42nd battalion is available online at the AWM – www.awm.gov.au

 

 

The Tale of a Machine Gunner

In the middle of July 1917, Charles Snelling visited Annie Wheeler late one evening while he was in London to buy prizes for sports.  Sports and other activities such as circus, gymkhana, plays, concerts and as demand grew, literary and debating societies were encouraged by the AIF at the many training camps and depots in England. Most of these camps were situated around the vast Salisbury Plains.  Some Australians, unfamiliar with English geography thought Salisbury Plains was a place and letters were sometimes addressed to “Annie Wheeler, Mother of the Anzacs, Salisbury Plains”. Annie was amazed when these letters found her.

Lieutenant Charlie Snelling was in the 3rd Machine Gun Unit and was the first Rockhampton soldier to receive a decoration First Rockhampton Boy Wins a Decoration. In July 1917 Charlie was stationed in Grantham and had spent most of 1917 in England.  He had been wounded in France in December 1916 and arrived in London on the 7th January.  Annie was at AIF HQ in Horseferry Road when she heard Charlie was at the Third London Hospital.  A shell had burst near him spraying blast-stones and mud into his eyes.  He was blind for three days.  When Annie went to visit him with Kitty Moir December 1916 – Miss Kitty Moir visits Annie and Portia. she was pleased to see “he was looking well but his eyes were still rather weak”. While recovering he visited Annie several times at her “dug-out”, she was living at Lancaster Gate at the time, becoming a regular visitor.  Annie was pleased to see his eyes improve.

After being discharged Charlie was sent to the Command Depot No. 1 on Perham Downs near Salisbury.  The Command Depots received recovering Australian soldiers deemed fit to return to the front.  In February, Charlie visited Annie when he was in London to attend the medical board.  He was fit and expected to be returning to France within a month.  But instead of being sent back to the front he was sent to Grantham.  Grantham, a town of considerable size, north of London was the centre of machine gun training for the Empire.  In 1918 50,000 men were camped around there.  Machine guns changed warfare; they were light and lethal.  Three men operating a Vickers machine gun were more efficient than a whole platoon, mowing down lines of men in minutes.

Charlie was placed on a supernumery list and stayed in Grantham until November 1917.  He visited Annie often and on one visit on his way to Torquay for a few days told her he had been awarded the French Medaille Millitaire.

In November Charlie was admitted to Bulford Hospital after he contracted VD.  The fear of prostitution and female promiscuity during the war led to the establishment of a women’s police force and Grantham employed the world’s first police woman.  Volunteer police women operated in London and other cities but Mrs Edith Smith was the first woman to receive a police wage and be given full powers of arrest.  Her main job during the war was to keep an eye on women and prevent them cavorting with soldiers which included keeping them from bars and administering a curfew.  By 1918 the fear of VD and the inability to control the spread became so great laws were passed making it an offence for women to transmit VD.  In 1918 more than 100 women were sentenced to six months’ jail with hard labour.  Soldiers who contracted VD were fined.

Not long after Charlie recovered he was sent back to the front.

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Further Information

Machine Gun Image – http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk

Image of Edith Smith – Grantham Museum

Annie Wheeler’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove.

London Attacked

German Gotha bombers attacked London in a deadly daylight raid one hundred years ago on July 7th 1917.   Gotha planes which could fly higher and undetected in daylight had replaced Zeppelins and Londoners were unprepared for the attack.  Witnesses mistakenly assumed the planes were their own until they saw the deadly bombs drop over the East End and London city.  57 people were killed and almost 200 injured.

Annie Wheeler cabled her friend Mary Trotman in Rockhampton because she knew she would be anxious when she heard about the raid.

There were no warnings and the first Annie knew of the raid was the sound of guns in the distance at about ten-thirty in the morning.   When the sounds came nearer and nearer she realised “the enemy airplanes were overhead and thought it time to go down to the basement.”  Annie told Mary Trotman “everyone – even the little children – was quite calm”.  She reassured Mary, “no bombs were dropped in Victoria Street” where she was living.

95 British aircraft were sent up to defend the capital.  Annie realised the guns she had heard were “our own anti-aircraft.”  After a while Annie went up to the roof to see what was happening and counted about “thirty enemy planes” overhead.  “We just got on the roof in time to see the last one disappearing.”  The British planes chased the enemy aircraft over the channel bringing down one plane but losing two of their own.  Three young British airmen died.

Eleanor Bourne, the first Queensland woman doctor working at the Endell Street Military Hospital also watched the raid.  The bombs hit the General Post Office and the roof caught fire.  “The daylight raid was rather exciting and it was hard to believe that the buzzing planes looking like a swarm of flies, might really drop something dangerous; on this occasion the hospital was showered with bits of burnt paper from the nearby General Post Office which got hit.”

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Londoners were angry and scared and demanded better defences and warning systems.  Many directed their anger at the Germans living in London and riots broke out across the city.  3000 people vented in Upper Holloway, 1500 in Tottenham attacking German bakeries and tailors.  Windows were broken, money and goods stolen, police were injured and arrests made.

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Even though press reports were limited, these raids spread fear and caution among Londoners who until now had thought the raids more an entertaining spectacle.  More people headed for the basement rather than the roofs as air raid procedures and better warning systems were developed.

Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s letter to Mary Trotman, published in the Capricornian on the 15th September 1917has been digitised by the NLA and is available online -https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/69801339/6829485

Eleanor Bourne’s papers, (OM81-130 Eleanor Elizabeth Bourne Papers) held in SLQ, have been digitised and are available online – http://www.slq.qld.gov.au

New Scotland Yard Reports of the riots in London on the 7th July 1917 have been digitised by The National Archives UK are are available online – http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/spotlights/p_riots.htm

The photograph of bomb damaged buildings in St Pancras Road – (c) IWM HO76 – is part of the Imperial War Museum Collection.

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.