Annie Wheeler’s letters in 1917 differed in tone to those written at the start of the war in 1915. A few weeks after the landing on the beach at Gallipoli in 1915, injured Australian soldiers were arriving in Britain and being sent to the military hospitals in Manchester, Birmingham and Chichester. Annie went to the Commonwealth Office in London several times a week to “gaze at the list of dear wounded boys”. As soon as she located a boy from Rockhampton or central Queensland she sent him a letter and a parcel of tobacco, sweets, soap and a shaving brush. Her early letters are quite emotional; she found the newspaper accounts of the injuries awful. “A man whose face looked as if someone with a spiked boot had stepped on it and another as if he had been raked from head to foot with spikes.” Seeing the number of dead and wounded, Annie couldn’t understand why the British and German governments were allowing the war to continue; “surely it has gone far enough”.
Her early letters are also political. Annie was a supporter of Lord Kitchener and found the Daily Mail’s attacks on him brutal and was incensed the unions were disrupting the flow of essential war materials as a bargaining chip in their labour wars with the government. “Today my heart is so full; and I hate the fooling about in London when there is so much to be done”. Feeling helpless and not quite knowing where to direct her energy, Annie decided to help make respirators for the Belgians. “It seems only too true we are going to use the poisonous gases: but perhaps it will be only once. If the Germans suffer like our men, they will not want more than one dose.” Annie hoped the war would be over quickly, that those in power would see sense and stop the slaughter.
Unfortunately, no one saw sense. By 1917 the slaughter had increased and the war of attrition was in full swing and both Britain and Germany were prepared to kill as many of their young men as needed to win the war.
In February 1917, Annie’s letters were no longer emotional. While she expressed her sadness and regret at the loss of life, her raw anguish of twenty-two months earlier is no longer there. Almost two years of war, with no end in sight, have taken its toll on her psyche. She no longer mentions the political situation or speculates when the war might end. She focuses on the only thing she can control, the comfort of her boys. “Since posting my letter of the 8th of February (1917) I have received sixty-five letters from my boys, I must tell you about some of them who wrote from France.”
Annie’s decision to “mother” these boys had an emotional cost. Visiting, meeting, sharing meals with these young men meant she couldn’t escape the reality that many of them would be killed in France. It is not surprising as 1917 wore on and so many boys were killed Annie’s health deteriorated. Every time she wrote home to a mother and noted, in red, on the index card a boy had been killed in action it would have been impossible not to feel the loss. The fact her letters took on a more ‘newsy’ tone as the war progressed was her attempt at a modicum of self-protection.
The photograph is of a card in Annie Wheeler’s index boxes held in the State Library of Queensland collection.
Annie Wheeler’s letters to Mary Trotman in Rockhampton have been digitised by the National Library and are available via Trove.