“11pm, Tuesday 4th August 1914: with the declaration of war London becomes one of the greatest killing machines in human history.”
London, home to almost eight million people swells with soldiers and people wanting to contribute to the war effort. While countless books, articles, films and television programs have told the stories of the soldiers and the battles, very few tell the stories of the people living and working in London during the war.
In the heart of London was a woman from Rockhampton, a small hot humid town with a population of not quite twenty thousand in central Queensland, Australia. Her name was Annie Wheeler and during the war she found her calling.
I stumbled on Annie Wheeler and her story while scrolling through the State Library of Queensland catalogue. A woman with nursing experience stranded in England at the out-break of the first world war initially volunteers her services as a nurse but after coming across injured boys from home, central Queensland, many of them not yet twenty, she decides that what these boys really need is a mother. So she uproots herself and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Portia and finds a flat in the heart of London around the corner from the Australian military headquarters.
Annie opens her home to the boys while they’re on leave, lends them money, visits them in hospital, sends vital supplies to the trenches and POW camps and keeps their families updated. To keep track of each soldier she uses index cards; one card for each soldier. On the front, details of the soldier and on the back, information about their families. The cards are kept in red-cloth-covered wooden boxes and by the end of the war there are almost three thousand cards crammed into three red boxes. Each of these cards tells a story.
Because I didn’t know what I would find when I started my research project I was never sure if the story would take the shape of a feature film, television series or novel but now after three months reading Annie’s letters, fiction and non-fiction about the war, war diaries and the war records of the soldiers in Annie’s red boxes, I have started writing a novel. It is based on Annie’s and Portia’s lives in London during the war. It is set in 1917 – 1918 and contains flashbacks to earlier times. While it draws heavily on the original material I am also creating parts of the story from what I imagine, from ‘reading between the lines’ of their letters. I am discovering connections with other Queenslanders and imagining their relationships and weaving a story about these Queenslanders or ‘Bananalanders’ in London.
Ultimately I believe these stories will make a fascinating and unique television series along the lines of “Call the Midwife”. The role of women in the first world war has not been fully explored and stories about Australian women living in London during the war are extremely rare and because of the SLQ’s collection ready to be told. I am the person to tell these stories.