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”.
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.
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.