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.

Grantham_Museum_Edith_Smith

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.

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