The Missing

One hundred years ago as the guns fell silent, twenty thousand Australian soldiers were missing.  Of the sixty-thousand men killed during the war at least a third had no known grave.

Amid the Armistice celebrations, Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia continued to search for the missing and care for the boys still to make their way home.

By the end of 1918 Annie had almost 3000 soldiers on her books, 3000 boys and families she traced.   With erratic mail and constant troop movements Annie was the most reliable and trusted source of information about her boys.  She sent cables and letters and continued her weekly letters to Mary Trotman listing all the soldiers who contacted or visited her.

Following the Armistice finding missing soldiers was increasingly difficult.  On the 15th November Annie explained the difficulty to Mary Trotman, “It is difficult at times to find a boy, e.g. according to H.Q. he was supposed to be in Third Australian General Hospital.  I wired the Commandant, after five days waiting received a reply, he had already been in England but could not tell which hospital he was in nor could the Red Cross.  After a fruitless search lasting a fortnight, a female Queenslander who is working in the casualty inquiry room at H.Q. thought of ringing up the base postal office to find out if the boy had notified of change of address and found he had written to them for his letters from St James Infirmary, Batham (London).  I am telling you this to let you know how difficult it sometimes is to trace a man owing to the carelessness of some of the British Hospital in not notifying either Australian H.Q. or our Red Cross of his arrival.  Obtaining the address I went to see him but he was out for the afternoon and the next day he came to see me.”

While the fighting was over, thousands of soldiers remained in France and Belgium as the Germans decamped and civilians returned home.  Prisoners of war were suddenly free.  Annie received news from Arthur Moore on the 22nd November who was “now walking the streets of Liege at leisure”.  He was lodging with a woman who spoke very good English and looked after him like a mother.  While they waited for the British soldiers to arrive they occupied themselves going to the theatre or music halls. The Germans had been set a deadline to leave Belgium and Moore was skeptical they would meet it.  ‘it is a sight to see the German transport going to Germany”, horses, cows and donkeys pulling wagons.  He asked Annie to let his family know he was well and told her he hoped to be in London for Christmas.

Most soldiers would spend another Christmas in Europe and Annie was busy sending parcels and letters.  In addition to the usual warm clothes and cigarettes soldiers asked for film.

“Bert Spilsbury has asked for films for his camera as they are very hard to get in France and the boys are now allowed to use their cameras.  He says there is nothing in the country they are passing through except civil population who look very worn out.  He adds, ‘I do not think they got too much food from Fritz.  They will take anything we give them.’  Bert was hoping to get some good snapshots.  ‘This town we are in, which is fairly big, is not too bad.  Fritz has paintings on all the walls.  One is of John Bull standing in the middle of England, scratching his head and surrounded by U boats.  Another is of a U boat torpedoing a big liner and many others all worth snapping.  The French people are bewildered to be free’.

Soldiers also sent “souvenirs” to Annie to mind.  Charlie Dolgner sent her an unusual parcel he picked up at Mont St. Quentin. “The Australians had got through the German first line of defence and were surrounded by the enemy.  A German officer was up on top of his trench trying to buck up his men who were running away.  Charlie got within twenty yards of him under cover of the trench and fired at his head but missed and he jumped into the trench and put his hands up.  ‘He had a first-class Iron Cross and I wanted him to give it to me.  He could speak English well and he said he would give me anything but not to take the Iron Cross, so I left him with it.  That is where I got the revolver and field glasses.”

Some were lucky enough to be shipped home not long after the Armistice.

Sister Nellie Lawson wrote to Annie from sea before landing in Port Said, Egypt.  “There are a few cases of mild influenza.  The boys are all very happy.  It is lovely to hear them singing at night.  They all get out on the hatch and the officers and sisters go along and join in.  We could not get a piano before we left so a wireless has been sent to have one ready at Port Said.

1918 was Annie’s and Portia’s last Christmas in England.

The British Australasian in London published a soldiers’ tribute to Mrs Wheeler on the 12th December 1918 called “The Mother of Queenslanders”.  The writer, Pot Jostler, described her work and why she was given her title.  He concluded, “No one except a soldier can possibly realise the magnificent work carried out by Mrs Wheeler, who sad to say enjoys anything but the best of health.  It is nothing but her indomitable spirit and the pride of her native state that has enabled her to carry on so long, and now that our labours are finished and therefore hers, we Queenslanders will go back to our hearths and homes with the happiest of memories of and our hearts filled with deep gratitude to ‘The mother of all Queenslanders’”.

Annie and Portia still had work to do.  They kept working through 1919 until almost all the boys on their books returned home or were located.

During the summer Portia visited the battlefields of France and Belgium where many of her friends lay dead.

5000 people met their train when they arrived home in November 1919.

Sources

Annie’s letters to Mary Trotman were originally published in “The Capricornia” .  Digital copies are available on Trove – http://www.trove.nla.gov.au.

Photograph of one of the index cards in the State Library of Queensland Annie Wheeler Collection.

http://onesearch.slq.qld.gov.au/primo-explore/fulldisplay?docid=slq_alma21196823950002061&context=L&vid=SLQ&search_scope=SLQ_PCI_EBSCO&tab=all&lang=en_US

 

 

Missing at Sea

At the end of August Annie Wheeler received a letter from George Coar letting her know one of his mates, Rockhampton man, John Michael Hawley had died at sea.  John’s ship was about a week out from England when he disappeared during a storm in the early hours of the morning.  He was not missed until later that day.

On the 28th August 1917, one hundred years ago today, John’s mother Mary received a cable with the devastating news John had drowned at sea.  News of John’s death was shocking because it was unexpected.  John had only left Australia on the 20th June and wasn’t expected to arrive in England until the end of August.  John wasn’t in the firing line, not like her other three boys, Thomas, Patrick and James, who were all fighting in France.

John was Mary’s eldest son, working as an accountant in Melbourne and the last brother to enlist.   He spent a year training in Australia first at corporals school and then sergeants school and was acting sergeant when he embarked for England.  After he was reported missing on the 18th August a Court of Enquiry was held at sea.  Several witnesses gave evidence and two reported John had been very sick during the voyage.

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Sgt. Armit also said he was depressed and Sgt. Herring said something was worrying him.

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Disturbingly John’s life-belt was found on the deck where he was last seen and there was also a question raised about the delay in reporting the incident.  A guard on the bridge had seen a man vomiting and his legs disappear but hours elapsed before the captain was told a man was overboard.  The Court of Enquiry concluded John fell overboard while vomiting.

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Mary wrote wanting details of John’s death and maybe to spare her she was simply told he fell overboard and drowned.

Unfortunately, John wasn’t the only son Mary lost during the war.  One month later Patrick was killed in the Battle of Polygon Wood in the Ypres sector in Belgium.  But it took more than eight months for her to find out he had been killed and she never found out where he was buried.  Mary wrote to the AIF in 1918 wanting information about Patrick.  He had written regularly but she hadn’t heard from him in eight months.

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When the AIF replied they told her he had been killed in action “on or about the 27th September” but there were no details of where or how he died or where he was buried.  Mary continued to write until 1923 when the AIF confirmed they couldn’t find his resting place.

Further Information

Soldiers’ war records have been digitised by the NAA and are available – http://www.naa.gov.au

Annie’s letter to Mary Trotman were published in ‘The Capricornian’ and are available on Trove – http://www.trove.nla.gov.au

 

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

 

 

 

International Women’s Day 1917

One hundred years ago today the Russian women stormed onto the streets demanding bread and an end to war.

Four days later the Czar abdicated and a provisional government granted women the right to vote.  The new government continued to support the war but soldiers deserted in droves.  Within months the provisional government was also overthrown.

Women clamouring for bread and peace started a revolution.

In England, women’s suffrage took a back seat to the demands of war.  Mrs Pankhurst publicly decried militant campaigns and directed her energies towards supporting the empire and the war.

Women embraced roles previously denied them.

Brisbane woman, Eleanor Bourne tried to enlist in the Australian army but was refused.  So Eleanor, the first Queensland woman doctor, funded her own trip to England and enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps.  She served as a Lieutenant at the Endell Street Military hospital founded by Dr Flora Murray and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson. “A great thrill came to me early in 1916 with an invitation to join the staff of the Military Hospital, Endell Street, London at which the medical staff is composed entirely of women.”

In her papers, which are part of the SLQ collection, Eleanor lists the women specialists recruited from Britain, Canada and Australia and says, “It was indeed a pleasure and an inspiration to be associated with so many splendid women”.

Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson were suffragettes and Eleanor met Mrs Pankhurst.  She describes her as “the militant suffragette leader, small but very definite and forceful”.  Eleanor didn’t share all their views.  “Dr Anderson won our admiration for having undergone a hunger strike but I’m afraid that both she and Dr Murray regarded us Australians as rather lukewarm in the suffrage cause.  They would say, ‘But you have had the vote for 15 years!’ with the implication, ‘what on earth have you accomplished by it in all that time?’ On our part, we found it hard to follow the doctrine that everything that was wrong, including the setbacks at the front were due to the fact that we live in a man-made world.  When the order came that prohibited women travelling out from Australia, this was regarded as another injustice and insult to women whereas really it was out of consideration for the crew who would risk their valuable lives to save the women if the ship were torpedoed.”

It’s impossible to know Annie Wheeler’s views on women’s suffrage because there are no references in her letters or manuscripts but it is clear she felt she was equal to anyone; her gender, class, nationality or marital status never held her back.

Eleanor and Annie knew each other and met several times in London during the war.  In June 1916, they were together at a reception at the Hotel Cecil in honour of the Queensland Premier T.J. Ryan and his wife.  The reception was hosted by the Queensland Agent General Sir Thomas Robinson.  Annie described it as “a delightful gathering of Queenslanders.”

Further Information

Eleanor Bourne’s papers are part of the SLQ collection and available online

Annie Wheeler’s letters to her friend Mary Trotman were published in the ‘Capricornian’ and have been digitised by the NLA and are available on Trove.

The photograph in this post is courtesy of the British War Memorial.

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