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

No ringing in the 1917 new year

The mood in London was sombre as the new year approached.  No grand public celebrations were planned, indeed ‘no bells were rung, no sirens sounded on the river, no cheering.  Few wishes were exchanged.  The few that were took the form of “a happier year” or “a better year”.[1] There is no mention of new year celebrations in Annie Wheeler’s or her daughter Portia’s letters.  It is business as usual; visiting injured soldiers, writing to families, sending parcels, hassling the war office for information about missing soldiers, volunteering at the Anzac Buffet and raising money to fund their work.

The new year was business as usual for the soldiers too; the job of killing Germans and being killed continued. Soldiers who had witnessed the horrors of the Somme and Verdun were no longer the romantics who had signed up for king and country but hardened veterans who ridiculed patriotic talk and were more likely to despise their incompetent commanders than the Germans they fought.  Paul Ham, in his new book on the battle of Passchendaele, describes soldiers marking the 1917 new year by singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ but changing the lyrics to reflect their state of mind.

‘We’re here because we’re here,

Because we’re here, because we’re here

We’re here because we’re here

because we’re here because we’re here’[2]

The English public was also unable to escape the realities of a war entering its third year.  Badly wounded and disfigured men filled the streets of London and these men, scarred and missing limbs, were the lucky ones as the number of dead and those languishing in  hospitals continued to climb.

At the end of December 1916 Annie wrote “At last I have found Don and Calder Mowat.  The former is at Brankesmere Hospital, Southsea and Calder is at the Third Western General Hospital, Cardiff.  Don is suffering from trench feet but is able to get out sometimes in a bath chair.” Don’s feet were so bad he wasn’t able to re-join his unit until April 1917.  He suffered gunshot wounds in 1917 and again in 1918 and then re-fractured his arm in a fall.  This injury precipitated an inquiry as there was some doubt as to whether it was caused by an accident or self-inflicted.  The inquiry concluded it was accidental and Don survived the war.  His younger brother Calder did not survive.  Calder was killed in action in France in April 1918.  He was only 21.

Annie had also been looking for George Phillips and on the 29th December 1916 received a letter from his brother, Arthur, telling her George was in Southmead Hospital, Bristol.  George who was only 19 when he enlisted was wounded at Gallipoli and caught rheumatic fever, from which he never really recovered.  He was discharged as medically unfit citing shell shock and rheumatic fever.  His older brother Arthur also suffered shell shock after being wounded in action in France.  Not long before he wrote to Annie he went AWOL for several days and when he returned he was fined ten days pay.  Reading their files (digital copies are available on the NAA website) it is clear both brothers were deeply traumatised by their experiences and spent the war in and out of hospital.  Neither brother married.

Further Reading 

Ham, P. (2016). Passchendaele – Requiem for Doomed Youth. Sydney: William Heinemann.

White, J. (2014). Zeppelin Nights – London in the First World War. London: Vintage Books.

 

 

[1] (White, 2014)

[2] (Ham, 2016)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

7 December 1916

On the first weekend in December 1916 Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were in Eastbourne having a well-earned break before starting on the Christmas work.  Annie’s husband, Henry Wheeler’s family lived in Eastbourne and Annie was very friendly with her sister-in-law Portia.  Henry died of complications from a horse-riding accident in 1903 and Annie and her daughter Portia were in England because Henry wanted young Portia to finish her education in England. Eastbourne was a Victorian seaside resort town in Sussex and about an hour and a half by train from Victoria Station.

When they returned to Lancaster Gate they started their Christmas work.  Annie had received twenty-five letters from Queensland mothers and needed to write to each of their sons.  Many of the letters asked Annie to send cakes or socks or warm vests to their sons and contained money or details about how the money would be transferred. Parcels to the front from Australia often went missing and mothers knew Annie’s parcels had a better chance of getting to the boys. Not only did Annie and Portia have to answer each of these letters but they had to buy the supplies, make and send the parcels.

On Monday 4th December 1916 Annie went to Mrs Hall’s tea party. Mrs Hall entertained eight boys from the Australian Hospital in Southall every Monday afternoon.  After they had tea, sandwiches, bread, cake and homemade soda, a friend would sing, play and recite for them.  Annie would ply the soldiers with questions asking who they had seen, whether they’d heard anything about so and so?  Annie used this information to follow up requests from families who were desperately looking for their sons and brothers.  Some hadn’t heard anything for months or in some cases years.

In Annie’s index card boxes, which are part of the State Library of Queensland collection, there is a card for Percy Augustus Hiron.  Mrs Hiron wrote looking for word about her son Percy.  She hadn’t heard from him and heard rumours he was shell shocked or injured.  She believed she hadn’t heard from him because “he was no scholar.”  There is correspondence between Mrs Hiron and the military in Percy’s war records digitised by the National Archive of Australia.  Percy was wounded at some stage and did recover but perhaps more interestingly and something they didn’t tell Mrs Hiron was Percy was court-martialled and trialled in 1917.  It seems he and another soldier were escorting two prisoners who escaped.  Percy and the other man (Baker) were not carrying their rifles and were unable to do anything to stop the escape.  Not carrying their riffles was an offence and the reason they were court-martialled.  They elected to be tried together and at their trial they were acquitted and returned to their unit.  Percy survived the war.

Also on this day 100 years ago Lloyd George became prime minister and in December 1916 Belle Glasgow (wife of Major General William Glasgow) who was staying at the same boarding house as Annie and Portia, wrote to her daughters, who were in Gympie, telling them London was so dirty she had to wash her hair once a week.  Belle’s letters are part of the SLQ collection.

One hundred years ago today

Christmas 1916, London was home to millions of people who were weary of war. The war had ripped apart the young men of England and her dominions for more than two years and was not yet satiated.  The young men who survived were back in London and visible.  War was visceral, the injuries often catastrophic.

Living in the heart of London was a woman from Rockhampton, a small hot humid town with a population of not quite twenty thousand in central Queensland, Australia. Her name was Annie Wheeler and during the war she found her calling.

Annie Wheeler’s original letters are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection and I am using my 2016 QANZAC 100 Fellowship to research Annie’s life, and work, in London, during the first world war for a book I am writing.  My book is set towards the end of 1916 and during 1917 and as I research and write I am often struck by the fact that the letters and diaries were written exactly one hundred years ago.

One hundred years ago Annie and her daughter Portia were in the middle of London, in the middle of the first world war.