11 January 1917. Annie Wheeler was busy sending out New Year Parcels. It was bitterly cold and the soldiers needed gloves, scarves, mufflers, mittens, warm socks and underwear. Central Queensland women had organised themselves and had been knitting and sewing for months. Mrs Hopper had volunteered to make 50 pair of socks. Mothers also sent parcels, for their sons, directly to Annie who had a better chance of making sure they arrived safely. Annie had a knack for finding a soldier even when she only had the name of the ship he embarked on, though she did lament that once a soldier arrived at Salisbury Plains, a training camp in England, it was like “trying to find a needle in a haystack”.
Of course the parcels had to get to England first and the journey from Australia was more precarious for parcels than for passengers. If the ship was hit by a U-Boat, passengers could be rescued whereas all possessions including parcels and letters were left to sink with the ship.
In October 1916, the S.S. Arabia left Australia with 439 passengers, 169 of them women and children and much needed parcels and letters for Annie to distribute. Some of the items were for central Queensland soldiers who were prisoners of war and had told Annie the food the Germans gave them was not fit to eat. Annie liaised with the Red Cross to make sure the necessary items got to her boys. Annie would eyeball whomever she needed to eyeball in the Red Cross and Army HQ offices to ensure she got what she needed. Sometimes she paid for additional Red Cross supplies.
In her letter of 11 January 1917, one hundred years ago today, Annie detailed the contents of the POW Red Cross parcels to Mary Trotman, her able deputy working in Rockhampton. The parcel contained “biscuits, beef dripping, tea, milk and sugar in tablets, soup in tablets, equal to nine plates, tin salmon, macaroni, coffee, vegetables, 12lb of army rations, beef-a-la-mond, rabbit, golden syrup, marmalade, Quaker oats, corned beef and ginger pudding”. The POWs relied on the Red Cross Parcels.
As the Arabia sailed through the Mediterranean on 6 November 1916, no one sensed any danger but as the stewards started to serve pre-lunch bowls of beef soup the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat without any warning. The torpedo hit the coal bunkers and passengers were thrown to the decks. Some had deep lacerations and were badly concussed but their daily life-boat drills saved their lives; all the passengers escaped the sinking ship. Eleven of the crew were killed and the cargo was lost. When Annie heard about the disaster she was distraught and needed to find money to replace the supplies she feared were on board. She was very relieved when letters and parcels showed up in the second week of January, and told Mary Trotman “so no doubt we have had mails via America and Suez. A parcel of socks addressed to Private Orrock arrived. These must be the 50 pairs from Lake’s Creek which I thought had gone down in the Arabia. I am so delighted they have turned up safely. Please thank Mrs Hopper and all those who put such splendid work into them.”
The sinking of the Arabia without warning increased tensions between Germany and the US who were poised to enter the war.
More information about the sinking of the Arabia – http://www.peoplehelp.com.au/stories/arabia.html
More information about the relationship between Annie Wheeler and M.S. Trotman scroll down and read my previous post dated 30 November 2016 and titled December 1916