Missing at Sea

At the end of August Annie Wheeler received a letter from George Coar letting her know one of his mates, Rockhampton man, John Michael Hawley had died at sea.  John’s ship was about a week out from England when he disappeared during a storm in the early hours of the morning.  He was not missed until later that day.

On the 28th August 1917, one hundred years ago today, John’s mother Mary received a cable with the devastating news John had drowned at sea.  News of John’s death was shocking because it was unexpected.  John had only left Australia on the 20th June and wasn’t expected to arrive in England until the end of August.  John wasn’t in the firing line, not like her other three boys, Thomas, Patrick and James, who were all fighting in France.

John was Mary’s eldest son, working as an accountant in Melbourne and the last brother to enlist.   He spent a year training in Australia first at corporals school and then sergeants school and was acting sergeant when he embarked for England.  After he was reported missing on the 18th August a Court of Enquiry was held at sea.  Several witnesses gave evidence and two reported John had been very sick during the voyage.

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Sgt. Armit also said he was depressed and Sgt. Herring said something was worrying him.

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Disturbingly John’s life-belt was found on the deck where he was last seen and there was also a question raised about the delay in reporting the incident.  A guard on the bridge had seen a man vomiting and his legs disappear but hours elapsed before the captain was told a man was overboard.  The Court of Enquiry concluded John fell overboard while vomiting.

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Mary wrote wanting details of John’s death and maybe to spare her she was simply told he fell overboard and drowned.

Unfortunately, John wasn’t the only son Mary lost during the war.  One month later Patrick was killed in the Battle of Polygon Wood in the Ypres sector in Belgium.  But it took more than eight months for her to find out he had been killed and she never found out where he was buried.  Mary wrote to the AIF in 1918 wanting information about Patrick.  He had written regularly but she hadn’t heard from him in eight months.

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When the AIF replied they told her he had been killed in action “on or about the 27th September” but there were no details of where or how he died or where he was buried.  Mary continued to write until 1923 when the AIF confirmed they couldn’t find his resting place.

Further Information

Soldiers’ war records have been digitised by the NAA and are available – http://www.naa.gov.au

Annie’s letter to Mary Trotman were published in ‘The Capricornian’ and are available on Trove – http://www.trove.nla.gov.au

 

The Emotional Toll

One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler was unwell and the doctor ordered her to rest.  She left London for Eastbourne leaving everything in Portia’s capable hands.  With so many missing and wounded the number of letters increased every day.  Every post brought bags of mail, all needing answers.  ‘Mothering’ so many boys was taking a toll.  Working as a nurse in Rockhampton, Annie knew many of these boys and their families personally; some she had delivered.  Each death was a blow.

Not long before Annie left for Eastbourne she heard a Court of Enquiry had determined Andrew Fraser had been killed in action.  She had been looking for him for almost a year.

Andrew was 18, a year younger than Portia, when he enlisted in 1916.  He had brown eyes and brown hair and a “fresh complexion”.  He was only five feet and five inches.  In August 1916 he was fighting in Poziers.  In October his mother, Mary Fraser, received a cable telling her Andrew had been wounded.

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After unsuccessfully trying to find what hospital he had been sent to she cabled Annie Wheeler.  Annie spent four weeks trying to locate Andrew; turning over every stone only to conclude Andrew was missing.

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Mary wrote to the AIF telling them Mrs Wheeler’s conclusions and a couple of weeks later received news Andrew was now listed as missing.

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She kept writing to the AIF for information telling them in May 1917 “any news is better than this suspense”.  On the 1st June there was still no more information.

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Eventually a Court of Enquiry was convened to investigate and on the 2nd July determined Andrew was killed on the 21st August 1916.

Mary kept writing wanting more information, wanting to know where her son was buried and in 1921 received an account from a witness.

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Andrew’s legs had been blown off.  After he was bandaged he was taken away to a dressing station but he never got there.  The suspense was over.

Further Information

Andrew’s war record has been digitised by the NAA – http://www.aa.gov.au

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman published in the ‘Capricornian’ have been digitised by Trove – http://www.nla.gov.au

Some Blind Trick of the Weather

The sheer brutality of artillery pummelling human flesh and thick viscous mud, created chaos.  Men leapt from their starting-off points never to be seen again. Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean’s war diaries describe the conditions, one hundred years ago today, as the worst the men had ever been in.  Stories of men falling into shell holes and disappearing from sight while their mates tried to pull them from the sludge before they drowned, abounded.  Travelling with the 49th and 50th battalions, Bean described tanks and guns abandoned, almost completely buried in mud, leaving men without artillery support. The guns were meant to destroy German defence posts so the men could charge forward, clear out any remaining Germans and gain ground. Without the heavy artillery, stuck in mud, men were sitting ducks.  Conditions were so bad the battle of Passchendaele was suspended until the rain eased.  When the push resumed, many of the men were lost, buried in the Belgium mud.

By the end of the war 25,000 Australian soldiers were listed as missing, presumed dead.

In London, oblivious to the horror of Passchendaele because of government censorship, Annie Wheeler was focused on finding men still missing after the Battle of Messines.

One of these men was Charles Findlay.  Initially, his mother, Ann, was told he was missing but then one month later, she received news he was dead.  They told her he was killed in the battle of Messines on the 7th June 1917 but they didn’t know where he was buried and they couldn’t find any of his belongings; no discs, no photos, no wallet, no kit, nothing.  Ann Findlay thought maybe there had been a mistake.  Maybe he was a prisoner of war.  It made no sense to her that there were no personal effects and no one could tell her where Charles was buried.  She wrote to Annie Wheeler in August praying there had been some mistake.

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If he was dead Ann asked Annie to find out something about his last moments; she wanted to know if he spoke about his people.  Annie did all she could to find out what happened – she wrote letters and spoke to men in his battalion.  She liaised closely with the AIF, Australian Red Cross and the YMCA.

The Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau was headed by a young Australian woman Vera Deakin.  The bureau engaged searchers who investigated missing men, spoke to witnesses and prepared reports.  They wrote to the families giving them an honest, if sometimes brutal account to help families understand what had happened to their sons or brothers.

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The bureau  looked for Charles Findlay.  His file has a statement from his friend who said Lieutenant Pott was with him when he died.

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The bureau wrote to Pott but no statement exists.  If Pott did give a statement it isn’t on file and it is unlikely Ann Findlay received any information.  Ann continued to write to the AIF until 1922, always a similar letter, wanting to know where Charles was buried and if there were any photos or letters.  Wanting anything.  The Red Cross continued to look for him after the war ended but there was no sign of him in Germany.

Further Information

  • Ann Findlay’s letter to Annie is part of Annie Wheeler’s collection in the State Library of Queensland – http://www.slq.gov.au
  • Red Cross Missing Files have been digitised by the Australian War Memorial – https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/red-cross-records-from-the-first-world-war.
  • Charles Findlay and Ann Findlay’s records are available at the NAA – http://www.aa.gov.au
  • Charles Bean’s diaries have been digitised by the AWM – https://oldsite.awm.gov.au/images/collection/bundled/RCDIG1066614.pdf
  • The image, H07970, courtesy of the AWM, is the Index Card Department at the Prisoner of War Information Bureau.