One hundred years ago Australian soldiers were resting away from the line. After enduring nine months of sheer hell in the deadliest battles of the war men were moved to the south of France. During this time most tried to forget about twisted body parts, suffocating mud and death and took leave in London and Paris, immersing themselves in all these cities offered. Scotland, Wales and Ireland were also popular destinations because of their physical beauty and peacefulness.
Brigadier General William Glasgow and his wife Belle spent time in Wales. Glasgow had been in hospital in London with a severe cold and they chose Wales to recuperate and reconnect. Glasgow referred to his leave as a late honeymoon. Belle describes her husband, his throat still scratchy from his cold, serenading her before bed with the song “Ding, dong, ding, dong, ‘tis my wedding morning.” Croaky as an old frog he held a paper in his hand and imitated the antics of a tenor singer. William was the reason Belle left Australia and every moment together was treasured. When they arrived back in London William was granted a few more days leave which they spent at the Berners Hotel. London with William was everything Belle craved; they dined with the Queensland Agent General, Sir Thomas Robinson and his wife and watched the Lord Mayor’s Procession from the offices in the Strand. It was the first time women took their place in the procession with the military and navy. They were part of the land army and carried forks, spades and reaping hooks. Belle was fascinated by the captured German tanks, guns and Gotha planes that were part of the procession. She talked to Lady Dawson whose husband was the King’s physician and admired her three daughters who wore claret coloured velvet dresses and fur trimmed toques to match. Farewelling William at Charing Cross Belle met Charles Bean, Australia’s official war correspondent and other high-ranking officers and told her daughters “father holds such a high place in people’s opinions you must live up to the same standards. A general’s daughters have many eyes on them.”
Feeling flat and lonely without William, Belle suggested they spend Christmas in Paris. Even though this was possible as William was scheduled to be out of the line for several months he felt he should spend Christmas with his men; they couldn’t get back to their people so he should be with them. Disappointed, Belle hatched a plan relocate to the south of France and William encouraged her to investigate the possibility and enlisted a property agent to find them a house near Cannes. Belle soon found wives faced many obstacles getting to France. Eventually she found a contact in the AIF to assist but when she asked William if she would be able to visit his quarters when she was there he immediately dismissed the idea, “I would not care to have you here as it would open up to all sorts of questions and people would be only too quick to ask questions”. Undeterred Belle continued to plan until William told her to stay put. Plans had changed and William was on the move again to the “one place she hoped he wouldn’t be sent.”
The Glasgow papers are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection.
The first week of the 1917 new year was very cold. Snow fell in “great thick flakes”. The residents of 9 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park huddled together around a dwindling fire trying to keep warm. Coal was in short supply and the coal man had not made his scheduled delivery. Around the fire were Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia and Belle Glasgow.
Belle was the wife of Brigadier-General TW Glasgow, known as William or Will. Belle travelled from Queensland to London in 1916 to be closer to her husband during the war, leaving her two daughters, Joan and Beth, in the care of her family. In his biography of Glasgow, Peter Edgar tells a story that when Belle heard from a returned soldier William was having “the time of his life” she booked her passage to London. It is clear they discussed her coming to London but William would have liked “the show to be over” before she did. While holidaying in Sandgate she cabled William and he agreed for her to come. He may have thought she was bringing the girls who were only eleven and seven at the time and wasn’t happy she was coming alone. He wrote to Joan, the eldest, “I have now just had a cable saying she (Belle) was leaving on the 16th of September. I wonder what she is doing with you and Beth? Have you gone to a boarding school, to Gympie or Granny? It would have been lovely if she had brought you over.” (A photo of his original letter dated 22 September 1916 is at the top of the post)
Their letters, which are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection (Sir Thomas William Glasgow and Lady Glasgow Papers), give an extraordinary insight into their marriage which was intimate, loving, ordinary and complicated with its ups and downs like all marriages. While the story is a little one-sided (Belle was the meticulous record keeper and only William Glasgow’s letters to her are available) it is possible to imagine the contents of her letters to him because of Will’s references to them and Belle’s letters to her daughters are full of information that give a sense of her personality and what mattered to her. Belle’s father was a journalist who had owned “The Gympie Times” and her talent as a writer is evident in her detailed descriptions of London during the war.
On 4 January 1917, exactly one hundred years ago today, Belle wrote a four-page letter to her daughters describing her visit to Westminster Abby and giving them a potted history of the people buried there. She told them the tombs were covered with sandbags as protection against the Zeppelin raids. Belle described the snow falling “in great thick flakes”. Some days a glorious bright and sunny day would change before she had a chance to walk outside. “London with its many and various climate changes in one day is a queer place.” Belle relayed information about various family members who had been injured in the war and talked about recovering from her cold.
William’s letters to Belle while he was in France are full of domestic matters. He rarely mentions details of the war but he tells her how he feels each day. He commanded the 13th division and his anguish when his soldiers are killed is palpable. He writes to Belle each night before he goes to bed and he relied on her letters. In the first week of 1917 he received a letter with her handwriting on the envelope but found it was a letter Belle had forwarded. He tells her how disappointed he was when he opened it and saw there was no letter from her. He wrote care of the Queensland National Bank in London and they forwarded the letters to Belle at Lancaster Gate.