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.

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

Our Baby Brother

One hundred years ago today James Fitzroy Foot lay dying.  Driving rain turned the ground beneath him into thick mud which oozed into his uniform and quickly embraced him.

He lay with others from his battalion near the border between France and Belgium.  Officially they were in France but so close to the border, when their mates found them they buried them together in the vicinity of Messines in Belgium.  Reverend Cutten reported their burial on the 12th of August.  James was barely nineteen, from Springsure in central Queensland.  Annie Wheeler grew up in Springsure and knew James’s family well.

James was part of the 42nd battalion which was attached to General Plumer’s Second Army.  Since the battle of Messines their efforts were focused on destroying German resistance along the Warneton Line in preparation for the major offensive to capture the strategic Passchendaele ridge.  The 42nd battalion would be part of a supportive feint attack to the south, designed to weaken the German defence by drawing it away from the main battle.

The feint and the main battle of Passchendaele began at the same time, 3.50am on the morning on the 31st of July.  The battalion made good progress but despite the unprecedented shelling by the British in the weeks leading up to the battle the counter attack was fierce and they were heavily bombarded.

Then the rain fell, in great torrents, and the battle of Passchendaele, already ill-planned turned disasterous.  The fields of Ypres became a human slaughter-house.

James was killed on the 31st of July but news of his death took time to filter through.  His family were devastated.  He was the baby.  They needed more information about his death and wrote to Annie Wheeler.  “I am writing to you because you will most likely meet some of the 42nd who were with James at the time and if you could gain any information about his death.  Only a few particulars would be so comforting.  He was our baby brother – only 19 and 2 months when he died.”

The family also wrote to the AIF and were told all that remained were discs, a wallet and some photos.  They were told where he was buried.  In 1928, the Graves’ Commission found the remains of the C.O. of the 42nd battalion, Lieutenant Norman Freeman and five other soldiers near Messines.  Paper work confirmed one of the soldiers was James Foot.  Another was Private J. Fallon also from the 42nd battalion. James was exhumed and reburied in Sanctuary Wood Cemetry at Zillesbeke. His mates were buried beside him.

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Further Information

Map courtesy of the “Unofficial History of the Australian and New Zealand Armed Services” – http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-battles/ww1/france/warneton.htm.

Annie Wheeler’s papers have been digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are available online – www.slq.gov.au

James Foot’s war record has been digitised by the NAA and is available online www.naa.gov.au

Information about the 42nd battalion is available online at the AWM – www.awm.gov.au

 

 

Where are they?

While the Battle of Messines was a success its ferocity left more than ten thousand Australian soldiers dead, wounded, missing or suffering severe shell shock.  Soldiers who made it back found their battalions decimated.  Sometimes they had seen a mate fall but that was the last they’d seen of him.  Desperate for news, unable to find out any information in France or Belgium, they cabled or wrote to Annie Wheeler telling her their mate was missing and asked her to to investigate.

In June 1917 Annie’s list of missing was growing.  Some boys, Lonergan and Lupton hadn’t been seen since the Battle of Bullecourt and others Palfrey, Boyd and Dodd since Messines.  Annie gave their names to Mary Chomley who headed the Red Cross Prisoner of War Department who also made enquiries.  In early June Annie got a letter from Lonergan, letting her know he was a prisoner of war and then a few days later Alexander Lupton’s letter arrived.  He was also a prisoner of war.

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A little later Annie located Dodd and Boyd in POW camps but unfortunately she discovered Palfrey had been killed in action.  Arthur Nixen wrote to let her know his brother had been wounded but his brother-in-law Bert had been killed.  Annie was able to tell Arthur, Bert wasn’t dead but was a prisoner of war in Germany.  As soon as Annie knew where her boys were she sent parcels of food and other comforts.  The Red Cross sent parcels for a small fee and families cabled Annie money to pay on their behalf.

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There were often mix ups in the cables but if the money didn’t arrive Annie would pay the Red Cross herself.  William Humphries’s money had been cabled under Humphrey’s but luckily it was the Commonwealth Bank and Annie was able to sort it out.  Annie was scrupulous with her accounting and acknowledged every donation.  In June ten pounds was cabled to Mrs H. J. Wheeler.  The bank manager realised it was meant for Annie but it took Annie months to work out the money was from the Rockhampton Bowling Club.  The Central Queensland community appreciated Annie’s work and with donations increasing Mary Trotman urged Annie to hire some help to “keep pace with the letters”.  In late June Annie took her advice and put an ad in the British Australiasian for a “shorthand writer and typist, Queenslander preferred”.

Annie often ran into boys from home.  Returning to the station after visiting Lieutenant Watts in Harfield Hospital she came across Angus Leitch lying on a stretcher on the platform waiting to be taken to the same hospital.  Going down in a crowded lift in Paddington station two soldiers turned around and exclaimed “Mrs Wheeler”.  It was Private Godsell.  He recognised Annie’s voice.  He had sold Annie boots when he worked at Davis and McDongall’s in Rockhampton.

Sadly one hundred years ago on the 26th June she received news her friend George Hartley had been killed.  George had been a frequent visitor and she had only seen him in May on his way back to France after being wounded at Bullecourt.  His cousin Claude Murphy had cabled her.  George had died in a clearing station and Claude had gone back to the village behind the casualty clearing station to see if he could find the place where George had passed away.  He was unsuccessful at the time but told Annie he would find out the particulars of George’s death.  Annie’s heart went out to Claude who had lost a brother and two cousins within a month of each other.

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman printed in The Capricornian have been digitised by the NLA and are available online.

Soldier’s war records have been digitised by the NAA and are available online

 

 

 

Desperate pleas from a POW

Annie Wheeler’s workload increased dramatically after the first battle of Bullecourt.  On the 11th April 1917 1,170 Australians were taken prisoner, the most men captured in a single battle during the war.  Blackall man, William Lonergan from the 15th battalion was one of these men.  William wrote to Annie requesting her help.  In a long letter on the 25th May 1917 he begged her to send a parcel of supplies for him and two friends to a prison camp in Germany.

In the confusion of being captured Will mistakenly told Annie he was captured on the 2nd of April.

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But his war record list him missing in France on the 11th April.

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When Annie cables Miss Annie Russell at Will’s request she tells her he was taken prisoner on the 11th April.

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Annie’s cables were vital.  Will’s family and friends received information months before they heard anything from the AIF.

It took almost six months before Will’s wife Alice Louisa Lonergan was officially told he was a prisoner of war.  She was advised he was missing on the 8th May 1917 and not told he was a prisoner of war until 17th December 1917.

It is difficult to know if Alice Lonergan was upset by this news.  Will and Alice had been living apart for ten years when he enlisted in 1916 which is why he asked Annie Wheeler to cable Miss Russell with news of his capture.  John Lindsay Russell is listed as Will’s next of kin but only Annie Russell is ever mentioned in his letters and it is Annie Russell who writes to Annie Wheeler and sends letters care of Annie Wheeler for Will.  Following is part of Will’s letter to Annie Wheeler which is in his file in the National Archives of Australia.

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Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s letters are part of SLQ John Oxley Library collection and have been digitised – ww.slq.qld.gov.au

William Lonergan’s military file has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia – ww.naa.gov.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Annie sorts out the money.

January 1917 – Annie Wheeler needed to lend money to soldiers on leave from France because the money their mothers had cabled hadn’t arrived and by the time they received their pay they would be back in France.  While Annie didn’t mind lending money to her boys, money was tight and she refused to be the victim of bureaucratic incompetence.

The soldiers needed money on leave, in hospital, recovering from wounds or illness, even as prisoners of war.  While privates were paid six shillings a day, they only received five with one shilling paid on discharge or death.  If the soldier was married, two shillings a day were deducted for his dependents.  According to the Reserve Bank’s Pre-Decimal Inflation Calculator, six shillings in 1917 equates to around thirty dollars today.  If this doesn’t seem very much, it wasn’t, the amount was slightly below the basic wage, but more than the British or New Zealand soldiers received.   Additionally, a soldier’s pay was docked if he was found guilty of even a small misdemeanour such as drunkenness, returning late from leave, disobeying an officer, going AWOL or contracting VD.

When Rockhampton mother, Clara Hutton’s twenty-year-old son Falconer needed money after he was wounded (a bullet ricocheted off his rifle onto his face, forcing fragments of his cheek bone and eye socket into his eye) she had no idea what to do, so wrote to the AIF who told her the safest method of transmitting money was through the Commonwealth Bank. “This institution has full information as to the addressing of cables.”

The Commonwealth Bank, only a couple of years old when war broke out played a crucial role in making sure soldiers received money from Australia. The bank established agencies aboard naval ships and opened branches in Australia and abroad.  They also formed relationships with may overseas agents so soldiers could cash Australian notes and coins at a pre-negotiated rate.  At branches in London and training camps in the UK, staff helped soldiers transfer and receive money as quickly as possible with all charges borne by the bank.  With the help of the Red Cross the bank was able to ensure POWs had access to funds to purchase food and comforts – see my previous post for more information about the conditions for POWs.

The problem Annie Wheeler faced in 1917 was the same problem we face today if we need information about a bank account that is not our own.  Soldiers wrote to Annie from France asking her to cable their parents for money so it would be there when they had leave. Mothers wrote to Annie telling her they had cabled money but sometimes when the soldier was on leave the money hadn’t arrived.  Annie tried to sort it out but bank staff refused to give Annie any information about the accounts.  Frustrated, Annie approached Mr Elliot at the Queensland Agent-General’s office to find a solution.  Elliot introduced Annie to the Commonwealth Bank manager, Mr Campion who “promised anything in his power to help”.  He suggested Annie mark her letters to him “personal” and “he would see himself that I received the information I required.”  Annie was delighted and told him “his kindness would be much appreciated by the mothers of Central Queensland.”

Further Reading

More information about the Commonwealth Bank during the first world war – http://museum.rba.gov.au/exhibitions/from-bank-to-battlefield/challenges-of-war/

Mrs Clara Hutton’s letter to the AIF is on her son’s file and can be accessed via the NAA website – naa.gov.au.

Annie’s letter, 3 March 1917, published by “The Capricornian” is available via Trove – trove.nla.gov.au