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.

Where are they?

While the Battle of Messines was a success its ferocity left more than ten thousand Australian soldiers dead, wounded, missing or suffering severe shell shock.  Soldiers who made it back found their battalions decimated.  Sometimes they had seen a mate fall but that was the last they’d seen of him.  Desperate for news, unable to find out any information in France or Belgium, they cabled or wrote to Annie Wheeler telling her their mate was missing and asked her to to investigate.

In June 1917 Annie’s list of missing was growing.  Some boys, Lonergan and Lupton hadn’t been seen since the Battle of Bullecourt and others Palfrey, Boyd and Dodd since Messines.  Annie gave their names to Mary Chomley who headed the Red Cross Prisoner of War Department who also made enquiries.  In early June Annie got a letter from Lonergan, letting her know he was a prisoner of war and then a few days later Alexander Lupton’s letter arrived.  He was also a prisoner of war.

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A little later Annie located Dodd and Boyd in POW camps but unfortunately she discovered Palfrey had been killed in action.  Arthur Nixen wrote to let her know his brother had been wounded but his brother-in-law Bert had been killed.  Annie was able to tell Arthur, Bert wasn’t dead but was a prisoner of war in Germany.  As soon as Annie knew where her boys were she sent parcels of food and other comforts.  The Red Cross sent parcels for a small fee and families cabled Annie money to pay on their behalf.

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There were often mix ups in the cables but if the money didn’t arrive Annie would pay the Red Cross herself.  William Humphries’s money had been cabled under Humphrey’s but luckily it was the Commonwealth Bank and Annie was able to sort it out.  Annie was scrupulous with her accounting and acknowledged every donation.  In June ten pounds was cabled to Mrs H. J. Wheeler.  The bank manager realised it was meant for Annie but it took Annie months to work out the money was from the Rockhampton Bowling Club.  The Central Queensland community appreciated Annie’s work and with donations increasing Mary Trotman urged Annie to hire some help to “keep pace with the letters”.  In late June Annie took her advice and put an ad in the British Australiasian for a “shorthand writer and typist, Queenslander preferred”.

Annie often ran into boys from home.  Returning to the station after visiting Lieutenant Watts in Harfield Hospital she came across Angus Leitch lying on a stretcher on the platform waiting to be taken to the same hospital.  Going down in a crowded lift in Paddington station two soldiers turned around and exclaimed “Mrs Wheeler”.  It was Private Godsell.  He recognised Annie’s voice.  He had sold Annie boots when he worked at Davis and McDongall’s in Rockhampton.

Sadly one hundred years ago on the 26th June she received news her friend George Hartley had been killed.  George had been a frequent visitor and she had only seen him in May on his way back to France after being wounded at Bullecourt.  His cousin Claude Murphy had cabled her.  George had died in a clearing station and Claude had gone back to the village behind the casualty clearing station to see if he could find the place where George had passed away.  He was unsuccessful at the time but told Annie he would find out the particulars of George’s death.  Annie’s heart went out to Claude who had lost a brother and two cousins within a month of each other.

Further Information

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman printed in The Capricornian have been digitised by the NLA and are available online.

Soldier’s war records have been digitised by the NAA and are available online

 

 

 

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.