In December 1916 Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were busy seeing the many Queensland soldiers who were on leave or furlough in London. Their letters are filled with the names of soldiers they’ve seen. “Wilfred McLaughlin had lunch with us the same day. He is on furlough. Bill Orrock was here last week. Jack Atherton came on his way to flying school. Noel Trotman came down from Grantham for four days leave. He had tea and dinner with us today.”
In the middle of December Fred Fox came in and had tea with them. For Portia, something about Fred set him apart from the other soldiers; her heart quickened and butterflies filled her stomach.
Fred joined the army on the 4th September 1914 and on the morning of the 25th April 1915 was one of the first to step onto the beach at Gallipoli. He was part of all the Australian efforts there until he was hospitalised on Lemnos with fever a few weeks before the evacuation. Fred’s brother Norman was also at Gallipoli and they were sent to different parts of Egypt at the end of 1915. Norman was badly wounded in a training exercise and Fred desperately wanted to see him. Denied leave, Fred talked to his superiors and they agreed to turn a blind eye to his absence. According to his son Norman (presumably named after his brother) who has written an extensive family history available online, (www.foxfamilyhistory.com) Fred walked for a night and day across the desert but was unable to reach Norman before he died.
Fred’s son believed Portia and Fred met during the war, probably earlier in 1916. Annie first mentions Fred in a letter to Mary Trotman which was published in the “Capricornian” in June 1916. Apparently Annie had had a letter from H.J. Wallace. “He said he had seen Fred Fox so we know he is in France, and we hope to see Fred and Peter Stuart soon.” Between June and September 1916, Fred was with the 49th Battalion in France. The Battalion “moved into the trenches of the Western Front for the first time on 21 June. It fought in its first major battle at Mouquet Farm in August and suffered heavily, particularly in the assault launched on 3 September”(awm.gov.au/unit/U51489/). On 23 September Fred was sent back to England for further training.
By Christmas 1916 Fred had been part of the horrors of Gallipoli and Pozieres. The official war correspondent Charles Bean was also at Mouquet Farm and in his official history describes “the flayed land, shell–hole bordering shell–hole, corpses of young men lying against the trench walls or in shell–holes; some – except for the dust settling on them – seeming to sleep; others torn in half; others rotting, swollen and discoloured” (ww1westernfront.gov.au/pozieres-windmill/aif-memorial-mouquet-farm/mouquet-farm.php).
Fred had seen all this and it was this man Portia was falling in love with. After the war Portia and Fred married and Annie walked her daughter down the aisle.
On the first weekend in December 1916 Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were in Eastbourne having a well-earned break before starting on the Christmas work. Annie’s husband, Henry Wheeler’s family lived in Eastbourne and Annie was very friendly with her sister-in-law Portia. Henry died of complications from a horse-riding accident in 1903 and Annie and her daughter Portia were in England because Henry wanted young Portia to finish her education in England. Eastbourne was a Victorian seaside resort town in Sussex and about an hour and a half by train from Victoria Station.
When they returned to Lancaster Gate they started their Christmas work. Annie had received twenty-five letters from Queensland mothers and needed to write to each of their sons. Many of the letters asked Annie to send cakes or socks or warm vests to their sons and contained money or details about how the money would be transferred. Parcels to the front from Australia often went missing and mothers knew Annie’s parcels had a better chance of getting to the boys. Not only did Annie and Portia have to answer each of these letters but they had to buy the supplies, make and send the parcels.
On Monday 4th December 1916 Annie went to Mrs Hall’s tea party. Mrs Hall entertained eight boys from the Australian Hospital in Southall every Monday afternoon. After they had tea, sandwiches, bread, cake and homemade soda, a friend would sing, play and recite for them. Annie would ply the soldiers with questions asking who they had seen, whether they’d heard anything about so and so? Annie used this information to follow up requests from families who were desperately looking for their sons and brothers. Some hadn’t heard anything for months or in some cases years.
In Annie’s index card boxes, which are part of the State Library of Queensland collection, there is a card for Percy Augustus Hiron. Mrs Hiron wrote looking for word about her son Percy. She hadn’t heard from him and heard rumours he was shell shocked or injured. She believed she hadn’t heard from him because “he was no scholar.” There is correspondence between Mrs Hiron and the military in Percy’s war records digitised by the National Archive of Australia. Percy was wounded at some stage and did recover but perhaps more interestingly and something they didn’t tell Mrs Hiron was Percy was court-martialled and trialled in 1917. It seems he and another soldier were escorting two prisoners who escaped. Percy and the other man (Baker) were not carrying their rifles and were unable to do anything to stop the escape. Not carrying their riffles was an offence and the reason they were court-martialled. They elected to be tried together and at their trial they were acquitted and returned to their unit. Percy survived the war.
Also on this day 100 years ago Lloyd George became prime minister and in December 1916 Belle Glasgow (wife of Major General William Glasgow) who was staying at the same boarding house as Annie and Portia, wrote to her daughters, who were in Gympie, telling them London was so dirty she had to wash her hair once a week. Belle’s letters are part of the SLQ collection.
One hundred years ago, on the 30th November 1916, Annie Wheeler wrote to Miss M.S. Trotman (Mary Stewart) from her boarding house in Lancaster Gate, London. Annie and Mary had both worked for Doctor Voss in Rockhampton; Annie, a nurse and Mary, Doctor Voss’s secretary. “Mothering” her boys required money and Rockhampton based Mary was Annie’s financial lynchpin, setting up and managing bank accounts and money transfers, raising funds and co-ordinating fund raising efforts. Mary was also the primary contact person for Annie and Portia and the boys’ families. Rather than write to every family about their sons, bothers and husbands, Annie wrote detailed letters to Mary who ensured the letters were published in the local newspapers, “The Capricornian” and “Morning Bulletin”.
Annie’s letter of the 30th November (a digitised copy is available on Trove) began by expressing her gratitude, “I really do not know how to express my gratitude to all the kind friends who helped Miss Nellie Coar to send me that splendid donation of £86 to spend on my boys.” According to the Reserve Bank of Australia Inflation Calculator, this would be equivalent to about $8,376 today. Nellie Coar raised this money by publishing a book “Just the Link Between”. The book (a copy is in the SLQ collection) is really a calendar with quotes for each day of 1917 submitted by people who wanted to thank Annie. Advertisers paid for the cost of the book and all proceeds from sales were sent to Annie.
Annie acknowledged many other donations totalling £143, almost $14,000 today. With winter upon them Annie used the money to make up parcels to send to the boys. Since her last letter to Mary Trotman Annie had sent off “fifty-three parcels to one of our battalions, each containing a warm under vest (with long sleeves), a muffler and a pair of knitted socks”. There was also “playing cards, cribbage boards and race games”.
Another Queenslander, Belle Glasgow, wife of then Brigadier-General William Glasgow was living at the same boarding house at Lancaster Gate as Annie and Portia at the end of November 1916. Belle had left her two daughters in Gympie and was living in London to be closer to her husband. The Glasgow letters are part of the SLQ collection.
Christmas 1916, London was home to millions of people who were weary of war. The war had ripped apart the young men of England and her dominions for more than two years and was not yet satiated. The young men who survived were back in London and visible. War was visceral, the injuries often catastrophic.
Living in the heart of London was a woman from Rockhampton, a small hot humid town with a population of not quite twenty thousand in central Queensland, Australia. Her name was Annie Wheeler and during the war she found her calling.
Annie Wheeler’s original letters are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection and I am using my 2016 QANZAC 100 Fellowship to research Annie’s life, and work, in London, during the first world war for a book I am writing. My book is set towards the end of 1916 and during 1917 and as I research and write I am often struck by the fact that the letters and diaries were written exactly one hundred years ago.
One hundred years ago Annie and her daughter Portia were in the middle of London, in the middle of the first world war.
This is the excerpt for your very first post.
“11pm, Tuesday 4th August 1914: with the declaration of war London becomes one of the greatest killing machines in human history.”
London, home to almost eight million people swells with soldiers and people wanting to contribute to the war effort. While countless books, articles, films and television programs have told the stories of the soldiers and the battles, very few tell the stories of the people living and working in London during the war.
In the heart of London was a woman from Rockhampton, a small hot humid town with a population of not quite twenty thousand in central Queensland, Australia. Her name was Annie Wheeler and during the war she found her calling.
Continue reading “One hundred years ago today”