One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler’s boys, protected by a barrage of heavy artillery, charged German pillboxes at Polygon Wood. Thousands of shells pounded the ground creating a dust and fire storm that slammed into the terrified German soldiers. Charles Bean described the barrage as “the most perfect that ever protected Australian troops.” William Glasgow’s 13th Brigade comprised of the 49th,50th,51st and 52nd Battalions were part of the charge. Polygon Wood, a clump of forest near Ypres, already battered by previous battles was razed. Victory was achieved in just under four hours.
Two days later William wrote to his wife Belle in London revelling in the success, “We have been in and had a most successful show – everything went according to programme and our own casualties are very light. From our point of view the most successful we have ever been in.” Unfortunately, while it was the most successful battle since Messines, casualties as a whole were not light; 15,375 allies were killed, wounded or missing for the capture of 3.5 square miles. William and Belle wrote to each other almost every day and on the 28th September, he reassured her “you poor old thing you think that I am unsympathetic. No girl never when you are concerned and my actions have never shown it. What you have read is apparently my bad way of expressing myself. I am sure when we meet we will be only too glad to help one another.”
Belle’s chief complaint was her husband’s lack of leave. She had left her young daughters in Australia and moved to London to be closer to William but the reality of war meant long absences and shifting promises of leave. William’s letters often portray an emotional needy and self-centred Belle in need of soothing reassurance. In fairness to Belle only William’s letters survive; she may have had reason to be anxious about their relationship. That aside, being adrift from her family and friends, living in the centre of London in 1917, in one of the worst weeks of the war would have made most people fret.
The harvest moon bombings in London from the 24 September to 1 October killed hundreds and created widespread fear and panic. The nightly raids while the moon shone brightly became intolerable as hundreds of thousands of people took to the underground stations for protection. On 28 September, a woman was killed in a stampede at Liverpool Street tube station. Once people were in the stations it became impossible for the passengers to get in and out. And there were concerns about sanitation, prompting buckets of sand and disinfectant to be handed out to be used as toilets. Hospitals and schools were forced to open their basements as shelters and people fled London, the poor sleeping in parks on the outskirts of the capital.
The harvest moon raids forced Londoners to experience some of the anguish and carnage of war but as the moon waned and the raids stopped the panic lessened. Not so in Ypres. The success at Polygon Wood would soon fade as the push for Passchendaele resumed and the rain fell.
William and Belle Glasgow’s letters are part of the State Library of Queensland collection.
Zeppelin Nights – London in the First World War by Jerry White published by Vintage Books 2015.
One hundred years ago today Selby Russell left Southampton for Belgium. He was part of the 47th Battalion and the next wave of young men to be thrown at the Germans in Ypres with the hope of wearing them down. The battle to occupy Polygon Wood was imminent and the third battle of Ypres, the battle of Passchendaele, or as it was termed by those who witnessed the carnage, Armageddon, yet to come.
Selby had become a dear friend of Annie and Portia Wheeler and volunteered in the office whenever he was on leave in London. A conveyancer from Brisbane, Selby was smart, capable and efficient; before he joined in 1916 he worked at the estate agency Chandler and Russell which he formed with his brother Joseph and his grandfather. Annie appreciated Selby’s assistance. Men moved about so much Annie and her team spent large amounts of time locating soldiers and sending and forwarding letters and parcels and Selby was a great help re-addressing mail. He made friends easily and knew which battalions were resting in training camps, on the move or at the front. Selby’s Rockhampton connection was his sister, Sophie Alexander and Annie corresponded with Sophie, Selby’s mother Louisa and his other sister Olive who was a nurse serving in India. Annie’s fondness for Selby was mutual. In letters home, he referred to her as “Our Darling”.
Selby’s leaving, added to the challenges of living in London in September 1917. The daily anxiety of never knowing if loved ones were safe was compounded by the scarcity and expense of food and coal and the looming winter. Gotha bombers had also reached the capital and night bombings had intensified. Annie never went to bed without her little electric torch and a stack of letters ready to take to the basement if there was an air raid.
Annie’s friend, Belle Glasgow, writing to her daughters Joan and Beth on 19th September 1917 described how unsettling the air raids had become. One night, when everything seemed quiet, they’d returned to their beds only to hear the bombers again. “I shall never forget the noise of their machines. Their engines hummed like dozens of telephone wires. It made my ears ache.” The next morning Belle learnt the hospital off the Strand had a miraculous escape. Casualties were limited because the bomb dropped on the road beside the hospital but every window in the entire street was either broken or cracked.
Meanwhile in Southampton, Selby boarded a boat for Belgium to take part in the battle that would decimate his battalion, the entire division and change his life forever.
Annie Wheeler’s correspondence and Belle Glasgow’s letters to her daughters are part of State Library of Queensland’s collection.
Selby Russell’s war record has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia.
47th Battalion war diary has been digitised by the Australian War Memorial.
In September 1917 Annie Wheeler received a desperate letter from Christina Robertson. Her brother, John Robertson, was unwell and had been unwell for a number of months. Something happened to John either before he embarked in February 1917 or on the troop ship from Australia.
John was working as a draper in Townsville when he enlisted in 1916. He was 23 and had come to Australia as a child. His family were from Buckhaven Scotland and John had cousins and friends in Scotland. John told his family in Townsville he would cable and write when he landed in England. By April, when no cable or letter arrived they began to worry and when they heard from John’s friends that he had spent the last part of the voyage “dangerously ill in the ship’s hospital” they feared the worse. An officer who was on board the ship told them John arrived in Plymouth in April 1917 in a “sick and dangerous condition”.
Letters to the AIF only increased their anxiety. Initially, they were told there was no report of John being sick and the AIF could only investigate further if the family provided more information about what they had heard. The family did and received a response dated 9th August informing them John had been in Devonport Military hospital after he arrived in England with a “slight attack of bronchitis” but was now with his training battalion in Rolleston. This didn’t tally with the reports they had received and if John’s illness was mild why hadn’t he contacted them or his cousins? John’s cousin headed to Rolleston to see for himself and was shocked by John’s condition.
Christina told Annie John was severely depressed, caused or exacerbated by John contracting the mumps on board the ship. However, there is no mention of mumps in John’s military records; in April he is admitted to hospital with bronchitis but discharged in May and sent to a training battalion in Perham Downs and then Rolleston. Around the time John’s cousin visited he had been AWOL for three days and was awaiting court-martial.
At the end of September, without anyone else to turn to, Christina asked Annie to help “cheer our Brother’.
Whether as a result of Annie’s visits, his family’s letters, a combination of both or something else, things did improve for John. A doctor’s assessment in October noted he had suffered from melancholia on board his transfer from Australia but improved and re-joined the training battalion. However, he found John’s melancholia had returned. “He lies about his hut and is difficult to rouse. He is developing dirty habits, never washes or shaves and wanders aimlessly about. He suffers from loss of memory and when questioned gazes aimlessly about. He makes no friends and his conduct is erratic.” The doctor declared him unfit for general service and unfit for home service. He was admitted to Hurdcott Hospital but only five weeks later was discharged and returned to his training battalion. Something happened during those five weeks that enabled John to “see things in a different light”. In early 1918 John was promoted to acting lance corporal and sent to fight in France. He survived the war and returned to Australia in 1919.
Christina Robertson’s letter to Annie Wheeler is part of Annie Wheeler’s collection in the State Library of Queensland.
John Robertson’s military record has been digitised by the NAA and is available online.