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.

Great Mounds of Earth Flung Sky High

Australian troops were in Belgium in June 1917 for a major push. Months in planning, zero hour for the Battle of Messines was scheduled for dawn on 7th June.  The Germans had held Messines ridge, a key vantage point, since 1915.  The small hill gave them an unobstructed view over Ypres and the Salient.  Soldiers defended their position on top of the ridge inside reinforced concrete pillar boxes.  From the ridge, Allied preparations for any eastward offensive were visible and within firing range.  Winning the war demanded capturing Messines ridge.  An ambitious plan was hatched in 1916 to plant explosives in a series of deep tunnels beneath the German position.  A tunnelling unit was formed and for months they had dug and tunnelled into the distinctive blue clay only found at certain depths.  To keep the plan secret, shallower decoy tunnels were dug and the blue clay was meticulously hidden.

In the days before the battle the Allies launched a relentless shelling offensive to break apart the rows of rolled barbed wire that reinforced the German front line.  The Germans retaliated just as fiercely targeting gun placements and ammunition dumps.  Unable to halt the Allies the Germans launched shells of phosgene and chloropicrin gas.  The gas was heavier than air and blanketed the plains below Messines, suffocating soldiers stranded without their gas masks.  Just before zero hour, as Australian troops moved through Ploegsteert Wood to the jumping off point for battle, they were shelled by explosives and gas.  Around ten percent were killed or disabled by the poisonous gas.

The troops who made it through waited, undetected.  An eerie silence followed.  Seven seconds before zero hour the first mine exploded, then eighteen more in nineteen seconds.  The mines blew the earth and everything on it sky high leaving expansive craters littered with broken bodies.  In those nineteen seconds ten thousand Germans were killed.  The explosions were heard in England and the Germans left alive were panic-stricken.  The next two days, as the Allies advanced and consolidated their position, were a blood bath.  The Germans were ready and not prepared to give in without a fight.  After eight days of fighting often at close quarters the Allies captured Messines, the biggest victory in the war to date.  The price of victory was enormous, the Allies losing more men than the Germans.  24,562 Allied soldiers, more than half of them Anzacs, were killed or injured along with 22,900 German soldiers.

At clearing stations and hospitals nurses were seeing wounds and injuries they had never seen before.  The relentless shelling of the attack and counter-attack also resulted in an increasing number of soldiers with shell shock.  Nurses experienced the horror and felt helpless.  Far from home, many sought the comfort of Annie Wheeler whose care and concern extended equally to the nurses.  In June 1917 following the battle of Messines Annie had a letter from a number of Sisters serving in British Hospitals in France and was struck by the toll it was taking on them.  In her letter to Mary Trotman Annie wanted to know “if anything was being done at home to provide for the future of these brave women of ours.  Many of them will return home broken in health for the hard work and the terrible anxiety that they have gone through.  You have no idea of the hardships they have to endure.”  Annie understood these women needed as much mothering as the soldiers and did all she could to assist and support them in the same way she did with the boys in her care.

Desperate pleas from a POW

Annie Wheeler’s workload increased dramatically after the first battle of Bullecourt.  On the 11th April 1917 1,170 Australians were taken prisoner, the most men captured in a single battle during the war.  Blackall man, William Lonergan from the 15th battalion was one of these men.  William wrote to Annie requesting her help.  In a long letter on the 25th May 1917 he begged her to send a parcel of supplies for him and two friends to a prison camp in Germany.

In the confusion of being captured Will mistakenly told Annie he was captured on the 2nd of April.

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But his war record list him missing in France on the 11th April.

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When Annie cables Miss Annie Russell at Will’s request she tells her he was taken prisoner on the 11th April.

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Annie’s cables were vital.  Will’s family and friends received information months before they heard anything from the AIF.

It took almost six months before Will’s wife Alice Louisa Lonergan was officially told he was a prisoner of war.  She was advised he was missing on the 8th May 1917 and not told he was a prisoner of war until 17th December 1917.

It is difficult to know if Alice Lonergan was upset by this news.  Will and Alice had been living apart for ten years when he enlisted in 1916 which is why he asked Annie Wheeler to cable Miss Russell with news of his capture.  John Lindsay Russell is listed as Will’s next of kin but only Annie Russell is ever mentioned in his letters and it is Annie Russell who writes to Annie Wheeler and sends letters care of Annie Wheeler for Will.  Following is part of Will’s letter to Annie Wheeler which is in his file in the National Archives of Australia.

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Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s letters are part of SLQ John Oxley Library collection and have been digitised – ww.slq.qld.gov.au

William Lonergan’s military file has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia – ww.naa.gov.au

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Annie celebrates ANZAC Day

Annie and Portia Wheeler commemorated ANZAC day each year during the war.  Their work gave them a deep understanding of the sacrifice of the boys who volunteered and their families, especially mothers, who had no choice but to accept their decision to enlist.

In 1918, there were 1200 Australian men buried in England.  The Australian Natives Association decided to mark ANZAC day visiting each of the graves.  Annie was allotted the Stratford-sub-Castle Cemetery in Salisbury where 22 men were buried.  Martin Rolfe (from the Queensland Agent General office) heard she was going alone and offered to accompany her.

When they arrived at the cemetery they were touched to find women from the village had also visited the graves and left flowers.  Annie and Martin left daffodils and wildflowers on each grave and cards with the inscription, “Australia is proud of her illustrious dead, who have fought a just fight for King and Empire and tenders sincere sympathy to bereaved relatives and friends.”  Annie took down the name and number of each man and wrote to the next-of-kin “to let them know their loved one was not forgotten on our great anniversary”.  She also arranged postcard photographs of the plot to send to the relatives.  There were four boys from central Queensland buried in the cemetery.

Of course, for Annie, while the day was a commemoration and celebration it was also a reminder of the grim reality of the on-going war.  “All day I could not help wondering what our boys in France were doing.”  She hoped “they were celebrating the day by routing the Germans from Villers-Bretonneux” but knew any victory would be bittersweet.  Every battle regardless of the outcome was followed by sorrow when the casualty lists arrived.

While it’s likely they honoured the soldiers in a personal way on Anzac Day in 1917 it is also likely they attended one of the official events organised to remember the storming of ANZAC Cove and the Australians who died in Gallipoli.  These events included, a memorial service held at the War Chest Club, a service and reception at Westminster Catholic Cathedral, a function at the ANZAC Buffet and an evening of entertainment for the Australian and New Zealand troops at the Princess Theatre in Oxford Street.  Andrew Fisher, the Australian High Commissioner, the state Agent Generals and Lady Godley, wife of the Commander-in-Chief of the New Zealand forces were at the War Chest Club with soldiers and guests.  The Bishop, Dr Perrin preached, “the Australians at Gallipoli, though not victorious, were not defeated.  When history was written the most wonderful fact would be that before there was any suggestion of conscription in Australia, Canada or England millions of men volunteered for the Empire.  The blood shed on Gallipoli and elsewhere had made it real instead of a nominal Empire.” Sir John McCall, the Agent-General for Tasmania, told soldiers at the ANZAC Buffet “although our men were making a record in France nothing they had done there exceeded the great deeds of Gallipoli”.

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove – http://www.trove.nla.gov.au

Image courtesy of the Community Website of Stratford Subcastle, Salisbury.

 

 

Heavy Losses at Bullecourt

One hundred years ago William Glasgow was in the thick of things at Bullecourt in France.  Early April 1917, Brigadier General Glasgow, commanding the 13th Brigade, was asked to take over from Cam Robertson.  Cam Robertson (James Campbell Robertson), a Queenslander from Toowoomba, was the commander of the 12th Brigade.  His accidental wounding at the end of March necessitated the temporary change of command.

On the April 12th, Glasgow addressed his wife’s Belle’s complaint that “a letterless day was dreary and endless”.  He explained, “I am very busy and find it difficult to find time to write daily.  I took over from Cam Robertson and am forward again”.  Censorship and perhaps a desire to spare her the full horrors his men endured prevented him from revealing more details except to assure her “when one is forward and pushing there are worries” which do “not allow of thoughts other than the work at hand”.

The day before he wrote this letter, the 12th and 4th Brigades of the AIF with the 62nd British Divisions attacked Bullecourt.  The attack was disastrous.  The tanks which were supposed to support the Australians either became stuck in thick mud and were destroyed or broke down.  The Australian infantry pushed on and managed to break the German lines but because no one was sure how far they had advanced, supporting artillery fire was withheld.  The Australians were trapped and some forced back.  1,170 Australians were taken prisoner, more than any captured during a single battle during the war.  An aditional 2,130 men were killed or wounded.

William Glasgow came out of the line at two-thirty in the morning and received three letters from Belle.  As Belle’s letters to William did not survive the war the only clues about what she wrote are in William’s replies.  Because Belle hadn’t heard from William for a few days, couldn’t imagine his life in France and was separated from her daughters and family in Australia she was feeling lonely and insecure.  William wrote, “You are a queer old thing.  You’re hungry for a little bit of love and affection.  Has it not been forthcoming?”  The incongruity of leading so many men to their death or capture, coming off the line and receiving her letters detailing her domestic life, “so glad you are getting a new frock”, is startling.  It’s possible, the normality of these letters and seeing Belle when he was on furlough were essential for him. All his letters during early April express his feelings for her.  On 7th April, “my whole love goes with this, how I wish I was being enclosed with it” and on the 12th, “how I would like to be alone with you.”  He tells her he will send a wire on their anniversary which is a few weeks away and his pleasure at being her husband. It is unlikely his friend Cam Robertson, who had been away from his wife and family in Toowoomba for more than three years received daily letters. Cam was granted two months’ home leave later in the year but was back in the field by the middle of 1918.

Even though the first attack on Bullecourt achieved little and left the Brigade decimated, Glasgow told Belle he was proud of his men. “Any success that comes to my brigade is the men and the battalion officers.  Once men are launched it rests entirely with them and they do the work.   They had a very strenuous time in and struck appalling weather – the worst I have seen in France.”

Further Information

William Glasgow’s letters to his wife Belle are part of the State Library of Queensland collection and are available online – http://www.slq.qld.gov.au

Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Chockfull of confidence

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.

Further Information

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.

The big push

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.”

Further Information

Paul Voss’s military file has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia and is available online.