While the Battle of Messines was a success its ferocity left more than ten thousand Australian soldiers dead, wounded, missing or suffering severe shell shock. Soldiers who made it back found their battalions decimated. Sometimes they had seen a mate fall but that was the last they’d seen of him. Desperate for news, unable to find out any information in France or Belgium, they cabled or wrote to Annie Wheeler telling her their mate was missing and asked her to to investigate.
In June 1917 Annie’s list of missing was growing. Some boys, Lonergan and Lupton hadn’t been seen since the Battle of Bullecourt and others Palfrey, Boyd and Dodd since Messines. Annie gave their names to Mary Chomley who headed the Red Cross Prisoner of War Department who also made enquiries. In early June Annie got a letter from Lonergan, letting her know he was a prisoner of war and then a few days later Alexander Lupton’s letter arrived. He was also a prisoner of war.
A little later Annie located Dodd and Boyd in POW camps but unfortunately she discovered Palfrey had been killed in action. Arthur Nixen wrote to let her know his brother had been wounded but his brother-in-law Bert had been killed. Annie was able to tell Arthur, Bert wasn’t dead but was a prisoner of war in Germany. As soon as Annie knew where her boys were she sent parcels of food and other comforts. The Red Cross sent parcels for a small fee and families cabled Annie money to pay on their behalf.
There were often mix ups in the cables but if the money didn’t arrive Annie would pay the Red Cross herself. William Humphries’s money had been cabled under Humphrey’s but luckily it was the Commonwealth Bank and Annie was able to sort it out. Annie was scrupulous with her accounting and acknowledged every donation. In June ten pounds was cabled to Mrs H. J. Wheeler. The bank manager realised it was meant for Annie but it took Annie months to work out the money was from the Rockhampton Bowling Club. The Central Queensland community appreciated Annie’s work and with donations increasing Mary Trotman urged Annie to hire some help to “keep pace with the letters”. In late June Annie took her advice and put an ad in the British Australiasian for a “shorthand writer and typist, Queenslander preferred”.
Annie often ran into boys from home. Returning to the station after visiting Lieutenant Watts in Harfield Hospital she came across Angus Leitch lying on a stretcher on the platform waiting to be taken to the same hospital. Going down in a crowded lift in Paddington station two soldiers turned around and exclaimed “Mrs Wheeler”. It was Private Godsell. He recognised Annie’s voice. He had sold Annie boots when he worked at Davis and McDongall’s in Rockhampton.
Sadly one hundred years ago on the 26th June she received news her friend George Hartley had been killed. George had been a frequent visitor and she had only seen him in May on his way back to France after being wounded at Bullecourt. His cousin Claude Murphy had cabled her. George had died in a clearing station and Claude had gone back to the village behind the casualty clearing station to see if he could find the place where George had passed away. He was unsuccessful at the time but told Annie he would find out the particulars of George’s death. Annie’s heart went out to Claude who had lost a brother and two cousins within a month of each other.
Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman printed in The Capricornian have been digitised by the NLA and are available online.
Soldier’s war records have been digitised by the NAA and are available online