No ringing in the 1917 new year

The mood in London was sombre as the new year approached.  No grand public celebrations were planned, indeed ‘no bells were rung, no sirens sounded on the river, no cheering.  Few wishes were exchanged.  The few that were took the form of “a happier year” or “a better year”.[1] There is no mention of new year celebrations in Annie Wheeler’s or her daughter Portia’s letters.  It is business as usual; visiting injured soldiers, writing to families, sending parcels, hassling the war office for information about missing soldiers, volunteering at the Anzac Buffet and raising money to fund their work.

The new year was business as usual for the soldiers too; the job of killing Germans and being killed continued. Soldiers who had witnessed the horrors of the Somme and Verdun were no longer the romantics who had signed up for king and country but hardened veterans who ridiculed patriotic talk and were more likely to despise their incompetent commanders than the Germans they fought.  Paul Ham, in his new book on the battle of Passchendaele, describes soldiers marking the 1917 new year by singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ but changing the lyrics to reflect their state of mind.

‘We’re here because we’re here,

Because we’re here, because we’re here

We’re here because we’re here

because we’re here because we’re here’[2]

The English public was also unable to escape the realities of a war entering its third year.  Badly wounded and disfigured men filled the streets of London and these men, scarred and missing limbs, were the lucky ones as the number of dead and those languishing in  hospitals continued to climb.

At the end of December 1916 Annie wrote “At last I have found Don and Calder Mowat.  The former is at Brankesmere Hospital, Southsea and Calder is at the Third Western General Hospital, Cardiff.  Don is suffering from trench feet but is able to get out sometimes in a bath chair.” Don’s feet were so bad he wasn’t able to re-join his unit until April 1917.  He suffered gunshot wounds in 1917 and again in 1918 and then re-fractured his arm in a fall.  This injury precipitated an inquiry as there was some doubt as to whether it was caused by an accident or self-inflicted.  The inquiry concluded it was accidental and Don survived the war.  His younger brother Calder did not survive.  Calder was killed in action in France in April 1918.  He was only 21.

Annie had also been looking for George Phillips and on the 29th December 1916 received a letter from his brother, Arthur, telling her George was in Southmead Hospital, Bristol.  George who was only 19 when he enlisted was wounded at Gallipoli and caught rheumatic fever, from which he never really recovered.  He was discharged as medically unfit citing shell shock and rheumatic fever.  His older brother Arthur also suffered shell shock after being wounded in action in France.  Not long before he wrote to Annie he went AWOL for several days and when he returned he was fined ten days pay.  Reading their files (digital copies are available on the NAA website) it is clear both brothers were deeply traumatised by their experiences and spent the war in and out of hospital.  Neither brother married.

Further Reading 

Ham, P. (2016). Passchendaele – Requiem for Doomed Youth. Sydney: William Heinemann.

White, J. (2014). Zeppelin Nights – London in the First World War. London: Vintage Books.

 

 

[1] (White, 2014)

[2] (Ham, 2016)

December 1916 – Miss Kitty Moir visits Annie and Portia.

“Where am I to begin to tell you about everything that has taken place since I wrote last? Kitty Moir was writing to her mother Mrs T. Moir not long after arriving at Girton College Cambridge in 1916.  The letter was published in the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin in January 1917 and is available on Trove.  The city of Rockhampton was very proud of Kitty and the newspaper had written many stories about her academic successes over the years.  Kitty was the first Rockhampton woman to be awarded a Masters of Arts by the University of Sydney and the first Australian woman to graduate with first-class honours and receive the University medal for modern languages.  Kitty then became the first woman to win the James King Travelling Scholarship and in 1917 began her studies at Cambridge.

When Kitty arrived at Plymouth from Australia there was a letter from Annie Wheeler – Annie would meet her at Paddington Station in London.  Kitty had a little trouble clearing customs because of a tin of wattle Mary Trotman had sent Annie.  When they opened the tin the wattle had gone mouldy and Kitty begged to let it through.  She must have realised how much it would mean to Annie.  When Annie wrote to Mary she told her “it was with sorrow I have to tell you the wattle and bottle brush was all mildewed when it arrived; but I was able to get two or three little sprays out of the centre.”  She went on to say she had “no words to express her gratitude to the dear people who gathered it and packed it.  Home seemed very near to me when I saw it.”

When Kitty arrived at Paddington Station it was almost nine o’clock at night and the station was so crowded she didn’t think she would be able to find Annie Wheeler but as she was waiting for her luggage Annie found her and took her in the waiting cab to Lancaster Gate.  After a welcome night sleep in a comfortable bed on dry land Annie wasted no time and took Kitty to meet Sir Thomas Robinson, the Queensland Agent General who told her to consider him her “English Godfather”.  Annie helped Kitty set up her bank account and transfer the money she would need for university.

Everything in London was new to Kitty and she found the underground so different and the London buses wonderful.  She was struck by the fact they were two storied and you had to climb the stairs while they were moving and was even more struck by the fact they have girls as conductors.  She enjoyed being in London and seeing Annie’s work and was there when a number of soldiers stopped by to visit.  Kitty told her mother “Now that I have seen the grand work that Mrs Wheeler does, I do not feel that people have been nearly grateful enough to her.”

A few days later when it was time to leave for Girton College, Portia took Kitty to the station in a taxi because Annie had a meeting at the Agent General’s office.  The Christmas work was not yet done.

December 1916 – Portia falls in love.

In December 1916 Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were busy seeing the many Queensland soldiers who were on leave or furlough in London. Their letters are filled with the names of soldiers they’ve seen. “Wilfred McLaughlin had lunch with us the same day.  He is on furlough.  Bill Orrock was here last week.  Jack Atherton came on his way to flying school. Noel Trotman came down from Grantham for four days leave.  He had tea and dinner with us today.”

In the middle of December Fred Fox came in and had tea with them. For Portia, something about Fred set him apart from the other soldiers; her heart quickened and butterflies filled her stomach.

Fred joined the army on the 4th September 1914 and on the morning of the 25th April 1915 was one of the first to step onto the beach at Gallipoli.  He was part of all the Australian efforts there until he was hospitalised on Lemnos with fever a few weeks before the evacuation.   Fred’s brother Norman was also at Gallipoli and they were sent to different parts of Egypt at the end of 1915.  Norman was badly wounded in a training exercise and Fred desperately wanted to see him.  Denied leave, Fred talked to his superiors and they agreed to turn a blind eye to his absence.  According to his son Norman (presumably named after his brother) who has written an extensive family history available online,  (www.foxfamilyhistory.com) Fred walked for a night and day across the desert but was unable to reach Norman before he died.

Fred’s son believed Portia and Fred met during the war, probably earlier in 1916.  Annie first mentions Fred in a letter to Mary Trotman which was published in the “Capricornian” in June 1916.  Apparently Annie had had a letter from H.J. Wallace.  “He said he had seen Fred Fox so we know he is in France, and we hope to see Fred and Peter Stuart soon.”  Between June and September 1916, Fred was with the 49th Battalion in France.  The Battalion “moved into the trenches of the Western Front for the first time on 21 June. It fought in its first major battle at Mouquet Farm in August and suffered heavily, particularly in the assault launched on 3 September”(awm.gov.au/unit/U51489/).  On 23 September Fred was sent back to England for further training.

By Christmas 1916 Fred had been part of the horrors of Gallipoli and Pozieres.  The official war correspondent Charles Bean was also at Mouquet Farm and in his official history describes “the flayed land, shell–hole bordering shell–hole, corpses of young men lying against the trench walls or in shell–holes; some – except for the dust settling on them – seeming to sleep; others torn in half; others rotting, swollen and discoloured” (ww1westernfront.gov.au/pozieres-windmill/aif-memorial-mouquet-farm/mouquet-farm.php).

Fred had seen all this and it was this man Portia was falling in love with. After the war Portia and Fred married and Annie walked her daughter down the aisle.

 

 

 

 

 

7 December 1916

On the first weekend in December 1916 Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were in Eastbourne having a well-earned break before starting on the Christmas work.  Annie’s husband, Henry Wheeler’s family lived in Eastbourne and Annie was very friendly with her sister-in-law Portia.  Henry died of complications from a horse-riding accident in 1903 and Annie and her daughter Portia were in England because Henry wanted young Portia to finish her education in England. Eastbourne was a Victorian seaside resort town in Sussex and about an hour and a half by train from Victoria Station.

When they returned to Lancaster Gate they started their Christmas work.  Annie had received twenty-five letters from Queensland mothers and needed to write to each of their sons.  Many of the letters asked Annie to send cakes or socks or warm vests to their sons and contained money or details about how the money would be transferred. Parcels to the front from Australia often went missing and mothers knew Annie’s parcels had a better chance of getting to the boys. Not only did Annie and Portia have to answer each of these letters but they had to buy the supplies, make and send the parcels.

On Monday 4th December 1916 Annie went to Mrs Hall’s tea party. Mrs Hall entertained eight boys from the Australian Hospital in Southall every Monday afternoon.  After they had tea, sandwiches, bread, cake and homemade soda, a friend would sing, play and recite for them.  Annie would ply the soldiers with questions asking who they had seen, whether they’d heard anything about so and so?  Annie used this information to follow up requests from families who were desperately looking for their sons and brothers.  Some hadn’t heard anything for months or in some cases years.

In Annie’s index card boxes, which are part of the State Library of Queensland collection, there is a card for Percy Augustus Hiron.  Mrs Hiron wrote looking for word about her son Percy.  She hadn’t heard from him and heard rumours he was shell shocked or injured.  She believed she hadn’t heard from him because “he was no scholar.”  There is correspondence between Mrs Hiron and the military in Percy’s war records digitised by the National Archive of Australia.  Percy was wounded at some stage and did recover but perhaps more interestingly and something they didn’t tell Mrs Hiron was Percy was court-martialled and trialled in 1917.  It seems he and another soldier were escorting two prisoners who escaped.  Percy and the other man (Baker) were not carrying their rifles and were unable to do anything to stop the escape.  Not carrying their riffles was an offence and the reason they were court-martialled.  They elected to be tried together and at their trial they were acquitted and returned to their unit.  Percy survived the war.

Also on this day 100 years ago Lloyd George became prime minister and in December 1916 Belle Glasgow (wife of Major General William Glasgow) who was staying at the same boarding house as Annie and Portia, wrote to her daughters, who were in Gympie, telling them London was so dirty she had to wash her hair once a week.  Belle’s letters are part of the SLQ collection.