One hundred years ago as the guns fell silent, twenty thousand Australian soldiers were missing. Of the sixty-thousand men killed during the war at least a third had no known grave.
Amid the Armistice celebrations, Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia continued to search for the missing and care for the boys still to make their way home.
By the end of 1918 Annie had almost 3000 soldiers on her books, 3000 boys and families she traced. With erratic mail and constant troop movements Annie was the most reliable and trusted source of information about her boys. She sent cables and letters and continued her weekly letters to Mary Trotman listing all the soldiers who contacted or visited her.
Following the Armistice finding missing soldiers was increasingly difficult. On the 15th November Annie explained the difficulty to Mary Trotman, “It is difficult at times to find a boy, e.g. according to H.Q. he was supposed to be in Third Australian General Hospital. I wired the Commandant, after five days waiting received a reply, he had already been in England but could not tell which hospital he was in nor could the Red Cross. After a fruitless search lasting a fortnight, a female Queenslander who is working in the casualty inquiry room at H.Q. thought of ringing up the base postal office to find out if the boy had notified of change of address and found he had written to them for his letters from St James Infirmary, Batham (London). I am telling you this to let you know how difficult it sometimes is to trace a man owing to the carelessness of some of the British Hospital in not notifying either Australian H.Q. or our Red Cross of his arrival. Obtaining the address I went to see him but he was out for the afternoon and the next day he came to see me.”
While the fighting was over, thousands of soldiers remained in France and Belgium as the Germans decamped and civilians returned home. Prisoners of war were suddenly free. Annie received news from Arthur Moore on the 22nd November who was “now walking the streets of Liege at leisure”. He was lodging with a woman who spoke very good English and looked after him like a mother. While they waited for the British soldiers to arrive they occupied themselves going to the theatre or music halls. The Germans had been set a deadline to leave Belgium and Moore was skeptical they would meet it. ‘it is a sight to see the German transport going to Germany”, horses, cows and donkeys pulling wagons. He asked Annie to let his family know he was well and told her he hoped to be in London for Christmas.
Most soldiers would spend another Christmas in Europe and Annie was busy sending parcels and letters. In addition to the usual warm clothes and cigarettes soldiers asked for film.
“Bert Spilsbury has asked for films for his camera as they are very hard to get in France and the boys are now allowed to use their cameras. He says there is nothing in the country they are passing through except civil population who look very worn out. He adds, ‘I do not think they got too much food from Fritz. They will take anything we give them.’ Bert was hoping to get some good snapshots. ‘This town we are in, which is fairly big, is not too bad. Fritz has paintings on all the walls. One is of John Bull standing in the middle of England, scratching his head and surrounded by U boats. Another is of a U boat torpedoing a big liner and many others all worth snapping. The French people are bewildered to be free’.
Soldiers also sent “souvenirs” to Annie to mind. Charlie Dolgner sent her an unusual parcel he picked up at Mont St. Quentin. “The Australians had got through the German first line of defence and were surrounded by the enemy. A German officer was up on top of his trench trying to buck up his men who were running away. Charlie got within twenty yards of him under cover of the trench and fired at his head but missed and he jumped into the trench and put his hands up. ‘He had a first-class Iron Cross and I wanted him to give it to me. He could speak English well and he said he would give me anything but not to take the Iron Cross, so I left him with it. That is where I got the revolver and field glasses.”
Some were lucky enough to be shipped home not long after the Armistice.
Sister Nellie Lawson wrote to Annie from sea before landing in Port Said, Egypt. “There are a few cases of mild influenza. The boys are all very happy. It is lovely to hear them singing at night. They all get out on the hatch and the officers and sisters go along and join in. We could not get a piano before we left so a wireless has been sent to have one ready at Port Said.
1918 was Annie’s and Portia’s last Christmas in England.
The British Australasian in London published a soldiers’ tribute to Mrs Wheeler on the 12th December 1918 called “The Mother of Queenslanders”. The writer, Pot Jostler, described her work and why she was given her title. He concluded, “No one except a soldier can possibly realise the magnificent work carried out by Mrs Wheeler, who sad to say enjoys anything but the best of health. It is nothing but her indomitable spirit and the pride of her native state that has enabled her to carry on so long, and now that our labours are finished and therefore hers, we Queenslanders will go back to our hearths and homes with the happiest of memories of and our hearts filled with deep gratitude to ‘The mother of all Queenslanders’”.
Annie and Portia still had work to do. They kept working through 1919 until almost all the boys on their books returned home or were located.
During the summer Portia visited the battlefields of France and Belgium where many of her friends lay dead.
5000 people met their train when they arrived home in November 1919.
Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman were originally published in “The Capricornia” . Digital copies are available on Trove – http://www.trove.nla.gov.au.
Photograph of one of the index cards in the State Library of Queensland Annie Wheeler Collection.