War Weary

Annie Wheeler’s letters in 1917 differed in tone to those written at the start of the war in 1915.  A few weeks after the landing on the beach at Gallipoli in 1915, injured Australian soldiers were arriving in Britain and being sent to the military hospitals in Manchester, Birmingham and Chichester.  Annie went to the Commonwealth Office in London several times a week to “gaze at the list of dear wounded boys”.  As soon as she located a boy from Rockhampton or central Queensland she sent him a letter and a parcel of tobacco, sweets, soap and a shaving brush.  Her early letters are quite emotional; she found the newspaper accounts of the injuries awful. “A man whose face looked as if someone with a spiked boot had stepped on it and another as if he had been raked from head to foot with spikes.”  Seeing the number of dead and wounded, Annie couldn’t understand why the British and German governments were allowing the war to continue; “surely it has gone far enough”.

Her early letters are also political.  Annie was a supporter of Lord Kitchener and found the Daily Mail’s attacks on him brutal and was incensed the unions were disrupting the flow of essential war materials as a bargaining chip in their labour wars with the government.  “Today my heart is so full; and I hate the fooling about in London when there is so much to be done”.  Feeling helpless and not quite knowing where to direct her energy, Annie decided to help make respirators for the Belgians.  “It seems only too true we are going to use the poisonous gases: but perhaps it will be only once.  If the Germans suffer like our men, they will not want more than one dose.”  Annie hoped the war would be over quickly, that those in power would see sense and stop the slaughter.

Unfortunately, no one saw sense.  By 1917 the slaughter had increased and the war of attrition was in full swing and both Britain and Germany were prepared to kill as many of their young men as needed to win the war.

In February 1917, Annie’s letters were no longer emotional.  While she expressed her sadness and regret at the loss of life, her raw anguish of twenty-two months earlier is no longer there.  Almost two years of war, with no end in sight, have taken its toll on her psyche.  She no longer mentions the political situation or speculates when the war might end.  She focuses on the only thing she can control, the comfort of her boys.  “Since posting my letter of the 8th of February (1917) I have received sixty-five letters from my boys, I must tell you about some of them who wrote from France.”

Annie’s decision to “mother” these boys had an emotional cost.  Visiting, meeting, sharing meals with these young men meant she couldn’t escape the reality that many of them would be killed in France.  It is not surprising as 1917 wore on and so many boys were killed Annie’s health deteriorated.  Every time she wrote home to a mother and noted, in red, on the index card a boy had been killed in action it would have been impossible not to feel the loss.  The fact her letters took on a more ‘newsy’ tone as the war progressed was her attempt at a modicum of self-protection.

Further Information

The photograph is of a card in Annie Wheeler’s index boxes held in the State Library of Queensland collection.

Annie Wheeler’s letters to Mary Trotman in Rockhampton have been digitised by the National Library and are available via Trove.

First Rockhampton Boy Wins a Decoration

February 8th 1917, Annie Wheeler wrote to her friend Mary Trotman in Rockhampton thrilled to receive the photograph of Charlie Snelling who was the first Rockhampton boy to win a decoration.  Lieutenant Snelling (he was given a commission following his decoration) was a regular visitor to Lancaster Gate and Annie was very fond of him.  He was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for “staying behind and blowing up his machine guns when he found their position could not be held”.  The Distinguished Conduct Medal is the oldest British award for distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field and is the second highest award for gallantry in action after the Victoria Cross.  Less than half a percent of all men enlisted received this award.  Annie told Mary “he is very modest this brave boy and will not talk about his deed of heroism.”  Charlie gave Annie “a piece of the ribbon which General Birdwood pinned the medal on his breast.” Annie had seen Charlie at the end of January and they went to Kensington Pond to see if there was any skating but unfortunately the ice wasn’t safe.  The danger signals were also up at the Serpentine.

Many central Queensland boys were being given commissions in January 1917.  In Annie’s letter of February 8th, she mentioned Jack Fryer, Mr Bensley and Mr Colvin had all received commissions and were on leave waiting to head back to France.  Commissions were a hot topic of conversation in London as some people attempted to use their network of friends to influence decisions.  Brigadier-General William Glasgow complained to his wife “if all these youngsters were as keen about their work as they are about their promotions their promotion would come without their worrying about it.”

Meanwhile Belle Glasgow was looking for a flat of her own. She was tired of boarding house life and William wanted them to have a place of their own when he was on leave.  He wrote to his daughters Joan and Beth back home in Australia, “mother is thinking of taking a flat in London and she has quite a nice one in view.  It will be like going home when I go to see her in London next time.” At the end of January, early February William was having “a fit of the blues” and found small things worried him and he was taking things too seriously.  Their relationship was also strained at times; he became upset if she didn’t write regularly and she found it difficult to find something to write about every day.  His letters are full of their attempts to resolve their difficulties.  Reading their letters one hundred years later, Belle either couldn’t grasp the danger her husband faced or chose to focus on the small domestic issues of their lives in a way to survive the war and its horrors.  Maybe William was soothed by the distraction.  Their physical intimacy was also a comfort.  On February 8th, he mentions her reference to her small bed and tells her “I wish I could share your small bed.  I think it would add to both our comfort.”

Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s wartime letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and are available on Trove. trove.nla.gov.au

William Glasgow’s wartime letters to his wife Belle Glasgow and their daughters Joan and Beth have been digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are available on their website. slq.qld.gov.au

The Australian War Memorial for information about wartime awards and decorations. awm.gov.au

 

 

 

Annie’s Little Dug-Out

At the beginning of February 1917, 9 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park was Annie Wheeler’s “little dug-out”.  Annie and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Portia, moved to Lancaster Gate in May 1916.  Central Queenslander soldiers passed on her address and visited Annie and Portia when they were in London on leave or recuperating.  Fred Fox was there almost every day when he was on leave in January 1917 (see December 16th post, December 1916 – Portia falls in love). It was bitterly cold at the end of January, beginning of February 1917.  Thick snow stayed frozen on the ground for several days and the coal shortage was so bad even the coal-dust in the cellars was diligently scraped and burnt.  At night the Lancaster Gate residents piled blankets, eiderdowns, rugs off the floor then coats on top of their beds to get a comfortable night’s sleep.  They told themselves not to grumble; imagine how much worse it was for the boys in the trenches.

As cold as it was, there was one upside.  Skating.  The Serpentine and the Round Pond at Kensington Gardens were frozen solid and skating was in full swing.  Portia taught Fred to skate; a pastime impossible to do or even imagine in Rockhampton, a city winter rarely visited.  Portia had finished her education in England and loved skating and the half-hour walk to Kensington Gardens followed by slipping, sliding and falling on the ice was the perfect way to forget about the war, laugh and get to know each other.

Several other Queenslanders also lived at 9 Lancaster Gate; Belle Glasgow stayed when she arrived in London in 1916 to be closer to her husband, Brigadier General William Glasgow (see January 4th post, January 1917 – great thick flakes of snow). The residence, a boarding house owned by a Brisbane woman Mrs Grimley, was quite near Hyde Park and only about two minutes’ walk to the bus which took Annie and Portia to Horseferry Road and the AIF military offices.  Annie moved to London to be close to the AIF because of the frustration she experienced trying to gather information about her boys using mail and telephone.  She wanted to be able to talk to a person face-to-face and receive an immediate response.  She was a regular visitor to Horseferry Road and the photo at the top of this post was taken in the AIF offices.  While the women in the photo aren’t Annie and Portia this is the office they visited.

Horseferry Road had also been home to the Anzac Buffet where other Australians living at Lancaster Gate worked.  The Anzac Buffet or the Buffet as it was known was established by the London branch of the Australian Natives Association, a group of ex-pats, and was opened in 1915 to provide free meals and entertainment to Australian servicemen in London.  In 1916 it was relocated around the corner to Victoria Street because the AIF said they needed the space, however Annie and the women who volunteered at the Buffet felt it was because the military didn’t want competition for their newly established Australian Soldiers’ Club which charged for meals and other comforts.  The Buffet was open seven days a week from 6am – 10.30pm and as well as providing meals there were rooms kitted out for billiards, reading and music.  Annie and Portia were regular volunteers at the Buffet and dropped in at least once a day even if they weren’t working, to see who was there and stay in touch with their network of central Queensland soldiers.

Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s wartime letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and are available on Trove. trove.nla.gov.au

Belle Glasgow’s wartime letters to her daughters Joan and Beth have been digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are available on their website. slq.qld.gov.au

The Australian War Memorial for more pictures and information about the AIF offices and the ANZAC Buffet. awm.gov.au

Annie delivers bad news

January 1917 Annie Wheeler received a cablegram from Rockhampton.  Murray Hartley’s family had heard he had been wounded and were desperate for news.  Annie wondered if there had been a mix-up.  In his last letter, a few days before Christmas, Murray told her he had bronchitis and expected to be in hospital for a couple of weeks.   Annie immediately rang AIF HQ.

Murray’s full name was John William Murray Hartley but everyone called him Murray.  His mother, Sarah Hartley, was a widow and in January 1917, two of her boys were fighting in France; Murray, 24 and George, 28.  Murray was the keener soldier.  He had enlisted more than a year before his older brother, was promoted to Sergeant in March 1916 and then promoted again to Lieutenant in August.  He wrote to Annie on 20th December from hospital which is how she knew he had bronchitis.

The speed of communication one-hundred-years ago is hard to imagine in today’s world of smart phones, social media and emails.  Landlines were not common in England or Australia; only two out of every hundred homes in England had a telephone in 1917 and mail went by ships, then by train or coach.  It could take days, weeks or months to find out something bad had happened to your son.  Daily lists of sick, wounded and dead soldiers were sent from the front to AIF HQ in London who would then pass the information on to the next-of-kin.  The AIF only sent cablegrams or telegrams if a soldier had died, was missing-in-action or “his complaint was likely to develop seriously or dangerously”.  If the complaint was of a “slight nature” notification would appear “in hospital lists which come to hand later by mail.”

Annie recognised the importance of reliable, speedy communication.  She made sure everyone had her contact details and encouraged them to write to her regularly.  She hassled AIF HQ, the Red Cross and hospitals to give her information about her boys.  She developed a wide network of contacts and used them to find out and pass on information. Annie sent regular cablegrams to her able deputy Mary Trotman in Rockhampton full of information about the conditions of her boys, information she knew would take too long to filter back to their families

When Annie contacted AIF HQ she was was told Murray had re-joined his unit from hospital but had been wounded on the 7th January 1917.  There were no details of what had happened to him and she was unable to find out what hospital he was in.  She waited two days and then rang AIF HQ again only to hear Murray had died of his wounds on the 9th January at the 36th Casualty Clearing Station in France.  He died just before midnight from high explosive wounds to both his legs.  Annie immediately cabled his family and wrote to his brother George in case he hadn’t heard.  When she saw Leslie Henderson, who was in the same company, some days later, he told her Murray had been badly wounded.  His lower legs had been blown off.  Writing to her friend Mary Trotman on the 25th January 1917, exactly one hundred years ago today, she told her she “was grieved to have to send you the sad news about Lieutenant Murray Hartley.”

Not only did Annie deliver a great deal of bad news to families in Central Queensland she was also asked to deliver sad news to the soldiers.  In the same letter of the 25th January she tells Mary Trotman “I had a letter also from Corporal D. Roberts, who was well when he wrote on the 11th of January.  His battalion was resting.  He had received the “Capricornians” from me, but had had no mail from home lately, so I fear he was not prepared for the sad news I was asked to convey to him about his father.”

Annie sorts out the money.

January 1917 – Annie Wheeler needed to lend money to soldiers on leave from France because the money their mothers had cabled hadn’t arrived and by the time they received their pay they would be back in France.  While Annie didn’t mind lending money to her boys, money was tight and she refused to be the victim of bureaucratic incompetence.

The soldiers needed money on leave, in hospital, recovering from wounds or illness, even as prisoners of war.  While privates were paid six shillings a day, they only received five with one shilling paid on discharge or death.  If the soldier was married, two shillings a day were deducted for his dependents.  According to the Reserve Bank’s Pre-Decimal Inflation Calculator, six shillings in 1917 equates to around thirty dollars today.  If this doesn’t seem very much, it wasn’t, the amount was slightly below the basic wage, but more than the British or New Zealand soldiers received.   Additionally, a soldier’s pay was docked if he was found guilty of even a small misdemeanour such as drunkenness, returning late from leave, disobeying an officer, going AWOL or contracting VD.

When Rockhampton mother, Clara Hutton’s twenty-year-old son Falconer needed money after he was wounded (a bullet ricocheted off his rifle onto his face, forcing fragments of his cheek bone and eye socket into his eye) she had no idea what to do, so wrote to the AIF who told her the safest method of transmitting money was through the Commonwealth Bank. “This institution has full information as to the addressing of cables.”

The Commonwealth Bank, only a couple of years old when war broke out played a crucial role in making sure soldiers received money from Australia. The bank established agencies aboard naval ships and opened branches in Australia and abroad.  They also formed relationships with may overseas agents so soldiers could cash Australian notes and coins at a pre-negotiated rate.  At branches in London and training camps in the UK, staff helped soldiers transfer and receive money as quickly as possible with all charges borne by the bank.  With the help of the Red Cross the bank was able to ensure POWs had access to funds to purchase food and comforts – see my previous post for more information about the conditions for POWs.

The problem Annie Wheeler faced in 1917 was the same problem we face today if we need information about a bank account that is not our own.  Soldiers wrote to Annie from France asking her to cable their parents for money so it would be there when they had leave. Mothers wrote to Annie telling her they had cabled money but sometimes when the soldier was on leave the money hadn’t arrived.  Annie tried to sort it out but bank staff refused to give Annie any information about the accounts.  Frustrated, Annie approached Mr Elliot at the Queensland Agent-General’s office to find a solution.  Elliot introduced Annie to the Commonwealth Bank manager, Mr Campion who “promised anything in his power to help”.  He suggested Annie mark her letters to him “personal” and “he would see himself that I received the information I required.”  Annie was delighted and told him “his kindness would be much appreciated by the mothers of Central Queensland.”

Further Reading

More information about the Commonwealth Bank during the first world war – http://museum.rba.gov.au/exhibitions/from-bank-to-battlefield/challenges-of-war/

Mrs Clara Hutton’s letter to the AIF is on her son’s file and can be accessed via the NAA website – naa.gov.au.

Annie’s letter, 3 March 1917, published by “The Capricornian” is available via Trove – trove.nla.gov.au

 

Warm things, clean shirts and underpants needed.

11 January 1917.  Annie Wheeler was busy sending out New Year Parcels.  It was bitterly cold and the soldiers needed gloves, scarves, mufflers, mittens, warm socks and underwear.  Central Queensland women had organised themselves and had been knitting and sewing for months.  Mrs Hopper had volunteered to make 50 pair of socks.  Mothers also sent parcels, for their sons, directly to Annie who had a better chance of making sure they arrived safely. Annie had a knack for finding a soldier even when she only had the name of the ship he embarked on, though she did lament that once a soldier arrived at Salisbury Plains, a training camp in England, it was like “trying to find a needle in a haystack”.

Of course the parcels had to get to England first and the journey from Australia was more precarious for parcels than for passengers.  If the ship was hit by a U-Boat, passengers could be rescued whereas all possessions including parcels and letters were left to sink with the ship.

In October 1916, the S.S. Arabia left Australia with 439 passengers, 169 of them women and children and much needed parcels and letters for Annie to distribute.  Some of the items were for central Queensland soldiers who were prisoners of war and had told Annie the food the Germans gave them was not fit to eat.  Annie liaised with the Red Cross to make sure the necessary items got to her boys.  Annie would eyeball whomever she needed to eyeball in the Red Cross and Army HQ offices to ensure she got what she needed. Sometimes she paid for additional Red Cross supplies.

In her letter of 11 January 1917, one hundred years ago today, Annie detailed the contents of the POW Red Cross parcels to Mary Trotman, her able deputy working in Rockhampton.  The parcel contained “biscuits, beef dripping, tea, milk and sugar in tablets, soup in tablets, equal to nine plates, tin salmon, macaroni, coffee, vegetables, 12lb of army rations, beef-a-la-mond, rabbit, golden syrup, marmalade, Quaker oats, corned beef and ginger pudding”.  The POWs relied on the Red Cross Parcels.

As the Arabia sailed through the Mediterranean on 6 November 1916, no one sensed any danger but as the stewards started to serve pre-lunch bowls of beef soup the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat without any warning. The torpedo hit the coal bunkers and passengers were thrown to the decks.  Some had deep lacerations and were badly concussed but their daily life-boat drills saved their lives; all the passengers escaped the sinking ship.  Eleven of the crew were killed and the cargo was lost.  When Annie heard about the disaster she was distraught and needed to find money to replace the supplies she feared were on board.  She was very relieved when letters and parcels showed up in the second week of January, and told Mary Trotman “so no doubt we have had mails via America and Suez.  A parcel of socks addressed to Private Orrock arrived.  These must be the 50 pairs from Lake’s Creek which I thought had gone down in the Arabia. I am so delighted they have turned up safely. Please thank Mrs Hopper and all those who put such splendid work into them.”

The sinking of the Arabia without warning increased tensions between Germany and the US who were poised to enter the war.

Further Reading

More information about the sinking of the Arabia  – http://www.peoplehelp.com.au/stories/arabia.html

More information about the relationship between Annie Wheeler and M.S. Trotman scroll down and read my previous post dated 30 November 2016 and titled December 1916

January 1917 – great thick flakes of snow

The first week of the 1917 new year was very cold.  Snow fell in “great thick flakes”.  The residents of 9 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park huddled together around a dwindling fire trying to keep warm.  Coal was in short supply and the coal man had not made his scheduled delivery. Around the fire were Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia and Belle Glasgow.

Belle was the wife of Brigadier-General TW Glasgow, known as William or Will.  Belle travelled from Queensland to London in 1916 to be closer to her husband during the war, leaving her two daughters, Joan and Beth, in the care of her family.   In his biography of Glasgow, Peter Edgar tells a story that when Belle heard from a returned soldier William was having “the time of his life” she booked her passage to London.  It is clear they discussed her coming to London but William would have liked “the show to be over” before she did.  While holidaying in Sandgate she cabled William and he agreed for her to come.  He may have thought she was bringing the girls who were only eleven and seven at the time and wasn’t happy she was coming alone.  He wrote to Joan, the eldest, “I have now just had a cable saying she (Belle) was leaving on the 16th of September.  I wonder what she is doing with you and Beth?  Have you gone to a boarding school, to Gympie or Granny?  It would have been lovely if she had brought you over.”  (A photo of his original letter dated 22 September 1916 is at the top of the post)

Their letters, which are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection (Sir Thomas William Glasgow and Lady Glasgow Papers), give an extraordinary insight into their marriage which was intimate, loving, ordinary and complicated with its ups and downs like all marriages.  While the story is a little one-sided (Belle was the meticulous record keeper and only William Glasgow’s letters to her are available) it is possible to imagine the contents of her letters to him because of Will’s references to them and Belle’s letters to her daughters are full of information that give a sense of her personality and what mattered to her.  Belle’s father was a journalist who had owned “The Gympie Times” and her talent as a writer is evident in her detailed descriptions of London during the war.

On 4 January 1917, exactly one hundred years ago today, Belle wrote a four-page letter to her daughters describing her visit to Westminster Abby and giving them a potted history of the people buried there.  She told them the tombs were covered with sandbags as protection against the Zeppelin raids.  Belle described the snow falling “in great thick flakes”.  Some days a glorious bright and sunny day would change before she had a chance to walk outside.  “London with its many and various climate changes in one day is a queer place.” Belle relayed information about various family members who had been injured in the war and talked about recovering from her cold.

William’s letters to Belle while he was in France are full of domestic matters.  He rarely mentions details of the war but he tells her how he feels each day.  He commanded the 13th division and his anguish when his soldiers are killed is palpable.  He writes to Belle each night before he goes to bed and he relied on her letters.  In the first week of 1917 he received a letter with her handwriting on the envelope but found it was a letter Belle had forwarded.  He tells her how disappointed he was when he opened it and saw there was no letter from her.  He wrote care of the Queensland National Bank in London and they forwarded the letters to Belle at Lancaster Gate.