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.

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 11.22.51 am

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.

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 11.58.30 am

The bureau  looked for Charles Findlay.  His file has a statement from his friend who said Lieutenant Pott was with him when he died.

Screen Shot 2017-08-03 at 10.11.04 am

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.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 1.32.24 pm.png

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 3.28.09 pm.png

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

 

 

 

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

 

Warm things, clean shirts and underpants needed.

11 January 1917.  Annie Wheeler was busy sending out New Year Parcels.  It was bitterly cold and the soldiers needed gloves, scarves, mufflers, mittens, warm socks and underwear.  Central Queensland women had organised themselves and had been knitting and sewing for months.  Mrs Hopper had volunteered to make 50 pair of socks.  Mothers also sent parcels, for their sons, directly to Annie who had a better chance of making sure they arrived safely. Annie had a knack for finding a soldier even when she only had the name of the ship he embarked on, though she did lament that once a soldier arrived at Salisbury Plains, a training camp in England, it was like “trying to find a needle in a haystack”.

Of course the parcels had to get to England first and the journey from Australia was more precarious for parcels than for passengers.  If the ship was hit by a U-Boat, passengers could be rescued whereas all possessions including parcels and letters were left to sink with the ship.

In October 1916, the S.S. Arabia left Australia with 439 passengers, 169 of them women and children and much needed parcels and letters for Annie to distribute.  Some of the items were for central Queensland soldiers who were prisoners of war and had told Annie the food the Germans gave them was not fit to eat.  Annie liaised with the Red Cross to make sure the necessary items got to her boys.  Annie would eyeball whomever she needed to eyeball in the Red Cross and Army HQ offices to ensure she got what she needed. Sometimes she paid for additional Red Cross supplies.

In her letter of 11 January 1917, one hundred years ago today, Annie detailed the contents of the POW Red Cross parcels to Mary Trotman, her able deputy working in Rockhampton.  The parcel contained “biscuits, beef dripping, tea, milk and sugar in tablets, soup in tablets, equal to nine plates, tin salmon, macaroni, coffee, vegetables, 12lb of army rations, beef-a-la-mond, rabbit, golden syrup, marmalade, Quaker oats, corned beef and ginger pudding”.  The POWs relied on the Red Cross Parcels.

As the Arabia sailed through the Mediterranean on 6 November 1916, no one sensed any danger but as the stewards started to serve pre-lunch bowls of beef soup the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat without any warning. The torpedo hit the coal bunkers and passengers were thrown to the decks.  Some had deep lacerations and were badly concussed but their daily life-boat drills saved their lives; all the passengers escaped the sinking ship.  Eleven of the crew were killed and the cargo was lost.  When Annie heard about the disaster she was distraught and needed to find money to replace the supplies she feared were on board.  She was very relieved when letters and parcels showed up in the second week of January, and told Mary Trotman “so no doubt we have had mails via America and Suez.  A parcel of socks addressed to Private Orrock arrived.  These must be the 50 pairs from Lake’s Creek which I thought had gone down in the Arabia. I am so delighted they have turned up safely. Please thank Mrs Hopper and all those who put such splendid work into them.”

The sinking of the Arabia without warning increased tensions between Germany and the US who were poised to enter the war.

Further Reading

More information about the sinking of the Arabia  – http://www.peoplehelp.com.au/stories/arabia.html

More information about the relationship between Annie Wheeler and M.S. Trotman scroll down and read my previous post dated 30 November 2016 and titled December 1916