January 1917 Annie Wheeler received a cablegram from Rockhampton. Murray Hartley’s family had heard he had been wounded and were desperate for news. Annie wondered if there had been a mix-up. In his last letter, a few days before Christmas, Murray told her he had bronchitis and expected to be in hospital for a couple of weeks. Annie immediately rang AIF HQ.
Murray’s full name was John William Murray Hartley but everyone called him Murray. His mother, Sarah Hartley, was a widow and in January 1917, two of her boys were fighting in France; Murray, 24 and George, 28. Murray was the keener soldier. He had enlisted more than a year before his older brother, was promoted to Sergeant in March 1916 and then promoted again to Lieutenant in August. He wrote to Annie on 20th December from hospital which is how she knew he had bronchitis.
The speed of communication one-hundred-years ago is hard to imagine in today’s world of smart phones, social media and emails. Landlines were not common in England or Australia; only two out of every hundred homes in England had a telephone in 1917 and mail went by ships, then by train or coach. It could take days, weeks or months to find out something bad had happened to your son. Daily lists of sick, wounded and dead soldiers were sent from the front to AIF HQ in London who would then pass the information on to the next-of-kin. The AIF only sent cablegrams or telegrams if a soldier had died, was missing-in-action or “his complaint was likely to develop seriously or dangerously”. If the complaint was of a “slight nature” notification would appear “in hospital lists which come to hand later by mail.”
Annie recognised the importance of reliable, speedy communication. She made sure everyone had her contact details and encouraged them to write to her regularly. She hassled AIF HQ, the Red Cross and hospitals to give her information about her boys. She developed a wide network of contacts and used them to find out and pass on information. Annie sent regular cablegrams to her able deputy Mary Trotman in Rockhampton full of information about the conditions of her boys, information she knew would take too long to filter back to their families
When Annie contacted AIF HQ she was was told Murray had re-joined his unit from hospital but had been wounded on the 7th January 1917. There were no details of what had happened to him and she was unable to find out what hospital he was in. She waited two days and then rang AIF HQ again only to hear Murray had died of his wounds on the 9th January at the 36th Casualty Clearing Station in France. He died just before midnight from high explosive wounds to both his legs. Annie immediately cabled his family and wrote to his brother George in case he hadn’t heard. When she saw Leslie Henderson, who was in the same company, some days later, he told her Murray had been badly wounded. His lower legs had been blown off. Writing to her friend Mary Trotman on the 25th January 1917, exactly one hundred years ago today, she told her she “was grieved to have to send you the sad news about Lieutenant Murray Hartley.”
Not only did Annie deliver a great deal of bad news to families in Central Queensland she was also asked to deliver sad news to the soldiers. In the same letter of the 25th January she tells Mary Trotman “I had a letter also from Corporal D. Roberts, who was well when he wrote on the 11th of January. His battalion was resting. He had received the “Capricornians” from me, but had had no mail from home lately, so I fear he was not prepared for the sad news I was asked to convey to him about his father.”