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.