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