Our Baby Brother

One hundred years ago today James Fitzroy Foot lay dying.  Driving rain turned the ground beneath him into thick mud which oozed into his uniform and quickly embraced him.

He lay with others from his battalion near the border between France and Belgium.  Officially they were in France but so close to the border, when their mates found them they buried them together in the vicinity of Messines in Belgium.  Reverend Cutten reported their burial on the 12th of August.  James was barely nineteen, from Springsure in central Queensland.  Annie Wheeler grew up in Springsure and knew James’s family well.

James was part of the 42nd battalion which was attached to General Plumer’s Second Army.  Since the battle of Messines their efforts were focused on destroying German resistance along the Warneton Line in preparation for the major offensive to capture the strategic Passchendaele ridge.  The 42nd battalion would be part of a supportive feint attack to the south, designed to weaken the German defence by drawing it away from the main battle.

The feint and the main battle of Passchendaele began at the same time, 3.50am on the morning on the 31st of July.  The battalion made good progress but despite the unprecedented shelling by the British in the weeks leading up to the battle the counter attack was fierce and they were heavily bombarded.

Then the rain fell, in great torrents, and the battle of Passchendaele, already ill-planned turned disasterous.  The fields of Ypres became a human slaughter-house.

James was killed on the 31st of July but news of his death took time to filter through.  His family were devastated.  He was the baby.  They needed more information about his death and wrote to Annie Wheeler.  “I am writing to you because you will most likely meet some of the 42nd who were with James at the time and if you could gain any information about his death.  Only a few particulars would be so comforting.  He was our baby brother – only 19 and 2 months when he died.”

The family also wrote to the AIF and were told all that remained were discs, a wallet and some photos.  They were told where he was buried.  In 1928, the Graves’ Commission found the remains of the C.O. of the 42nd battalion, Lieutenant Norman Freeman and five other soldiers near Messines.  Paper work confirmed one of the soldiers was James Foot.  Another was Private J. Fallon also from the 42nd battalion. James was exhumed and reburied in Sanctuary Wood Cemetry at Zillesbeke. His mates were buried beside him.

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Further Information

Map courtesy of the “Unofficial History of the Australian and New Zealand Armed Services” – http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-battles/ww1/france/warneton.htm.

Annie Wheeler’s papers have been digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are available online – www.slq.gov.au

James Foot’s war record has been digitised by the NAA and is available online www.naa.gov.au

Information about the 42nd battalion is available online at the AWM – www.awm.gov.au

 

 

The Tale of a Machine Gunner

In the middle of July 1917, Charles Snelling visited Annie Wheeler late one evening while he was in London to buy prizes for sports.  Sports and other activities such as circus, gymkhana, plays, concerts and as demand grew, literary and debating societies were encouraged by the AIF at the many training camps and depots in England. Most of these camps were situated around the vast Salisbury Plains.  Some Australians, unfamiliar with English geography thought Salisbury Plains was a place and letters were sometimes addressed to “Annie Wheeler, Mother of the Anzacs, Salisbury Plains”. Annie was amazed when these letters found her.

Lieutenant Charlie Snelling was in the 3rd Machine Gun Unit and was the first Rockhampton soldier to receive a decoration First Rockhampton Boy Wins a Decoration. In July 1917 Charlie was stationed in Grantham and had spent most of 1917 in England.  He had been wounded in France in December 1916 and arrived in London on the 7th January.  Annie was at AIF HQ in Horseferry Road when she heard Charlie was at the Third London Hospital.  A shell had burst near him spraying blast-stones and mud into his eyes.  He was blind for three days.  When Annie went to visit him with Kitty Moir December 1916 – Miss Kitty Moir visits Annie and Portia. she was pleased to see “he was looking well but his eyes were still rather weak”. While recovering he visited Annie several times at her “dug-out”, she was living at Lancaster Gate at the time, becoming a regular visitor.  Annie was pleased to see his eyes improve.

After being discharged Charlie was sent to the Command Depot No. 1 on Perham Downs near Salisbury.  The Command Depots received recovering Australian soldiers deemed fit to return to the front.  In February, Charlie visited Annie when he was in London to attend the medical board.  He was fit and expected to be returning to France within a month.  But instead of being sent back to the front he was sent to Grantham.  Grantham, a town of considerable size, north of London was the centre of machine gun training for the Empire.  In 1918 50,000 men were camped around there.  Machine guns changed warfare; they were light and lethal.  Three men operating a Vickers machine gun were more efficient than a whole platoon, mowing down lines of men in minutes.

Charlie was placed on a supernumery list and stayed in Grantham until November 1917.  He visited Annie often and on one visit on his way to Torquay for a few days told her he had been awarded the French Medaille Millitaire.

In November Charlie was admitted to Bulford Hospital after he contracted VD.  The fear of prostitution and female promiscuity during the war led to the establishment of a women’s police force and Grantham employed the world’s first police woman.  Volunteer police women operated in London and other cities but Mrs Edith Smith was the first woman to receive a police wage and be given full powers of arrest.  Her main job during the war was to keep an eye on women and prevent them cavorting with soldiers which included keeping them from bars and administering a curfew.  By 1918 the fear of VD and the inability to control the spread became so great laws were passed making it an offence for women to transmit VD.  In 1918 more than 100 women were sentenced to six months’ jail with hard labour.  Soldiers who contracted VD were fined.

Not long after Charlie recovered he was sent back to the front.

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Further Information

Machine Gun Image – http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk

Image of Edith Smith – Grantham Museum

Annie Wheeler’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove.

London Attacked

German Gotha bombers attacked London in a deadly daylight raid one hundred years ago on July 7th 1917.   Gotha planes which could fly higher and undetected in daylight had replaced Zeppelins and Londoners were unprepared for the attack.  Witnesses mistakenly assumed the planes were their own until they saw the deadly bombs drop over the East End and London city.  57 people were killed and almost 200 injured.

Annie Wheeler cabled her friend Mary Trotman in Rockhampton because she knew she would be anxious when she heard about the raid.

There were no warnings and the first Annie knew of the raid was the sound of guns in the distance at about ten-thirty in the morning.   When the sounds came nearer and nearer she realised “the enemy airplanes were overhead and thought it time to go down to the basement.”  Annie told Mary Trotman “everyone – even the little children – was quite calm”.  She reassured Mary, “no bombs were dropped in Victoria Street” where she was living.

95 British aircraft were sent up to defend the capital.  Annie realised the guns she had heard were “our own anti-aircraft.”  After a while Annie went up to the roof to see what was happening and counted about “thirty enemy planes” overhead.  “We just got on the roof in time to see the last one disappearing.”  The British planes chased the enemy aircraft over the channel bringing down one plane but losing two of their own.  Three young British airmen died.

Eleanor Bourne, the first Queensland woman doctor working at the Endell Street Military Hospital also watched the raid.  The bombs hit the General Post Office and the roof caught fire.  “The daylight raid was rather exciting and it was hard to believe that the buzzing planes looking like a swarm of flies, might really drop something dangerous; on this occasion the hospital was showered with bits of burnt paper from the nearby General Post Office which got hit.”

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Londoners were angry and scared and demanded better defences and warning systems.  Many directed their anger at the Germans living in London and riots broke out across the city.  3000 people vented in Upper Holloway, 1500 in Tottenham attacking German bakeries and tailors.  Windows were broken, money and goods stolen, police were injured and arrests made.

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Even though press reports were limited, these raids spread fear and caution among Londoners who until now had thought the raids more an entertaining spectacle.  More people headed for the basement rather than the roofs as air raid procedures and better warning systems were developed.

Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s letter to Mary Trotman, published in the Capricornian on the 15th September 1917has been digitised by the NLA and is available online -https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/69801339/6829485

Eleanor Bourne’s papers, (OM81-130 Eleanor Elizabeth Bourne Papers) held in SLQ, have been digitised and are available online – http://www.slq.qld.gov.au

New Scotland Yard Reports of the riots in London on the 7th July 1917 have been digitised by The National Archives UK are are available online – http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/spotlights/p_riots.htm

The photograph of bomb damaged buildings in St Pancras Road – (c) IWM HO76 – is part of the Imperial War Museum Collection.