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