One hundred years ago John Fryer wrote to his mother from France. The Fryers were old friends of Annie Wheeler nee Laurie. Annie started school in Springsure and knew Rosina Richards and Charles Fryer long before any of them were married. Rosina and Charles met while working at the pastoral station, Orion Downs and still lived in Springsure with their seven children. Four of the six boys (William, Charles, Henry and John) enlisted and by 1917 were in various parts of England and Europe. Their only daughter Elizabeth remained at home with the two youngest boys Richard and Walter.
March 1917, John apologised to his mother, “you must really excuse me for not writing sooner but I have been kept well on the move since leaving Oxford.” John had been promoted and was in Oxford learning how to use explosives and artillery for trench warfare in his new role as lieutenant. John’s notebooks from his time at Oxford, part of the John Denis Fryer Collection in the University of Queensland Fryer Library, are a fascinating insight into how a man studying modern languages could lead men in battle. Not only do they detail the equipment and methods used in the first world war they also show John’s prowess as a student; the notes are detailed, illustrated and clear.
Before returning to France from Oxford, John dropped in on Annie Wheeler in London. He told his sister Lizzie “she was jolly glad to see some of us Rockhampton boys. By jove she is a great little woman. I think the name ‘mother of Anzacs’ suits her to a T.” Annie was very pleased to see John telling her friend Mary Trotman of his visit and her pride in his commission. But there was a downside to promotion which was why some men refused; John couldn’t re-join the 49th battalion and was transferred to the 52nd. This meant leaving men he had fought alongside and two of his brothers Charles and William who were both with the 49th. Henry was with the 47th. John reassured his mother they were all still part of the same brigade and he saw a good deal of Henry and Charles which no doubt gave her some comfort. He told her, “Charlie is not too bad, but a little drawn about the face. He is quite cheery though and chockfull of confidence – as we all are – in our ability to beat Fritz.”
But by the time Rosina read these words, Charlie was dead. He was killed in action on the 5th April 1917, less than three weeks after John wrote this letter to their mother.
John, William and Henry survived the war and returned to Australia but in 1923 John died of TB, a result of being gassed during the war. John had been an active member of the University Dramatic society who established a memorial collection of works in Australian literature in his name. This collection became the Fryer Library.
John Fryer’s letters to his mother are part of the John Denis Fryer Collection in the University of Queensland Fryer Library.
Annie Wheeler’s letters to Mary Trotman were published by the Capricornian and have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove.
Springsure is in central Queensland 335 Kilometres west of Rockhampton.
March was a very busy month for Annie Wheeler. Soldiers who had been on furlough during January and February were back in France preparing for a big push – the first battle of Bullecourt. As soon as the boys from central Queensland arrived back on the western front they sent Annie a letter with their postal details so she could forward mail, parcels and news. 65 letters from soldiers arrived in a single mail all requiring Annie’s attention.
Paul Voss (pictured above) was a regular visitor and had known Annie for most of his life. He sent Annie a letter not long after he arrived back at the 1st Australian General Hospital in Rouen to let her know he would be heading to the front as part of the 5th Australian Field Ambulance. Paul was a doctor and the son of Annie’s former employer Vivian Voss.
Vivian had been a doctor in Queensland since arriving in Bowen in 1885; a locum from England. He moved to Rockhampton in 1887 and established a private hospital. Annie worked for him before she got married and met her husband, Henry Wheeler, when Vivian operated on him after he was thrown from his horse. Henry Wheeler was badly injured and Annie nursed him during his long recuperation.
Annie also met her friend Mary Stewart Trotman working at the hospital. Mary was doctor Voss’s receptionist and Annie’s able deputy during the war. Mary was responsible for organising and fund raising for Annie’s comfort work. Annie wrote regular letters to Mary with details of the boys and Mary organised their publication in the local paper, ‘The Capricornian’. Mail was often so unreliable families relied on Annie’s letters for news of their loved ones.
Paul Voss was twenty-three when he enlisted in February 1916. Being a doctor on the front was as dangerous as being a soldier. Aid posts, clearing stations and auxiliary hospitals were constantly under fire. Paul was shot in the left leg in November 1916. The wound wasn’t too severe and after a couple of months in England he was back in France. Paul was wounded again in April 1917 while working at the 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital; shrapnel tore through his elbow shattering the bone. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1919 for his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He worked at his aid post under heavy fire for two days’ operations and attended to the wounded of two divisions.”
Paul Voss’s military file has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia and is available online.
Annie Wheeler’s letters in 1917 differed in tone to those written at the start of the war in 1915. A few weeks after the landing on the beach at Gallipoli in 1915, injured Australian soldiers were arriving in Britain and being sent to the military hospitals in Manchester, Birmingham and Chichester. Annie went to the Commonwealth Office in London several times a week to “gaze at the list of dear wounded boys”. As soon as she located a boy from Rockhampton or central Queensland she sent him a letter and a parcel of tobacco, sweets, soap and a shaving brush. Her early letters are quite emotional; she found the newspaper accounts of the injuries awful. “A man whose face looked as if someone with a spiked boot had stepped on it and another as if he had been raked from head to foot with spikes.” Seeing the number of dead and wounded, Annie couldn’t understand why the British and German governments were allowing the war to continue; “surely it has gone far enough”.
Her early letters are also political. Annie was a supporter of Lord Kitchener and found the Daily Mail’s attacks on him brutal and was incensed the unions were disrupting the flow of essential war materials as a bargaining chip in their labour wars with the government. “Today my heart is so full; and I hate the fooling about in London when there is so much to be done”. Feeling helpless and not quite knowing where to direct her energy, Annie decided to help make respirators for the Belgians. “It seems only too true we are going to use the poisonous gases: but perhaps it will be only once. If the Germans suffer like our men, they will not want more than one dose.” Annie hoped the war would be over quickly, that those in power would see sense and stop the slaughter.
Unfortunately, no one saw sense. By 1917 the slaughter had increased and the war of attrition was in full swing and both Britain and Germany were prepared to kill as many of their young men as needed to win the war.
In February 1917, Annie’s letters were no longer emotional. While she expressed her sadness and regret at the loss of life, her raw anguish of twenty-two months earlier is no longer there. Almost two years of war, with no end in sight, have taken its toll on her psyche. She no longer mentions the political situation or speculates when the war might end. She focuses on the only thing she can control, the comfort of her boys. “Since posting my letter of the 8th of February (1917) I have received sixty-five letters from my boys, I must tell you about some of them who wrote from France.”
Annie’s decision to “mother” these boys had an emotional cost. Visiting, meeting, sharing meals with these young men meant she couldn’t escape the reality that many of them would be killed in France. It is not surprising as 1917 wore on and so many boys were killed Annie’s health deteriorated. Every time she wrote home to a mother and noted, in red, on the index card a boy had been killed in action it would have been impossible not to feel the loss. The fact her letters took on a more ‘newsy’ tone as the war progressed was her attempt at a modicum of self-protection.
The photograph is of a card in Annie Wheeler’s index boxes held in the State Library of Queensland collection.
Annie Wheeler’s letters to Mary Trotman in Rockhampton have been digitised by the National Library and are available via Trove.