Bound for Passchendaele

One hundred years ago today Selby Russell left Southampton for Belgium.  He was part of the 47th Battalion and the next wave of young men to be thrown at the Germans in Ypres with the hope of wearing them down.  The battle to occupy Polygon Wood was imminent and the third battle of Ypres, the battle of Passchendaele, or as it was termed by those who witnessed the carnage, Armageddon, yet to come.

Selby had become a dear friend of Annie and Portia Wheeler and volunteered in the office whenever he was on leave in London.  A conveyancer from Brisbane, Selby was smart, capable and efficient; before he joined in 1916 he worked at the estate agency Chandler and Russell which he formed with his brother Joseph and his grandfather.  Annie appreciated Selby’s assistance.  Men moved about so much Annie and her team spent large amounts of time locating soldiers and sending and forwarding letters and parcels and Selby was a great help re-addressing mail.  He made friends easily and knew which battalions were resting in training camps, on the move or at the front.  Selby’s Rockhampton connection was his sister, Sophie Alexander and Annie corresponded with Sophie, Selby’s mother Louisa and his other sister Olive who was a nurse serving in India.  Annie’s fondness for Selby was mutual.  In letters home, he referred to her as “Our Darling”.

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Selby’s leaving, added to the challenges of living in London in September 1917.  The daily anxiety of never knowing if loved ones were safe was compounded by the scarcity and expense of food and coal and the looming winter.  Gotha bombers had also reached the capital and night bombings had intensified.  Annie never went to bed without her little electric torch and a stack of letters ready to take to the basement if there was an air raid.

Annie’s friend, Belle Glasgow, writing to her daughters Joan and Beth on 19th September 1917 described how unsettling the air raids had become.  One night, when everything seemed quiet, they’d returned to their beds only to hear the bombers again.  “I shall never forget the noise of their machines.  Their engines hummed like dozens of telephone wires.  It made my ears ache.”  The next morning Belle learnt the hospital off the Strand had a miraculous escape.  Casualties were limited because the bomb dropped on the road beside the hospital but every window in the entire street was either broken or cracked.

Meanwhile in Southampton, Selby boarded a boat for Belgium to take part in the battle that would decimate his battalion, the entire division and change his life forever.

Further Reading

Annie Wheeler’s correspondence and Belle Glasgow’s letters to her daughters are part of State Library of Queensland’s collection.

Selby Russell’s war record has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia.

47th Battalion war diary has been digitised by the Australian War Memorial.

 

Melancholia

In September 1917 Annie Wheeler received a desperate letter from Christina Robertson.  Her brother, John Robertson, was unwell and had been unwell for a number of months. Something happened to John either before he embarked in February 1917 or on the troop ship from Australia.

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John was working as a draper in Townsville when he enlisted in 1916.  He was 23 and had come to Australia as a child.  His family were from Buckhaven Scotland and John had cousins and friends in Scotland.  John told his family in Townsville he would cable and write when he landed in England.  By April, when no cable or letter arrived they began to worry and when they heard from John’s friends that he had spent the last part of the voyage “dangerously ill in the ship’s hospital” they feared the worse.  An officer who was on board the ship told them John arrived in Plymouth in April 1917 in a “sick and dangerous condition”.

Letters to the AIF only increased their anxiety.  Initially, they were told there was no report of John being sick and the AIF could only investigate further if the family provided more information about what they had heard.  The family did and received a response dated 9th August informing them John had been in Devonport Military hospital after he arrived in England with a “slight attack of bronchitis” but was now with his training battalion in Rolleston.  This didn’t tally with the reports they had received and if John’s illness was mild why hadn’t he contacted them or his cousins?  John’s cousin headed to Rolleston to see for himself and was shocked by John’s condition.

Christina told Annie John was severely depressed, caused or exacerbated by John contracting the mumps on board the ship. However, there is no mention of mumps in John’s military records; in April he is admitted to hospital with bronchitis but discharged in May and sent to a training battalion in Perham Downs and then Rolleston.  Around the time John’s cousin visited he had been AWOL for three days and was awaiting court-martial.

At the end of September, without anyone else to turn to, Christina asked Annie to help “cheer our Brother’.

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Whether as a result of Annie’s visits, his family’s letters, a combination of both or something else, things did improve for John.  A doctor’s assessment in October noted he had suffered from melancholia on board his transfer from Australia but improved and re-joined the training battalion.  However, he found John’s melancholia had returned.   “He lies about his hut and is difficult to rouse.  He is developing dirty habits, never washes or shaves and wanders aimlessly about.  He suffers from loss of memory and when questioned gazes aimlessly about.  He makes no friends and his conduct is erratic.”  The doctor declared him unfit for general service and unfit for home service.  He was admitted to Hurdcott Hospital but only five weeks later was discharged and returned to his training battalion.  Something happened during those five weeks that enabled John to “see things in a different light”.  In early 1918 John was promoted to acting lance corporal and sent to fight in France.  He survived the war and returned to Australia in 1919.

Further Information

Christina Robertson’s letter to Annie Wheeler is part of Annie Wheeler’s collection in the State Library of Queensland.

John Robertson’s military record has been digitised by the NAA and is available online.

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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