Annie and Portia Wheeler commemorated ANZAC day each year during the war. Their work gave them a deep understanding of the sacrifice of the boys who volunteered and their families, especially mothers, who had no choice but to accept their decision to enlist.
In 1918, there were 1200 Australian men buried in England. The Australian Natives Association decided to mark ANZAC day visiting each of the graves. Annie was allotted the Stratford-sub-Castle Cemetery in Salisbury where 22 men were buried. Martin Rolfe (from the Queensland Agent General office) heard she was going alone and offered to accompany her.
When they arrived at the cemetery they were touched to find women from the village had also visited the graves and left flowers. Annie and Martin left daffodils and wildflowers on each grave and cards with the inscription, “Australia is proud of her illustrious dead, who have fought a just fight for King and Empire and tenders sincere sympathy to bereaved relatives and friends.” Annie took down the name and number of each man and wrote to the next-of-kin “to let them know their loved one was not forgotten on our great anniversary”. She also arranged postcard photographs of the plot to send to the relatives. There were four boys from central Queensland buried in the cemetery.
Of course, for Annie, while the day was a commemoration and celebration it was also a reminder of the grim reality of the on-going war. “All day I could not help wondering what our boys in France were doing.” She hoped “they were celebrating the day by routing the Germans from Villers-Bretonneux” but knew any victory would be bittersweet. Every battle regardless of the outcome was followed by sorrow when the casualty lists arrived.
While it’s likely they honoured the soldiers in a personal way on Anzac Day in 1917 it is also likely they attended one of the official events organised to remember the storming of ANZAC Cove and the Australians who died in Gallipoli. These events included, a memorial service held at the War Chest Club, a service and reception at Westminster Catholic Cathedral, a function at the ANZAC Buffet and an evening of entertainment for the Australian and New Zealand troops at the Princess Theatre in Oxford Street. Andrew Fisher, the Australian High Commissioner, the state Agent Generals and Lady Godley, wife of the Commander-in-Chief of the New Zealand forces were at the War Chest Club with soldiers and guests. The Bishop, Dr Perrin preached, “the Australians at Gallipoli, though not victorious, were not defeated. When history was written the most wonderful fact would be that before there was any suggestion of conscription in Australia, Canada or England millions of men volunteered for the Empire. The blood shed on Gallipoli and elsewhere had made it real instead of a nominal Empire.” Sir John McCall, the Agent-General for Tasmania, told soldiers at the ANZAC Buffet “although our men were making a record in France nothing they had done there exceeded the great deeds of Gallipoli”.
Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove – http://www.trove.nla.gov.au
Image courtesy of the Community Website of Stratford Subcastle, Salisbury.