The Missing

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.

Sources

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.

http://onesearch.slq.qld.gov.au/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=slq_alma21196823950002061&context=L&vid=SLQ&search_scope=SLQ_PCI_EBSCO&tab=all&lang=en_US

 

 

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.

 

Bound for Passchendaele

One hundred years ago today Selby Russell left Southampton for Belgium.  He was part of the 47th Battalion and the next wave of young men to be thrown at the Germans in Ypres with the hope of wearing them down.  The battle to occupy Polygon Wood was imminent and the third battle of Ypres, the battle of Passchendaele, or as it was termed by those who witnessed the carnage, Armageddon, yet to come.

Selby had become a dear friend of Annie and Portia Wheeler and volunteered in the office whenever he was on leave in London.  A conveyancer from Brisbane, Selby was smart, capable and efficient; before he joined in 1916 he worked at the estate agency Chandler and Russell which he formed with his brother Joseph and his grandfather.  Annie appreciated Selby’s assistance.  Men moved about so much Annie and her team spent large amounts of time locating soldiers and sending and forwarding letters and parcels and Selby was a great help re-addressing mail.  He made friends easily and knew which battalions were resting in training camps, on the move or at the front.  Selby’s Rockhampton connection was his sister, Sophie Alexander and Annie corresponded with Sophie, Selby’s mother Louisa and his other sister Olive who was a nurse serving in India.  Annie’s fondness for Selby was mutual.  In letters home, he referred to her as “Our Darling”.

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Selby’s leaving, added to the challenges of living in London in September 1917.  The daily anxiety of never knowing if loved ones were safe was compounded by the scarcity and expense of food and coal and the looming winter.  Gotha bombers had also reached the capital and night bombings had intensified.  Annie never went to bed without her little electric torch and a stack of letters ready to take to the basement if there was an air raid.

Annie’s friend, Belle Glasgow, writing to her daughters Joan and Beth on 19th September 1917 described how unsettling the air raids had become.  One night, when everything seemed quiet, they’d returned to their beds only to hear the bombers again.  “I shall never forget the noise of their machines.  Their engines hummed like dozens of telephone wires.  It made my ears ache.”  The next morning Belle learnt the hospital off the Strand had a miraculous escape.  Casualties were limited because the bomb dropped on the road beside the hospital but every window in the entire street was either broken or cracked.

Meanwhile in Southampton, Selby boarded a boat for Belgium to take part in the battle that would decimate his battalion, the entire division and change his life forever.

Further Reading

Annie Wheeler’s correspondence and Belle Glasgow’s letters to her daughters are part of State Library of Queensland’s collection.

Selby Russell’s war record has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia.

47th Battalion war diary has been digitised by the Australian War Memorial.

 

Melancholia

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.

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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’.

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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.

Further Information

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.

Missing at Sea

At the end of August Annie Wheeler received a letter from George Coar letting her know one of his mates, Rockhampton man, John Michael Hawley had died at sea.  John’s ship was about a week out from England when he disappeared during a storm in the early hours of the morning.  He was not missed until later that day.

On the 28th August 1917, one hundred years ago today, John’s mother Mary received a cable with the devastating news John had drowned at sea.  News of John’s death was shocking because it was unexpected.  John had only left Australia on the 20th June and wasn’t expected to arrive in England until the end of August.  John wasn’t in the firing line, not like her other three boys, Thomas, Patrick and James, who were all fighting in France.

John was Mary’s eldest son, working as an accountant in Melbourne and the last brother to enlist.   He spent a year training in Australia first at corporals school and then sergeants school and was acting sergeant when he embarked for England.  After he was reported missing on the 18th August a Court of Enquiry was held at sea.  Several witnesses gave evidence and two reported John had been very sick during the voyage.

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Sgt. Armit also said he was depressed and Sgt. Herring said something was worrying him.

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Disturbingly John’s life-belt was found on the deck where he was last seen and there was also a question raised about the delay in reporting the incident.  A guard on the bridge had seen a man vomiting and his legs disappear but hours elapsed before the captain was told a man was overboard.  The Court of Enquiry concluded John fell overboard while vomiting.

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Mary wrote wanting details of John’s death and maybe to spare her she was simply told he fell overboard and drowned.

Unfortunately, John wasn’t the only son Mary lost during the war.  One month later Patrick was killed in the Battle of Polygon Wood in the Ypres sector in Belgium.  But it took more than eight months for her to find out he had been killed and she never found out where he was buried.  Mary wrote to the AIF in 1918 wanting information about Patrick.  He had written regularly but she hadn’t heard from him in eight months.

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When the AIF replied they told her he had been killed in action “on or about the 27th September” but there were no details of where or how he died or where he was buried.  Mary continued to write until 1923 when the AIF confirmed they couldn’t find his resting place.

Further Information

Soldiers’ war records have been digitised by the NAA and are available – http://www.naa.gov.au

Annie’s letter to Mary Trotman were published in ‘The Capricornian’ and are available on Trove – http://www.trove.nla.gov.au

 

The Emotional Toll

One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler was unwell and the doctor ordered her to rest.  She left London for Eastbourne leaving everything in Portia’s capable hands.  With so many missing and wounded the number of letters increased every day.  Every post brought bags of mail, all needing answers.  ‘Mothering’ so many boys was taking a toll.  Working as a nurse in Rockhampton, Annie knew many of these boys and their families personally; some she had delivered.  Each death was a blow.

Not long before Annie left for Eastbourne she heard a Court of Enquiry had determined Andrew Fraser had been killed in action.  She had been looking for him for almost a year.

Andrew was 18, a year younger than Portia, when he enlisted in 1916.  He had brown eyes and brown hair and a “fresh complexion”.  He was only five feet and five inches.  In August 1916 he was fighting in Poziers.  In October his mother, Mary Fraser, received a cable telling her Andrew had been wounded.

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After unsuccessfully trying to find what hospital he had been sent to she cabled Annie Wheeler.  Annie spent four weeks trying to locate Andrew; turning over every stone only to conclude Andrew was missing.

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Mary wrote to the AIF telling them Mrs Wheeler’s conclusions and a couple of weeks later received news Andrew was now listed as missing.

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She kept writing to the AIF for information telling them in May 1917 “any news is better than this suspense”.  On the 1st June there was still no more information.

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Eventually a Court of Enquiry was convened to investigate and on the 2nd July determined Andrew was killed on the 21st August 1916.

Mary kept writing wanting more information, wanting to know where her son was buried and in 1921 received an account from a witness.

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Andrew’s legs had been blown off.  After he was bandaged he was taken away to a dressing station but he never got there.  The suspense was over.

Further Information

Andrew’s war record has been digitised by the NAA – http://www.aa.gov.au

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman published in the ‘Capricornian’ have been digitised by Trove – http://www.nla.gov.au

Some Blind Trick of the Weather

The sheer brutality of artillery pummelling human flesh and thick viscous mud, created chaos.  Men leapt from their starting-off points never to be seen again. Australia’s official war historian, Charles Bean’s war diaries describe the conditions, one hundred years ago today, as the worst the men had ever been in.  Stories of men falling into shell holes and disappearing from sight while their mates tried to pull them from the sludge before they drowned, abounded.  Travelling with the 49th and 50th battalions, Bean described tanks and guns abandoned, almost completely buried in mud, leaving men without artillery support. The guns were meant to destroy German defence posts so the men could charge forward, clear out any remaining Germans and gain ground. Without the heavy artillery, stuck in mud, men were sitting ducks.  Conditions were so bad the battle of Passchendaele was suspended until the rain eased.  When the push resumed, many of the men were lost, buried in the Belgium mud.

By the end of the war 25,000 Australian soldiers were listed as missing, presumed dead.

In London, oblivious to the horror of Passchendaele because of government censorship, Annie Wheeler was focused on finding men still missing after the Battle of Messines.

One of these men was Charles Findlay.  Initially, his mother, Ann, was told he was missing but then one month later, she received news he was dead.  They told her he was killed in the battle of Messines on the 7th June 1917 but they didn’t know where he was buried and they couldn’t find any of his belongings; no discs, no photos, no wallet, no kit, nothing.  Ann Findlay thought maybe there had been a mistake.  Maybe he was a prisoner of war.  It made no sense to her that there were no personal effects and no one could tell her where Charles was buried.  She wrote to Annie Wheeler in August praying there had been some mistake.

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If he was dead Ann asked Annie to find out something about his last moments; she wanted to know if he spoke about his people.  Annie did all she could to find out what happened – she wrote letters and spoke to men in his battalion.  She liaised closely with the AIF, Australian Red Cross and the YMCA.

The Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau was headed by a young Australian woman Vera Deakin.  The bureau engaged searchers who investigated missing men, spoke to witnesses and prepared reports.  They wrote to the families giving them an honest, if sometimes brutal account to help families understand what had happened to their sons or brothers.

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The bureau  looked for Charles Findlay.  His file has a statement from his friend who said Lieutenant Pott was with him when he died.

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The bureau wrote to Pott but no statement exists.  If Pott did give a statement it isn’t on file and it is unlikely Ann Findlay received any information.  Ann continued to write to the AIF until 1922, always a similar letter, wanting to know where Charles was buried and if there were any photos or letters.  Wanting anything.  The Red Cross continued to look for him after the war ended but there was no sign of him in Germany.

Further Information

  • Ann Findlay’s letter to Annie is part of Annie Wheeler’s collection in the State Library of Queensland – http://www.slq.gov.au
  • Red Cross Missing Files have been digitised by the Australian War Memorial – https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/red-cross-records-from-the-first-world-war.
  • Charles Findlay and Ann Findlay’s records are available at the NAA – http://www.aa.gov.au
  • Charles Bean’s diaries have been digitised by the AWM – https://oldsite.awm.gov.au/images/collection/bundled/RCDIG1066614.pdf
  • The image, H07970, courtesy of the AWM, is the Index Card Department at the Prisoner of War Information Bureau.