Swinging the Lead

In the lead-up to Christmas 1917 Annie Wheeler had a breakdown.  She had been unwell in July and this was similar but lasted much longer.  When she recovered she told Mary Trotman, her Rockhampton Deputy, she had been “swinging the lead”, a military term for malingering. But Annie was no malingerer. The responsibility of looking after so many boys had taken a toll on her health and she was forced to spend five weeks in Eastbourne with her sister-in-law, recuperating and resting.  Since October, the number of boys on their books had increased from 900 to over 1500 amazing Annie’s daughter, Portia, at how immense and suddenly the operation had grown.  But demand for their services was now so great they had to limit their reach and Portia requested Mary Trotman publish a note in the local Queensland papers explaining they could only accept money, parcels and letters for boys from central and western Queensland.

Christmas was particularly busy because families wanted to send parcels to their boys.  The unreliability of the postal service meant most families sent mail and parcels via Annie who had much greater success in tracking the intended recipient.  Annie requested parcels weigh less than seven pounds because heavy parcels were difficult and expensive to forward.  As an iced Christmas cake often weighed slightly more than seven pounds families transferred money to Annie so she could buy Christmas parcels in England.  But in 1917 this created more problems for Annie, and with Annie out of action, Portia, because most food was terribly scarce.  It was impossible for civilians to buy even enough for their own consumption.  Butter and margarine was impossible to buy and meat was dreadfully expensive.  As the army canteens were stocked with luxuries that civilians couldn’t buy at any price Portia solved the problem by sending the cash to the boys explaining the purpose of the money and who it was from.  What Portia needed for her parcels were socks and lots of them.  The demand for socks, scarves and helmets over winter was tremendous and everything the women of central Queensland could knit was sent to a grateful soldier.

Portia’s management of the operation during Annie’s illness was exemplary.  When Annie returned in mid-January she told Mary Trotman, “Portia has got the work on a more businesslike footing than when I had it, and it ought to be easier to manage”.  During Annie’s absence Portia used a large donation from Mrs Donaldson to rent two additional rooms in the building they lived, Westminster Gardens, to be used as offices.  The staff moved all the work out of their personal residence and into the offices.  Portia also hired more staff; Peggy Sugden, her father was a doctor in Bundaberg, was taken on permanently.   Portia also transferred all their records from journals to the index card system and ensured it was kept up to date.  Each soldier had his own index card with his details on the front and their family’s details on the back.  By the end of the war there were more than 2300 boys on their books, 2300 cards crammed inside three red boxes.  Portia’s diligence preserved the index boxes and all the stories they contain.  One hundred years later these boxes are in the State Library of Queensland.

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and are available on Trove.

Annie’s collection of letters and papers and the red index boxes are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection.

 

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.