Polygon Wood and the Harvest Moon

One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler’s boys, protected by a barrage of heavy artillery, charged German pillboxes at Polygon Wood.  Thousands of shells pounded the ground creating a dust and fire storm that slammed into the terrified German soldiers. Charles Bean described the barrage as “the most perfect that ever protected Australian troops.” William Glasgow’s 13th Brigade comprised of the 49th,50th,51st and 52nd Battalions were part of the charge.  Polygon Wood, a clump of forest near Ypres, already battered by previous battles was razed.  Victory was achieved in just under four hours.

Two days later William wrote to his wife Belle in London revelling in the success, “We have been in and had a most successful show – everything went according to programme and our own casualties are very light.  From our point of view the most successful we have ever been in.”  Unfortunately, while it was the most successful battle since Messines, casualties as a whole were not light; 15,375 allies were killed, wounded or missing for the capture of 3.5 square miles.  William and Belle wrote to each other almost every day and on the 28th September, he reassured her “you poor old thing you think that I am unsympathetic.  No girl never when you are concerned and my actions have never shown it.  What you have read is apparently my bad way of expressing myself.  I am sure when we meet we will be only too glad to help one another.”

Belle’s chief complaint was her husband’s lack of leave.  She had left her young daughters in Australia and moved to London to be closer to William but the reality of war meant long absences and shifting promises of leave.  William’s letters often portray an emotional needy and self-centred Belle in need of soothing reassurance.  In fairness to Belle only William’s letters survive; she may have had reason to be anxious about their relationship.  That aside, being adrift from her family and friends, living in the centre of London in 1917, in one of the worst weeks of the war would have made most people fret.

The harvest moon bombings in London from the 24 September to 1 October killed hundreds and created widespread fear and panic.  The nightly raids while the moon shone brightly became intolerable as hundreds of thousands of people took to the underground stations for protection.  On 28 September, a woman was killed in a stampede at Liverpool Street tube station.  Once people were in the stations it became impossible for the passengers to get in and out.  And there were concerns about sanitation, prompting buckets of sand and disinfectant to be handed out to be used as toilets.  Hospitals and schools were forced to open their basements as shelters and people fled London, the poor sleeping in parks on the outskirts of the capital.

The harvest moon raids forced Londoners to experience some of the anguish and carnage of war but as the moon waned and the raids stopped the panic lessened.  Not so in Ypres.  The success at Polygon Wood would soon fade as the push for Passchendaele resumed and the rain fell.

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Further Information

William and Belle Glasgow’s letters are part of the State Library of Queensland collection.

Zeppelin Nights – London in the First World War by Jerry White published by Vintage Books 2015.

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.

 

Heavy Losses at Bullecourt

One hundred years ago William Glasgow was in the thick of things at Bullecourt in France.  Early April 1917, Brigadier General Glasgow, commanding the 13th Brigade, was asked to take over from Cam Robertson.  Cam Robertson (James Campbell Robertson), a Queenslander from Toowoomba, was the commander of the 12th Brigade.  His accidental wounding at the end of March necessitated the temporary change of command.

On the April 12th, Glasgow addressed his wife’s Belle’s complaint that “a letterless day was dreary and endless”.  He explained, “I am very busy and find it difficult to find time to write daily.  I took over from Cam Robertson and am forward again”.  Censorship and perhaps a desire to spare her the full horrors his men endured prevented him from revealing more details except to assure her “when one is forward and pushing there are worries” which do “not allow of thoughts other than the work at hand”.

The day before he wrote this letter, the 12th and 4th Brigades of the AIF with the 62nd British Divisions attacked Bullecourt.  The attack was disastrous.  The tanks which were supposed to support the Australians either became stuck in thick mud and were destroyed or broke down.  The Australian infantry pushed on and managed to break the German lines but because no one was sure how far they had advanced, supporting artillery fire was withheld.  The Australians were trapped and some forced back.  1,170 Australians were taken prisoner, more than any captured during a single battle during the war.  An aditional 2,130 men were killed or wounded.

William Glasgow came out of the line at two-thirty in the morning and received three letters from Belle.  As Belle’s letters to William did not survive the war the only clues about what she wrote are in William’s replies.  Because Belle hadn’t heard from William for a few days, couldn’t imagine his life in France and was separated from her daughters and family in Australia she was feeling lonely and insecure.  William wrote, “You are a queer old thing.  You’re hungry for a little bit of love and affection.  Has it not been forthcoming?”  The incongruity of leading so many men to their death or capture, coming off the line and receiving her letters detailing her domestic life, “so glad you are getting a new frock”, is startling.  It’s possible, the normality of these letters and seeing Belle when he was on furlough were essential for him. All his letters during early April express his feelings for her.  On 7th April, “my whole love goes with this, how I wish I was being enclosed with it” and on the 12th, “how I would like to be alone with you.”  He tells her he will send a wire on their anniversary which is a few weeks away and his pleasure at being her husband. It is unlikely his friend Cam Robertson, who had been away from his wife and family in Toowoomba for more than three years received daily letters. Cam was granted two months’ home leave later in the year but was back in the field by the middle of 1918.

Even though the first attack on Bullecourt achieved little and left the Brigade decimated, Glasgow told Belle he was proud of his men. “Any success that comes to my brigade is the men and the battalion officers.  Once men are launched it rests entirely with them and they do the work.   They had a very strenuous time in and struck appalling weather – the worst I have seen in France.”

Further Information

William Glasgow’s letters to his wife Belle are part of the State Library of Queensland collection and are available online – http://www.slq.qld.gov.au

Image courtesy of the Australian 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.

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

 

 

 

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.

7 December 1916

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.