1917 – A Few Good Women

1917 is credited as the year that changed the direction of the first world war.   Much has been written, including the recent Oscar nominated film, about the battles and politics that marked this year as a turning point but very little is written about women’s lives in 1917 and the way women’s experiences of the war impacted the next hundred years.

This blog, written a century later, tells a small part of the story of 1917 through the eyes of expat women living in London.  They were a few good women sharing rooms at 41 Westminster Gardens, just around the corner from the Australian military headquarters in Horseferry Road.  They worked as comfort workers, doctors, senior bureaucrats and investigators.

1917 was a challenging and exciting year for the women who for the first time in their lives had agency over those lives.   In their diaries, alongside the horrors and challenges of the war, they wrote of their work, loves and aspirations.   When the war was over and they returned home they often reflected on the war years as the best years of their lives.  Every time a woman today uses a sanitary pad or tampon they have the first world war, the Americans and a bunch of ingenious desperate field nurses to thank.

In 2016 I was awarded a QANZAC 100 Fellowship by the State Library of Queensland to research these women, primarily, Annie and Portia Wheeler and their extraordinary work during the first world war.  This research is the basis for a television series “The Red Boxes” and novel.   I am also re-working the blog posts into a non-fiction book about 1917 and these women – “1917 – A Few Good Women”.  I tell a little of their story in this blog and two SLQ Vimeo videos –  Discovering Annie Wheeler, and my 2016 Fellowship video.

Swinging the Lead

In the lead-up to Christmas 1917 Annie Wheeler had a breakdown.  She had been unwell in July and this was similar but lasted much longer.  When she recovered she told Mary Trotman, her Rockhampton Deputy, she had been “swinging the lead”, a military term for malingering. But Annie was no malingerer. The responsibility of looking after so many boys had taken a toll on her health and she was forced to spend five weeks in Eastbourne with her sister-in-law, recuperating and resting.  Since October, the number of boys on their books had increased from 900 to over 1500 amazing Annie’s daughter, Portia, at how immense and suddenly the operation had grown.  But demand for their services was now so great they had to limit their reach and Portia requested Mary Trotman publish a note in the local Queensland papers explaining they could only accept money, parcels and letters for boys from central and western Queensland.

Christmas was particularly busy because families wanted to send parcels to their boys.  The unreliability of the postal service meant most families sent mail and parcels via Annie who had much greater success in tracking the intended recipient.  Annie requested parcels weigh less than seven pounds because heavy parcels were difficult and expensive to forward.  As an iced Christmas cake often weighed slightly more than seven pounds families transferred money to Annie so she could buy Christmas parcels in England.  But in 1917 this created more problems for Annie, and with Annie out of action, Portia, because most food was terribly scarce.  It was impossible for civilians to buy even enough for their own consumption.  Butter and margarine was impossible to buy and meat was dreadfully expensive.  As the army canteens were stocked with luxuries that civilians couldn’t buy at any price Portia solved the problem by sending the cash to the boys explaining the purpose of the money and who it was from.  What Portia needed for her parcels were socks and lots of them.  The demand for socks, scarves and helmets over winter was tremendous and everything the women of central Queensland could knit was sent to a grateful soldier.

Portia’s management of the operation during Annie’s illness was exemplary.  When Annie returned in mid-January she told Mary Trotman, “Portia has got the work on a more businesslike footing than when I had it, and it ought to be easier to manage”.  During Annie’s absence Portia used a large donation from Mrs Donaldson to rent two additional rooms in the building they lived, Westminster Gardens, to be used as offices.  The staff moved all the work out of their personal residence and into the offices.  Portia also hired more staff; Peggy Sugden, her father was a doctor in Bundaberg, was taken on permanently.   Portia also transferred all their records from journals to the index card system and ensured it was kept up to date.  Each soldier had his own index card with his details on the front and their family’s details on the back.  By the end of the war there were more than 2300 boys on their books, 2300 cards crammed inside three red boxes.  Portia’s diligence preserved the index boxes and all the stories they contain.  One hundred years later these boxes are in the State Library of Queensland.

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and are available on Trove.

Annie’s collection of letters and papers and the red index boxes are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection.

 

Children killed in bomb attack

One hundred years ago, on the 25th of May 1917, 95 people were killed and 192 injured when bombs exploded in the busy streets of Folkestone on the Kent coast in England.  In the late afternoon, as people went about their business, German Gotha planes dropped several bombs without any warning.  More than half of those killed were women and children.  Authorities had decided not to install warnings in the seaside town because they didn’t want to scare off visitors.  Reports in the Dover Express at the time describe “the ghastly scenes in the main street of the town where the dead and wounded were lying about in the streets, mixed up with dead horses and smashed vehicles and wreckage from the shops”.  A large number of people were killed outside the greengrocer’s shop.

The German press was thrilled with the success of the raid which proved the Gothas were capable of dropping bombs from a great height in daylight.  Even though the news was heavily censored in England people feared it was only a matter of time before the bombs reached London.

Annie and Portia Wheeler, like most people in the capital, had grown accustomed to air raids.  As soon as a warning sounded Annie headed to the basement with her writing pad and work book.  Many of the long letters to Mary Trotman, in Rockhampton, were written during air raids.   The air raids gave them a chance to catch up on their increasing workload.  The number of soldiers on Annie’s books doubled in 1917.  Annie’s Christmas present, “Just the Link Between”, written by the central Queensland community left no doubt about the value of her work.  Compiled by Nellie Coar, the book was a 1917 calendar containing 365 expressions of gratitude and appreciation; one for each day of the year.  Dorothy Boyle’s entry on the 26th May sums up the community’s feeling.  A copy of the book is in the SLQ Collection.

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May also contained a military march composed by Helena Miller.  It was called “The Wheeler”.  One hundred years after it was composed Brian Cleary recorded the music. Click on this link to listen to it.  The Wheeler

Annie had become the link between the mothers and their sons which the drawing on the cover represents.  Inside links of chain are a soldier, Annie in the middle and his mother and father reading her letters in the paper.

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Desperate pleas from a POW

Annie Wheeler’s workload increased dramatically after the first battle of Bullecourt.  On the 11th April 1917 1,170 Australians were taken prisoner, the most men captured in a single battle during the war.  Blackall man, William Lonergan from the 15th battalion was one of these men.  William wrote to Annie requesting her help.  In a long letter on the 25th May 1917 he begged her to send a parcel of supplies for him and two friends to a prison camp in Germany.

In the confusion of being captured Will mistakenly told Annie he was captured on the 2nd of April.

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But his war record list him missing in France on the 11th April.

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When Annie cables Miss Annie Russell at Will’s request she tells her he was taken prisoner on the 11th April.

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Annie’s cables were vital.  Will’s family and friends received information months before they heard anything from the AIF.

It took almost six months before Will’s wife Alice Louisa Lonergan was officially told he was a prisoner of war.  She was advised he was missing on the 8th May 1917 and not told he was a prisoner of war until 17th December 1917.

It is difficult to know if Alice Lonergan was upset by this news.  Will and Alice had been living apart for ten years when he enlisted in 1916 which is why he asked Annie Wheeler to cable Miss Russell with news of his capture.  John Lindsay Russell is listed as Will’s next of kin but only Annie Russell is ever mentioned in his letters and it is Annie Russell who writes to Annie Wheeler and sends letters care of Annie Wheeler for Will.  Following is part of Will’s letter to Annie Wheeler which is in his file in the National Archives of Australia.

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Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s letters are part of SLQ John Oxley Library collection and have been digitised – ww.slq.qld.gov.au

William Lonergan’s military file has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia – ww.naa.gov.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chockfull of confidence

One hundred years ago John Fryer wrote to his mother from France. The Fryers were old friends of Annie Wheeler nee Laurie.  Annie started school in Springsure and knew Rosina Richards and Charles Fryer long before any of them were married.  Rosina and Charles met while working at the pastoral station, Orion Downs and still lived in Springsure with their seven children.  Four of the six boys (William, Charles, Henry and John) enlisted and by 1917 were in various parts of England and Europe.  Their only daughter Elizabeth remained at home with the two youngest boys Richard and Walter.

March 1917, John apologised to his mother, “you must really excuse me for not writing sooner but I have been kept well on the move since leaving Oxford.”  John had been promoted and was in Oxford learning how to use explosives and artillery for trench warfare in his new role as lieutenant.  John’s notebooks from his time at Oxford, part of the John Denis Fryer Collection in the University of Queensland Fryer Library, are a fascinating insight into how a man studying modern languages could lead men in battle.  Not only do they detail the equipment and methods used in the first world war they also show John’s prowess as a student; the notes are detailed, illustrated and clear.

Before returning to France from Oxford, John dropped in on Annie Wheeler in London.  He told his sister Lizzie “she was jolly glad to see some of us Rockhampton boys.  By jove she is a great little woman.  I think the name ‘mother of Anzacs’ suits her to a T.”  Annie was very pleased to see John telling her friend Mary Trotman of his visit and her pride in his commission.  But there was a downside to promotion which was why some men refused; John couldn’t re-join the 49th battalion and was transferred to the 52nd.  This meant leaving men he had fought alongside and two of his brothers Charles and William who were both with the 49th.  Henry was with the 47th.  John reassured his mother they were all still part of the same brigade and he saw a good deal of Henry and Charles which no doubt gave her some comfort. He told her, “Charlie is not too bad, but a little drawn about the face.  He is quite cheery though and chockfull of confidence – as we all are – in our ability to beat Fritz.”

But by the time Rosina read these words, Charlie was dead.  He was killed in action on the 5th April 1917, less than three weeks after John wrote this letter to their mother.

John, William and Henry survived the war and returned to Australia but in 1923 John died of TB, a result of being gassed during the war. John had been an active member of the University Dramatic society who established a memorial collection of works in Australian literature in his name.  This collection became the Fryer Library.

Further Information

John Fryer’s letters to his mother are part of the John Denis Fryer Collection in the University of Queensland Fryer Library.

Annie Wheeler’s letters to Mary Trotman were published by the Capricornian and have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove.

Springsure is in central Queensland 335 Kilometres west of Rockhampton.

The big push

March was a very busy month for Annie Wheeler.  Soldiers who had been on furlough during January and February were back in France preparing for a big push – the first battle of Bullecourt.  As soon as the boys from central Queensland arrived back on the western front they sent Annie a letter with their postal details so she could forward mail, parcels and news. 65 letters from soldiers arrived in a single mail all requiring Annie’s attention.

Paul Voss (pictured above) was a regular visitor and had known Annie for most of his life.  He sent Annie a letter not long after he arrived back at the 1st Australian General Hospital in Rouen to let her know he would be heading to the front as part of the 5th Australian Field Ambulance.  Paul was a doctor and the son of Annie’s former employer Vivian Voss.

Vivian had been a doctor in Queensland since arriving in Bowen in 1885; a locum from England.  He moved to Rockhampton in 1887 and established a private hospital.  Annie worked for him before she got married and met her husband, Henry Wheeler, when Vivian operated on him after he was thrown from his horse.  Henry Wheeler was badly injured and Annie nursed him during his long recuperation.

Annie also met her friend Mary Stewart Trotman working at the hospital.  Mary was doctor Voss’s receptionist and Annie’s able deputy during the war.  Mary was responsible for organising and fund raising for Annie’s comfort work.  Annie wrote regular letters to Mary with details of the boys and Mary organised their publication in the local paper, ‘The Capricornian’.  Mail was often so unreliable families relied on Annie’s letters for news of their loved ones.

Paul Voss was twenty-three when he enlisted in February 1916.  Being a doctor on the front was as dangerous as being a soldier.  Aid posts, clearing stations and auxiliary hospitals were constantly under fire.  Paul was shot in the left leg in November 1916.  The wound wasn’t too severe and after a couple of months in England he was back in France.  Paul was wounded again in April 1917 while working at the 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital; shrapnel tore through his elbow shattering the bone.  He was awarded the Military Cross in 1919 for his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.  He worked at his aid post under heavy fire for two days’ operations and attended to the wounded of two divisions.”

Further Information

Paul Voss’s military file has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia and is available online.

International Women’s Day 1917

One hundred years ago today the Russian women stormed onto the streets demanding bread and an end to war.

Four days later the Czar abdicated and a provisional government granted women the right to vote.  The new government continued to support the war but soldiers deserted in droves.  Within months the provisional government was also overthrown.

Women clamouring for bread and peace started a revolution.

In England, women’s suffrage took a back seat to the demands of war.  Mrs Pankhurst publicly decried militant campaigns and directed her energies towards supporting the empire and the war.

Women embraced roles previously denied them.

Brisbane woman, Eleanor Bourne tried to enlist in the Australian army but was refused.  So Eleanor, the first Queensland woman doctor, funded her own trip to England and enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps.  She served as a Lieutenant at the Endell Street Military hospital founded by Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson. “A great thrill came to me early in 1916 with an invitation to join the staff of the Military Hospital, Endell Street, London at which the medical staff is composed entirely of women.”

In her papers, which are part of the SLQ collection, Eleanor lists the women specialists recruited from Britain, Canada and Australia and says, “It was indeed a pleasure and an inspiration to be associated with so many splendid women”.

Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson were suffragettes and Eleanor met Mrs Pankhurst.  She describes her as “the militant suffragette leader, small but very definite and forceful”.  Eleanor didn’t share all their views.  “Dr Anderson won our admiration for having undergone a hunger strike but I’m afraid that both she and Dr Murray regarded us Australians as rather lukewarm in the suffrage cause.  They would say, ‘But you have had the vote for 15 years!’ with the implication, ‘what on earth have you accomplished by it in all that time?’ On our part, we found it hard to follow the doctrine that everything that was wrong, including the setbacks at the front were due to the fact that we live in a man-made world.  When the order came that prohibited women travelling out from Australia, this was regarded as another injustice and insult to women whereas really it was out of consideration for the crew who would risk their valuable lives to save the women if the ship were torpedoed.”

It’s impossible to know Annie Wheeler’s views on women’s suffrage because there are no references in her letters or manuscripts but it is clear she felt she was equal to anyone; her gender, class, nationality or marital status never held her back.

Eleanor and Annie knew each other and met several times in London during the war.  In June 1916, they were together at a reception at the Hotel Cecil in honour of the Queensland Premier T.J. Ryan and his wife.  The reception was hosted by the Queensland Agent General Sir Thomas Robinson.  Annie described it as “a delightful gathering of Queenslanders.”

Further Information

Eleanor Bourne’s papers are part of the SLQ collection and available online

Annie Wheeler’s letters to her friend Mary Trotman were published in the ‘Capricornian’ and have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove.

The photograph in this post is courtesy of the British War Memorial.

Continual Cross Purposes

February 1917 saw several Queensland residents leave the Lancaster Gate Boarding house at Hyde Park.  Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia, moved to Westminster Gardens on February 23rd and Belle Glasgow, wife of Brigadier General William Glasgow (see my previous post January 1917 – great thick flakes of snow) also moved around the same time.

By March 1st Belle was living at Battersea Gardens with a friend. Belle was fed up with boarding house life and William wanted more privacy when he was on leave.  His letters at the end of February reveal a marriage under increasing strain.  Belle had left their two young daughters, Joan and Beth, at home in Queensland and travelled to London to be closer to William who was commanding the 13th Battalion in France.  They hadn’t seen each other since Christmas and Belle pressed Willian for details of his leave for most of February. Unfortunately plans kept changing.  On February 20th, William told Belle, “am afraid I have nothing definite yet in the way of my leave” then two days later wrote to tell her he hoped to have leave on the 26th or 27th.  Unfortunately, only two days later he told her “certain things have happened which may just stop my leave”.

Sometimes it is hard to empathise with Belle; she seems more concerned with her own comforts and problems.  It’s as if she’s disengaged from the reality of the war, more interested in the trappings of London in war, the social life, the promotions, the pomp and ceremony.  Maybe this is a deliberate coping strategy but it is impossible to judge her with any certainty because only William’s letters survive and while he makes references to her letters, he is the filter.  Belle’s letters to her children do survive and while they reveal her character, they are letters to her children, not her husband.

We do know she didn’t hold back and expressed her feelings honestly.    He tells her, “I have had for some time the feeling that coincides with what you are candid enough to say you were feeling.”  William is also open in his letters.  He received Belle’s letters of the 15th and 16th of February on the 21st February.  Whatever she wrote upset him a great deal.  “Both upset me more than I can say which is perhaps gratifying to you and makes me think that although our love for each other is all that it should be this continual cross purposes will go on for all time.”

Eventually he did get leave.  On March 3rd he arrived in London and rather than stay at her flat they went to Devon to be alone.  William told his daughters “When I came over to London I went to mother’s flat where she is very comfortable but we thought we would like a quiet time so came down here.” They stayed at a hotel right on the sea and being together, away from war, away from London soothed their troubles.  Their physical reconnection was a very important part of their marriage.  Imagine the strain on couples who never saw each other during war and whose letters took months rather than days to bring needed connection and intimacy.

Further Information

 Belle Glasgow’s letters are part of the SLQ collection.  The image above is a postcard to her daughter of the view from her new flat – Battersea Park.

Moving Day

One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were on the move again.

They’d started their operation in Eastbourne but by May 1915 the commute to London was too time consuming.  When they stayed for short periods at the Strand Hotel in Westminster they achieved so much more and decided to move closer to London.   A lovely house in the new suburb of Pollard Hill, just opposite a large recreation ground and looking out towards Epsom Downs, worked for a short time but as the number of soldiers arriving from Australia increased and the wounded flooded hospitals in London, Annie and Portia’s daily workload grew.

Next stop, a boarding house owned by a Brisbane woman at Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park.  Initially the residence was ideal and the short bus ride to AIF Headquarters on Horseferry Road made the work manageable.  But by February 1917 when Annie was receiving 65 letters from soldiers each week, in addition to letters, cables and parcels from home, all needing to be actioned in some way, travelling back and forth from Lancaster Gate, sometimes several times a day, was inefficient.

When a flat became available at Westminster Gardens, Artillery Row, just off Victoria Street Annie was delighted.  She wrote to Mary Stewart Trotman on the 22nd February telling her “we are moving tomorrow into a flat in Victoria Street.  It will be much nearer Headquarters, Anzac Buffet, the Red Cross and the cable office and of course nearer for the boys.  They have been very good in coming out so far to see us.”

Annie’s typical day at the end of February 1917 centred around these organisations.

Annie received a letter from Stephen Joyce, a prisoner of war in Germany, requesting a uniform from the Red Cross.  Annie went to see “Miss Chomley, she looks after the prisoner of war department and Corporal Joyce’s uniform has been sent.”

Mary Trotman cabled Annie wanting information about Sergeant J McDonald.  His family had been told he was wounded but didn’t know what hospital he was in.  Annie found his number was entered wrongly in the hospital records and had to go to headquarters to sort it out.  She found him at Wisbech V.A.D Hospital and sent him a letter.

Private Case had been hospitalised and asked Annie to find his brother.  “On inquiring at headquarters, I found that Private Reginald Case disembarked at Plymouth in 10th January and is now at Codford.”

The Anzac Buffet (see my previous post  Annie’s Little Dug-Out ) was a major meeting place.  On February 22nd Annie and Portia saw Max Turnbull, Private Moore and Jack Atherton and could report on their movements.

Parcels of socks and gloves also arrived from home and Annie was busy sending them to the boys of the front.  February was bitterly cold and many were suffering from trench feet and frost bite.  The boys rarely complained, instead telling Annie about the upside of the cold weather.  “The shell-holes and pools are frozen and they have been skating.  The nails and clouts in their boots act as skates.”

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove.

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.