Living in London in 1917 as winter turned to spring was extremely challenging. Food was expensive and in short supply. Food prices were more than twice what they had been in July 1914. Added to this was a feeling that the price rise wasn’t just due to shortages but to profiteering. Wages were stagnant and discontent on the rise. Strikes became common place and anti-war protests were increasingly violent. Fuel shortages led to a ban on private motor cars in April and a dwindling of taxis placed more demands on overcrowded public transport.
Spring also saw a resumption of large scale battles in France and Belgium with their inevitable increases in casualties. Men were reported missing, never to be seen again. Families prayed they had been captured and were prisoners of war but often the grim reality was they had been pulverised by the large-scale shelling and there was no body, not even a part of a body to bury. Mistakes were made by the AIF. Sometimes families were told their son had been killed in action only to discover later he was alive and well. Belle Glasgow was visiting Annie Wheeler when a soldier from the 49th Battalion called to tell Annie he was alive. While he was in France he was handed a copy of the Anzac Bulletin and saw his own name among the list of dead.
The absence of bodies and the bureaucratic mix-ups made grieving even more difficult. Families wanted proof about the fate of their loved one and begged Annie and Portia Wheeler for information about their missing sons, husbands and brothers. Annie and Portia hounded the Red Cross and used their time at the Anzac Buffet and hospitals to question soldiers in the same battalion or unit. They investigated every available lead to gather as much information as possible. Even confirmation of death was better than endless wondering.
Spring did bring one piece of welcome news. April 6th, 1917, one hundred years ago today, the USA declared war on Germany and the public celebrated filling the streets, wearing little American flags in buttonholes and flying flags from buildings. They hoped the influx of Americans would mean a swift end to the war and at last they felt there was something to cheer about. London filled with Americans over the next few months and a huge crowd turned out to see a baseball match at Lord’s Cricket Ground between the Canadians and Americans in July.
The hope was short-lived as spring thawed the fields of France and Belgium and heavy artillery pounded the earth turning everything to mud. The slaughter escalated. In 1917 over 76,000 Australians were killed, wounded and missing on the Western Front; twice the number of casualties in France in 1916 and three times that of Gallipoli.