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.

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