Annie’s Little Dug-Out

At the beginning of February 1917, 9 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park was Annie Wheeler’s “little dug-out”.  Annie and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Portia, moved to Lancaster Gate in May 1916.  Central Queenslander soldiers passed on her address and visited Annie and Portia when they were in London on leave or recuperating.  Fred Fox was there almost every day when he was on leave in January 1917 (see December 16th post, December 1916 – Portia falls in love). It was bitterly cold at the end of January, beginning of February 1917.  Thick snow stayed frozen on the ground for several days and the coal shortage was so bad even the coal-dust in the cellars was diligently scraped and burnt.  At night the Lancaster Gate residents piled blankets, eiderdowns, rugs off the floor then coats on top of their beds to get a comfortable night’s sleep.  They told themselves not to grumble; imagine how much worse it was for the boys in the trenches.

As cold as it was, there was one upside.  Skating.  The Serpentine and the Round Pond at Kensington Gardens were frozen solid and skating was in full swing.  Portia taught Fred to skate; a pastime impossible to do or even imagine in Rockhampton, a city winter rarely visited.  Portia had finished her education in England and loved skating and the half-hour walk to Kensington Gardens followed by slipping, sliding and falling on the ice was the perfect way to forget about the war, laugh and get to know each other.

Several other Queenslanders also lived at 9 Lancaster Gate; Belle Glasgow stayed when she arrived in London in 1916 to be closer to her husband, Brigadier General William Glasgow (see January 4th post, January 1917 – great thick flakes of snow). The residence, a boarding house owned by a Brisbane woman Mrs Grimley, was quite near Hyde Park and only about two minutes’ walk to the bus which took Annie and Portia to Horseferry Road and the AIF military offices.  Annie moved to London to be close to the AIF because of the frustration she experienced trying to gather information about her boys using mail and telephone.  She wanted to be able to talk to a person face-to-face and receive an immediate response.  She was a regular visitor to Horseferry Road and the photo at the top of this post was taken in the AIF offices.  While the women in the photo aren’t Annie and Portia this is the office they visited.

Horseferry Road had also been home to the Anzac Buffet where other Australians living at Lancaster Gate worked.  The Anzac Buffet or the Buffet as it was known was established by the London branch of the Australian Natives Association, a group of ex-pats, and was opened in 1915 to provide free meals and entertainment to Australian servicemen in London.  In 1916 it was relocated around the corner to Victoria Street because the AIF said they needed the space, however Annie and the women who volunteered at the Buffet felt it was because the military didn’t want competition for their newly established Australian Soldiers’ Club which charged for meals and other comforts.  The Buffet was open seven days a week from 6am – 10.30pm and as well as providing meals there were rooms kitted out for billiards, reading and music.  Annie and Portia were regular volunteers at the Buffet and dropped in at least once a day even if they weren’t working, to see who was there and stay in touch with their network of central Queensland soldiers.

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

Belle Glasgow’s wartime letters to her 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 more pictures and information about the AIF offices and the ANZAC Buffet. awm.gov.au

December 1916 – Portia falls in love.

In December 1916 Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were busy seeing the many Queensland soldiers who were on leave or furlough in London. Their letters are filled with the names of soldiers they’ve seen. “Wilfred McLaughlin had lunch with us the same day.  He is on furlough.  Bill Orrock was here last week.  Jack Atherton came on his way to flying school. Noel Trotman came down from Grantham for four days leave.  He had tea and dinner with us today.”

In the middle of December Fred Fox came in and had tea with them. For Portia, something about Fred set him apart from the other soldiers; her heart quickened and butterflies filled her stomach.

Fred joined the army on the 4th September 1914 and on the morning of the 25th April 1915 was one of the first to step onto the beach at Gallipoli.  He was part of all the Australian efforts there until he was hospitalised on Lemnos with fever a few weeks before the evacuation.   Fred’s brother Norman was also at Gallipoli and they were sent to different parts of Egypt at the end of 1915.  Norman was badly wounded in a training exercise and Fred desperately wanted to see him.  Denied leave, Fred talked to his superiors and they agreed to turn a blind eye to his absence.  According to his son Norman (presumably named after his brother) who has written an extensive family history available online,  (www.foxfamilyhistory.com) Fred walked for a night and day across the desert but was unable to reach Norman before he died.

Fred’s son believed Portia and Fred met during the war, probably earlier in 1916.  Annie first mentions Fred in a letter to Mary Trotman which was published in the “Capricornian” in June 1916.  Apparently Annie had had a letter from H.J. Wallace.  “He said he had seen Fred Fox so we know he is in France, and we hope to see Fred and Peter Stuart soon.”  Between June and September 1916, Fred was with the 49th Battalion in France.  The Battalion “moved into the trenches of the Western Front for the first time on 21 June. It fought in its first major battle at Mouquet Farm in August and suffered heavily, particularly in the assault launched on 3 September”(awm.gov.au/unit/U51489/).  On 23 September Fred was sent back to England for further training.

By Christmas 1916 Fred had been part of the horrors of Gallipoli and Pozieres.  The official war correspondent Charles Bean was also at Mouquet Farm and in his official history describes “the flayed land, shell–hole bordering shell–hole, corpses of young men lying against the trench walls or in shell–holes; some – except for the dust settling on them – seeming to sleep; others torn in half; others rotting, swollen and discoloured” (ww1westernfront.gov.au/pozieres-windmill/aif-memorial-mouquet-farm/mouquet-farm.php).

Fred had seen all this and it was this man Portia was falling in love with. After the war Portia and Fred married and Annie walked her daughter down the aisle.