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.

Continual Cross Purposes

February 1917 saw several Queensland residents leave the Lancaster Gate Boarding house at Hyde Park.  Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia, moved to Westminster Gardens on February 23rd and Belle Glasgow, wife of Brigadier General William Glasgow (see my previous post January 1917 – great thick flakes of snow) also moved around the same time.

By March 1st Belle was living at Battersea Gardens with a friend. Belle was fed up with boarding house life and William wanted more privacy when he was on leave.  His letters at the end of February reveal a marriage under increasing strain.  Belle had left their two young daughters, Joan and Beth, at home in Queensland and travelled to London to be closer to William who was commanding the 13th Battalion in France.  They hadn’t seen each other since Christmas and Belle pressed Willian for details of his leave for most of February. Unfortunately plans kept changing.  On February 20th, William told Belle, “am afraid I have nothing definite yet in the way of my leave” then two days later wrote to tell her he hoped to have leave on the 26th or 27th.  Unfortunately, only two days later he told her “certain things have happened which may just stop my leave”.

Sometimes it is hard to empathise with Belle; she seems more concerned with her own comforts and problems.  It’s as if she’s disengaged from the reality of the war, more interested in the trappings of London in war, the social life, the promotions, the pomp and ceremony.  Maybe this is a deliberate coping strategy but it is impossible to judge her with any certainty because only William’s letters survive and while he makes references to her letters, he is the filter.  Belle’s letters to her children do survive and while they reveal her character, they are letters to her children, not her husband.

We do know she didn’t hold back and expressed her feelings honestly.    He tells her, “I have had for some time the feeling that coincides with what you are candid enough to say you were feeling.”  William is also open in his letters.  He received Belle’s letters of the 15th and 16th of February on the 21st February.  Whatever she wrote upset him a great deal.  “Both upset me more than I can say which is perhaps gratifying to you and makes me think that although our love for each other is all that it should be this continual cross purposes will go on for all time.”

Eventually he did get leave.  On March 3rd he arrived in London and rather than stay at her flat they went to Devon to be alone.  William told his daughters “When I came over to London I went to mother’s flat where she is very comfortable but we thought we would like a quiet time so came down here.” They stayed at a hotel right on the sea and being together, away from war, away from London soothed their troubles.  Their physical reconnection was a very important part of their marriage.  Imagine the strain on couples who never saw each other during war and whose letters took months rather than days to bring needed connection and intimacy.

Further Information

 Belle Glasgow’s letters are part of the SLQ collection.  The image above is a postcard to her daughter of the view from her new flat – Battersea Park.

Moving Day

One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were on the move again.

They’d started their operation in Eastbourne but by May 1915 the commute to London was too time consuming.  When they stayed for short periods at the Strand Hotel in Westminster they achieved so much more and decided to move closer to London.   A lovely house in the new suburb of Pollard Hill, just opposite a large recreation ground and looking out towards Epsom Downs, worked for a short time but as the number of soldiers arriving from Australia increased and the wounded flooded hospitals in London, Annie and Portia’s daily workload grew.

Next stop, a boarding house owned by a Brisbane woman at Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park.  Initially the residence was ideal and the short bus ride to AIF Headquarters on Horseferry Road made the work manageable.  But by February 1917 when Annie was receiving 65 letters from soldiers each week, in addition to letters, cables and parcels from home, all needing to be actioned in some way, travelling back and forth from Lancaster Gate, sometimes several times a day, was inefficient.

When a flat became available at Westminster Gardens, Artillery Row, just off Victoria Street Annie was delighted.  She wrote to Mary Stewart Trotman on the 22nd February telling her “we are moving tomorrow into a flat in Victoria Street.  It will be much nearer Headquarters, Anzac Buffet, the Red Cross and the cable office and of course nearer for the boys.  They have been very good in coming out so far to see us.”

Annie’s typical day at the end of February 1917 centred around these organisations.

Annie received a letter from Stephen Joyce, a prisoner of war in Germany, requesting a uniform from the Red Cross.  Annie went to see “Miss Chomley, she looks after the prisoner of war department and Corporal Joyce’s uniform has been sent.”

Mary Trotman cabled Annie wanting information about Sergeant J McDonald.  His family had been told he was wounded but didn’t know what hospital he was in.  Annie found his number was entered wrongly in the hospital records and had to go to headquarters to sort it out.  She found him at Wisbech V.A.D Hospital and sent him a letter.

Private Case had been hospitalised and asked Annie to find his brother.  “On inquiring at headquarters, I found that Private Reginald Case disembarked at Plymouth in 10th January and is now at Codford.”

The Anzac Buffet (see my previous post  Annie’s Little Dug-Out ) was a major meeting place.  On February 22nd Annie and Portia saw Max Turnbull, Private Moore and Jack Atherton and could report on their movements.

Parcels of socks and gloves also arrived from home and Annie was busy sending them to the boys of the front.  February was bitterly cold and many were suffering from trench feet and frost bite.  The boys rarely complained, instead telling Annie about the upside of the cold weather.  “The shell-holes and pools are frozen and they have been skating.  The nails and clouts in their boots act as skates.”

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove.

War Weary

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.

Further Information

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.

First Rockhampton Boy Wins a Decoration

February 8th 1917, Annie Wheeler wrote to her friend Mary Trotman in Rockhampton thrilled to receive the photograph of Charlie Snelling who was the first Rockhampton boy to win a decoration.  Lieutenant Snelling (he was given a commission following his decoration) was a regular visitor to Lancaster Gate and Annie was very fond of him.  He was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for “staying behind and blowing up his machine guns when he found their position could not be held”.  The Distinguished Conduct Medal is the oldest British award for distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field and is the second highest award for gallantry in action after the Victoria Cross.  Less than half a percent of all men enlisted received this award.  Annie told Mary “he is very modest this brave boy and will not talk about his deed of heroism.”  Charlie gave Annie “a piece of the ribbon which General Birdwood pinned the medal on his breast.” Annie had seen Charlie at the end of January and they went to Kensington Pond to see if there was any skating but unfortunately the ice wasn’t safe.  The danger signals were also up at the Serpentine.

Many central Queensland boys were being given commissions in January 1917.  In Annie’s letter of February 8th, she mentioned Jack Fryer, Mr Bensley and Mr Colvin had all received commissions and were on leave waiting to head back to France.  Commissions were a hot topic of conversation in London as some people attempted to use their network of friends to influence decisions.  Brigadier-General William Glasgow complained to his wife “if all these youngsters were as keen about their work as they are about their promotions their promotion would come without their worrying about it.”

Meanwhile Belle Glasgow was looking for a flat of her own. She was tired of boarding house life and William wanted them to have a place of their own when he was on leave.  He wrote to his daughters Joan and Beth back home in Australia, “mother is thinking of taking a flat in London and she has quite a nice one in view.  It will be like going home when I go to see her in London next time.” At the end of January, early February William was having “a fit of the blues” and found small things worried him and he was taking things too seriously.  Their relationship was also strained at times; he became upset if she didn’t write regularly and she found it difficult to find something to write about every day.  His letters are full of their attempts to resolve their difficulties.  Reading their letters one hundred years later, Belle either couldn’t grasp the danger her husband faced or chose to focus on the small domestic issues of their lives in a way to survive the war and its horrors.  Maybe William was soothed by the distraction.  Their physical intimacy was also a comfort.  On February 8th, he mentions her reference to her small bed and tells her “I wish I could share your small bed.  I think it would add to both our comfort.”

Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s wartime letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and are available on Trove. trove.nla.gov.au

William Glasgow’s wartime letters to his wife Belle Glasgow and their daughters Joan and Beth have been digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are available on their website. slq.qld.gov.au

The Australian War Memorial for information about wartime awards and decorations. awm.gov.au

 

 

 

Annie’s Little Dug-Out

At the beginning of February 1917, 9 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park was Annie Wheeler’s “little dug-out”.  Annie and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Portia, moved to Lancaster Gate in May 1916.  Central Queenslander soldiers passed on her address and visited Annie and Portia when they were in London on leave or recuperating.  Fred Fox was there almost every day when he was on leave in January 1917 (see December 16th post, December 1916 – Portia falls in love). It was bitterly cold at the end of January, beginning of February 1917.  Thick snow stayed frozen on the ground for several days and the coal shortage was so bad even the coal-dust in the cellars was diligently scraped and burnt.  At night the Lancaster Gate residents piled blankets, eiderdowns, rugs off the floor then coats on top of their beds to get a comfortable night’s sleep.  They told themselves not to grumble; imagine how much worse it was for the boys in the trenches.

As cold as it was, there was one upside.  Skating.  The Serpentine and the Round Pond at Kensington Gardens were frozen solid and skating was in full swing.  Portia taught Fred to skate; a pastime impossible to do or even imagine in Rockhampton, a city winter rarely visited.  Portia had finished her education in England and loved skating and the half-hour walk to Kensington Gardens followed by slipping, sliding and falling on the ice was the perfect way to forget about the war, laugh and get to know each other.

Several other Queenslanders also lived at 9 Lancaster Gate; Belle Glasgow stayed when she arrived in London in 1916 to be closer to her husband, Brigadier General William Glasgow (see January 4th post, January 1917 – great thick flakes of snow). The residence, a boarding house owned by a Brisbane woman Mrs Grimley, was quite near Hyde Park and only about two minutes’ walk to the bus which took Annie and Portia to Horseferry Road and the AIF military offices.  Annie moved to London to be close to the AIF because of the frustration she experienced trying to gather information about her boys using mail and telephone.  She wanted to be able to talk to a person face-to-face and receive an immediate response.  She was a regular visitor to Horseferry Road and the photo at the top of this post was taken in the AIF offices.  While the women in the photo aren’t Annie and Portia this is the office they visited.

Horseferry Road had also been home to the Anzac Buffet where other Australians living at Lancaster Gate worked.  The Anzac Buffet or the Buffet as it was known was established by the London branch of the Australian Natives Association, a group of ex-pats, and was opened in 1915 to provide free meals and entertainment to Australian servicemen in London.  In 1916 it was relocated around the corner to Victoria Street because the AIF said they needed the space, however Annie and the women who volunteered at the Buffet felt it was because the military didn’t want competition for their newly established Australian Soldiers’ Club which charged for meals and other comforts.  The Buffet was open seven days a week from 6am – 10.30pm and as well as providing meals there were rooms kitted out for billiards, reading and music.  Annie and Portia were regular volunteers at the Buffet and dropped in at least once a day even if they weren’t working, to see who was there and stay in touch with their network of central Queensland soldiers.

Further Information

Annie Wheeler’s wartime letters to Mary Trotman have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and are available on Trove. trove.nla.gov.au

Belle Glasgow’s wartime letters to her daughters Joan and Beth have been digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are available on their website. slq.qld.gov.au

The Australian War Memorial for more pictures and information about the AIF offices and the ANZAC Buffet. awm.gov.au

Annie delivers bad news

January 1917 Annie Wheeler received a cablegram from Rockhampton.  Murray Hartley’s family had heard he had been wounded and were desperate for news.  Annie wondered if there had been a mix-up.  In his last letter, a few days before Christmas, Murray told her he had bronchitis and expected to be in hospital for a couple of weeks.   Annie immediately rang AIF HQ.

Murray’s full name was John William Murray Hartley but everyone called him Murray.  His mother, Sarah Hartley, was a widow and in January 1917, two of her boys were fighting in France; Murray, 24 and George, 28.  Murray was the keener soldier.  He had enlisted more than a year before his older brother, was promoted to Sergeant in March 1916 and then promoted again to Lieutenant in August.  He wrote to Annie on 20th December from hospital which is how she knew he had bronchitis.

The speed of communication one-hundred-years ago is hard to imagine in today’s world of smart phones, social media and emails.  Landlines were not common in England or Australia; only two out of every hundred homes in England had a telephone in 1917 and mail went by ships, then by train or coach.  It could take days, weeks or months to find out something bad had happened to your son.  Daily lists of sick, wounded and dead soldiers were sent from the front to AIF HQ in London who would then pass the information on to the next-of-kin.  The AIF only sent cablegrams or telegrams if a soldier had died, was missing-in-action or “his complaint was likely to develop seriously or dangerously”.  If the complaint was of a “slight nature” notification would appear “in hospital lists which come to hand later by mail.”

Annie recognised the importance of reliable, speedy communication.  She made sure everyone had her contact details and encouraged them to write to her regularly.  She hassled AIF HQ, the Red Cross and hospitals to give her information about her boys.  She developed a wide network of contacts and used them to find out and pass on information. Annie sent regular cablegrams to her able deputy Mary Trotman in Rockhampton full of information about the conditions of her boys, information she knew would take too long to filter back to their families

When Annie contacted AIF HQ she was was told Murray had re-joined his unit from hospital but had been wounded on the 7th January 1917.  There were no details of what had happened to him and she was unable to find out what hospital he was in.  She waited two days and then rang AIF HQ again only to hear Murray had died of his wounds on the 9th January at the 36th Casualty Clearing Station in France.  He died just before midnight from high explosive wounds to both his legs.  Annie immediately cabled his family and wrote to his brother George in case he hadn’t heard.  When she saw Leslie Henderson, who was in the same company, some days later, he told her Murray had been badly wounded.  His lower legs had been blown off.  Writing to her friend Mary Trotman on the 25th January 1917, exactly one hundred years ago today, she told her she “was grieved to have to send you the sad news about Lieutenant Murray Hartley.”

Not only did Annie deliver a great deal of bad news to families in Central Queensland she was also asked to deliver sad news to the soldiers.  In the same letter of the 25th January she tells Mary Trotman “I had a letter also from Corporal D. Roberts, who was well when he wrote on the 11th of January.  His battalion was resting.  He had received the “Capricornians” from me, but had had no mail from home lately, so I fear he was not prepared for the sad news I was asked to convey to him about his father.”