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)

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