Winter in the south of France

One hundred years ago Australian soldiers were resting away from the line.  After enduring nine months of sheer hell in the deadliest battles of the war men were moved to the south of France.  During this time most tried to forget about twisted body parts, suffocating mud and death and took leave in London and Paris, immersing themselves in all these cities offered.  Scotland, Wales and Ireland were also popular destinations because of their physical beauty and peacefulness.

Brigadier General William Glasgow and his wife Belle spent time in Wales.  Glasgow had been in hospital in London with a severe cold and they chose Wales to recuperate and reconnect.  Glasgow referred to his leave as a late honeymoon.  Belle describes her husband, his throat still scratchy from his cold, serenading her before bed with the song “Ding, dong, ding, dong, ‘tis my wedding morning.”  Croaky as an old frog he held a paper in his hand and imitated the antics of a tenor singer.  William was the reason Belle left Australia and every moment together was treasured.  When they arrived back in London William was granted a few more days leave which they spent at the Berners Hotel.  London with William was everything Belle craved; they dined with the Queensland Agent General, Sir Thomas Robinson and his wife and watched the Lord Mayor’s Procession from the offices in the Strand.  It was the first time women took their place in the procession with the military and navy.  They were part of the land army and carried forks, spades and reaping hooks.   Belle was fascinated by the captured German tanks, guns and Gotha planes that were part of the procession.  She talked to Lady Dawson whose husband was the King’s physician and admired her three daughters who wore claret coloured velvet dresses and fur trimmed toques to match. Farewelling William at Charing Cross Belle met Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent and other high-ranking officers and told her daughters “father holds such a high place in people’s opinions you must live up to the same standards.  A general’s daughters have many eyes on them.”

Feeling flat and lonely without William, Belle suggested they spend Christmas in Paris.  Even though this was possible as William was scheduled to be out of the line for several months he felt he should spend Christmas with his men; they couldn’t get back to their people so he should be with them.  Disappointed, Belle hatched a plan relocate to the south of France and William encouraged her to investigate the possibility and enlisted a property agent to find them a house near Cannes.   Belle soon found wives faced many obstacles getting to France.  Eventually she found a contact in the AIF to assist but when she asked William if she would be able to visit his quarters when she was there he immediately dismissed the idea, “I would not care to have you here as it would open up to all sorts of questions and people would be only too quick to ask questions”.   Undeterred Belle continued to plan until William told her to stay put.  Plans had changed and William was on the move again to the “one place she hoped he wouldn’t be sent.”

Further Information

The Glasgow papers are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection.

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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.

 

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.