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.

Our Baby Brother

One hundred years ago today James Fitzroy Foot lay dying.  Driving rain turned the ground beneath him into thick mud which oozed into his uniform and quickly embraced him.

He lay with others from his battalion near the border between France and Belgium.  Officially they were in France but so close to the border, when their mates found them they buried them together in the vicinity of Messines in Belgium.  Reverend Cutten reported their burial on the 12th of August.  James was barely nineteen, from Springsure in central Queensland.  Annie Wheeler grew up in Springsure and knew James’s family well.

James was part of the 42nd battalion which was attached to General Plumer’s Second Army.  Since the battle of Messines their efforts were focused on destroying German resistance along the Warneton Line in preparation for the major offensive to capture the strategic Passchendaele ridge.  The 42nd battalion would be part of a supportive feint attack to the south, designed to weaken the German defence by drawing it away from the main battle.

The feint and the main battle of Passchendaele began at the same time, 3.50am on the morning on the 31st of July.  The battalion made good progress but despite the unprecedented shelling by the British in the weeks leading up to the battle the counter attack was fierce and they were heavily bombarded.

Then the rain fell, in great torrents, and the battle of Passchendaele, already ill-planned turned disasterous.  The fields of Ypres became a human slaughter-house.

James was killed on the 31st of July but news of his death took time to filter through.  His family were devastated.  He was the baby.  They needed more information about his death and wrote to Annie Wheeler.  “I am writing to you because you will most likely meet some of the 42nd who were with James at the time and if you could gain any information about his death.  Only a few particulars would be so comforting.  He was our baby brother – only 19 and 2 months when he died.”

The family also wrote to the AIF and were told all that remained were discs, a wallet and some photos.  They were told where he was buried.  In 1928, the Graves’ Commission found the remains of the C.O. of the 42nd battalion, Lieutenant Norman Freeman and five other soldiers near Messines.  Paper work confirmed one of the soldiers was James Foot.  Another was Private J. Fallon also from the 42nd battalion. James was exhumed and reburied in Sanctuary Wood Cemetry at Zillesbeke. His mates were buried beside him.

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Further Information

Map courtesy of the “Unofficial History of the Australian and New Zealand Armed Services” – http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-battles/ww1/france/warneton.htm.

Annie Wheeler’s papers have been digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are available online – www.slq.gov.au

James Foot’s war record has been digitised by the NAA and is available online www.naa.gov.au

Information about the 42nd battalion is available online at the AWM – www.awm.gov.au

 

 

London Attacked

German Gotha bombers attacked London in a deadly daylight raid one hundred years ago on July 7th 1917.   Gotha planes which could fly higher and undetected in daylight had replaced Zeppelins and Londoners were unprepared for the attack.  Witnesses mistakenly assumed the planes were their own until they saw the deadly bombs drop over the East End and London city.  57 people were killed and almost 200 injured.

Annie Wheeler cabled her friend Mary Trotman in Rockhampton because she knew she would be anxious when she heard about the raid.

There were no warnings and the first Annie knew of the raid was the sound of guns in the distance at about ten-thirty in the morning.   When the sounds came nearer and nearer she realised “the enemy airplanes were overhead and thought it time to go down to the basement.”  Annie told Mary Trotman “everyone – even the little children – was quite calm”.  She reassured Mary, “no bombs were dropped in Victoria Street” where she was living.

95 British aircraft were sent up to defend the capital.  Annie realised the guns she had heard were “our own anti-aircraft.”  After a while Annie went up to the roof to see what was happening and counted about “thirty enemy planes” overhead.  “We just got on the roof in time to see the last one disappearing.”  The British planes chased the enemy aircraft over the channel bringing down one plane but losing two of their own.  Three young British airmen died.

Eleanor Bourne, the first Queensland woman doctor working at the Endell Street Military Hospital also watched the raid.  The bombs hit the General Post Office and the roof caught fire.  “The daylight raid was rather exciting and it was hard to believe that the buzzing planes looking like a swarm of flies, might really drop something dangerous; on this occasion the hospital was showered with bits of burnt paper from the nearby General Post Office which got hit.”

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Londoners were angry and scared and demanded better defences and warning systems.  Many directed their anger at the Germans living in London and riots broke out across the city.  3000 people vented in Upper Holloway, 1500 in Tottenham attacking German bakeries and tailors.  Windows were broken, money and goods stolen, police were injured and arrests made.

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Even though press reports were limited, these raids spread fear and caution among Londoners who until now had thought the raids more an entertaining spectacle.  More people headed for the basement rather than the roofs as air raid procedures and better warning systems were developed.

Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s letter to Mary Trotman, published in the Capricornian on the 15th September 1917has been digitised by the NLA and is available online -https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/69801339/6829485

Eleanor Bourne’s papers, (OM81-130 Eleanor Elizabeth Bourne Papers) held in SLQ, have been digitised and are available online – http://www.slq.qld.gov.au

New Scotland Yard Reports of the riots in London on the 7th July 1917 have been digitised by The National Archives UK are are available online – http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/spotlights/p_riots.htm

The photograph of bomb damaged buildings in St Pancras Road – (c) IWM HO76 – is part of the Imperial War Museum Collection.

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.

Children killed in bomb attack

One hundred years ago, on the 25th of May 1917, 95 people were killed and 192 injured when bombs exploded in the busy streets of Folkestone on the Kent coast in England.  In the late afternoon, as people went about their business, German Gotha planes dropped several bombs without any warning.  More than half of those killed were women and children.  Authorities had decided not to install warnings in the seaside town because they didn’t want to scare off visitors.  Reports in the Dover Express at the time describe “the ghastly scenes in the main street of the town where the dead and wounded were lying about in the streets, mixed up with dead horses and smashed vehicles and wreckage from the shops”.  A large number of people were killed outside the greengrocer’s shop.

The German press was thrilled with the success of the raid which proved the Gothas were capable of dropping bombs from a great height in daylight.  Even though the news was heavily censored in England people feared it was only a matter of time before the bombs reached London.

Annie and Portia Wheeler, like most people in the capital, had grown accustomed to air raids.  As soon as a warning sounded Annie headed to the basement with her writing pad and work book.  Many of the long letters to Mary Trotman, in Rockhampton, were written during air raids.   The air raids gave them a chance to catch up on their increasing workload.  The number of soldiers on Annie’s books doubled in 1917.  Annie’s Christmas present, “Just the Link Between”, written by the central Queensland community left no doubt about the value of her work.  Compiled by Nellie Coar, the book was a 1917 calendar containing 365 expressions of gratitude and appreciation; one for each day of the year.  Dorothy Boyle’s entry on the 26th May sums up the community’s feeling.  A copy of the book is in the SLQ Collection.

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May also contained a military march composed by Helena Miller.  It was called “The Wheeler”.  One hundred years after it was composed Brian Cleary recorded the music. Click on this link to listen to it.  The Wheeler

Annie had become the link between the mothers and their sons which the drawing on the cover represents.  Inside links of chain are a soldier, Annie in the middle and his mother and father reading her letters in the paper.

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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.