Polygon Wood and the Harvest Moon

One hundred years ago today Annie Wheeler’s boys, protected by a barrage of heavy artillery, charged German pillboxes at Polygon Wood.  Thousands of shells pounded the ground creating a dust and fire storm that slammed into the terrified German soldiers. Charles Bean described the barrage as “the most perfect that ever protected Australian troops.” William Glasgow’s 13th Brigade comprised of the 49th,50th,51st and 52nd Battalions were part of the charge.  Polygon Wood, a clump of forest near Ypres, already battered by previous battles was razed.  Victory was achieved in just under four hours.

Two days later William wrote to his wife Belle in London revelling in the success, “We have been in and had a most successful show – everything went according to programme and our own casualties are very light.  From our point of view the most successful we have ever been in.”  Unfortunately, while it was the most successful battle since Messines, casualties as a whole were not light; 15,375 allies were killed, wounded or missing for the capture of 3.5 square miles.  William and Belle wrote to each other almost every day and on the 28th September, he reassured her “you poor old thing you think that I am unsympathetic.  No girl never when you are concerned and my actions have never shown it.  What you have read is apparently my bad way of expressing myself.  I am sure when we meet we will be only too glad to help one another.”

Belle’s chief complaint was her husband’s lack of leave.  She had left her young daughters in Australia and moved to London to be closer to William but the reality of war meant long absences and shifting promises of leave.  William’s letters often portray an emotional needy and self-centred Belle in need of soothing reassurance.  In fairness to Belle only William’s letters survive; she may have had reason to be anxious about their relationship.  That aside, being adrift from her family and friends, living in the centre of London in 1917, in one of the worst weeks of the war would have made most people fret.

The harvest moon bombings in London from the 24 September to 1 October killed hundreds and created widespread fear and panic.  The nightly raids while the moon shone brightly became intolerable as hundreds of thousands of people took to the underground stations for protection.  On 28 September, a woman was killed in a stampede at Liverpool Street tube station.  Once people were in the stations it became impossible for the passengers to get in and out.  And there were concerns about sanitation, prompting buckets of sand and disinfectant to be handed out to be used as toilets.  Hospitals and schools were forced to open their basements as shelters and people fled London, the poor sleeping in parks on the outskirts of the capital.

The harvest moon raids forced Londoners to experience some of the anguish and carnage of war but as the moon waned and the raids stopped the panic lessened.  Not so in Ypres.  The success at Polygon Wood would soon fade as the push for Passchendaele resumed and the rain fell.

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Further Information

William and Belle Glasgow’s letters are part of the State Library of Queensland collection.

Zeppelin Nights – London in the First World War by Jerry White published by Vintage Books 2015.

Heavy Losses at Bullecourt

One hundred years ago William Glasgow was in the thick of things at Bullecourt in France.  Early April 1917, Brigadier General Glasgow, commanding the 13th Brigade, was asked to take over from Cam Robertson.  Cam Robertson (James Campbell Robertson), a Queenslander from Toowoomba, was the commander of the 12th Brigade.  His accidental wounding at the end of March necessitated the temporary change of command.

On the April 12th, Glasgow addressed his wife’s Belle’s complaint that “a letterless day was dreary and endless”.  He explained, “I am very busy and find it difficult to find time to write daily.  I took over from Cam Robertson and am forward again”.  Censorship and perhaps a desire to spare her the full horrors his men endured prevented him from revealing more details except to assure her “when one is forward and pushing there are worries” which do “not allow of thoughts other than the work at hand”.

The day before he wrote this letter, the 12th and 4th Brigades of the AIF with the 62nd British Divisions attacked Bullecourt.  The attack was disastrous.  The tanks which were supposed to support the Australians either became stuck in thick mud and were destroyed or broke down.  The Australian infantry pushed on and managed to break the German lines but because no one was sure how far they had advanced, supporting artillery fire was withheld.  The Australians were trapped and some forced back.  1,170 Australians were taken prisoner, more than any captured during a single battle during the war.  An aditional 2,130 men were killed or wounded.

William Glasgow came out of the line at two-thirty in the morning and received three letters from Belle.  As Belle’s letters to William did not survive the war the only clues about what she wrote are in William’s replies.  Because Belle hadn’t heard from William for a few days, couldn’t imagine his life in France and was separated from her daughters and family in Australia she was feeling lonely and insecure.  William wrote, “You are a queer old thing.  You’re hungry for a little bit of love and affection.  Has it not been forthcoming?”  The incongruity of leading so many men to their death or capture, coming off the line and receiving her letters detailing her domestic life, “so glad you are getting a new frock”, is startling.  It’s possible, the normality of these letters and seeing Belle when he was on furlough were essential for him. All his letters during early April express his feelings for her.  On 7th April, “my whole love goes with this, how I wish I was being enclosed with it” and on the 12th, “how I would like to be alone with you.”  He tells her he will send a wire on their anniversary which is a few weeks away and his pleasure at being her husband. It is unlikely his friend Cam Robertson, who had been away from his wife and family in Toowoomba for more than three years received daily letters. Cam was granted two months’ home leave later in the year but was back in the field by the middle of 1918.

Even though the first attack on Bullecourt achieved little and left the Brigade decimated, Glasgow told Belle he was proud of his men. “Any success that comes to my brigade is the men and the battalion officers.  Once men are launched it rests entirely with them and they do the work.   They had a very strenuous time in and struck appalling weather – the worst I have seen in France.”

Further Information

William Glasgow’s letters to his wife Belle are part of the State Library of Queensland collection and are available online – http://www.slq.qld.gov.au

Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

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.

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

January 1917 – great thick flakes of snow

The first week of the 1917 new year was very cold.  Snow fell in “great thick flakes”.  The residents of 9 Lancaster Gate, Hyde Park huddled together around a dwindling fire trying to keep warm.  Coal was in short supply and the coal man had not made his scheduled delivery. Around the fire were Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia and Belle Glasgow.

Belle was the wife of Brigadier-General TW Glasgow, known as William or Will.  Belle travelled from Queensland to London in 1916 to be closer to her husband during the war, leaving her two daughters, Joan and Beth, in the care of her family.   In his biography of Glasgow, Peter Edgar tells a story that when Belle heard from a returned soldier William was having “the time of his life” she booked her passage to London.  It is clear they discussed her coming to London but William would have liked “the show to be over” before she did.  While holidaying in Sandgate she cabled William and he agreed for her to come.  He may have thought she was bringing the girls who were only eleven and seven at the time and wasn’t happy she was coming alone.  He wrote to Joan, the eldest, “I have now just had a cable saying she (Belle) was leaving on the 16th of September.  I wonder what she is doing with you and Beth?  Have you gone to a boarding school, to Gympie or Granny?  It would have been lovely if she had brought you over.”  (A photo of his original letter dated 22 September 1916 is at the top of the post)

Their letters, which are part of the State Library of Queensland’s collection (Sir Thomas William Glasgow and Lady Glasgow Papers), give an extraordinary insight into their marriage which was intimate, loving, ordinary and complicated with its ups and downs like all marriages.  While the story is a little one-sided (Belle was the meticulous record keeper and only William Glasgow’s letters to her are available) it is possible to imagine the contents of her letters to him because of Will’s references to them and Belle’s letters to her daughters are full of information that give a sense of her personality and what mattered to her.  Belle’s father was a journalist who had owned “The Gympie Times” and her talent as a writer is evident in her detailed descriptions of London during the war.

On 4 January 1917, exactly one hundred years ago today, Belle wrote a four-page letter to her daughters describing her visit to Westminster Abby and giving them a potted history of the people buried there.  She told them the tombs were covered with sandbags as protection against the Zeppelin raids.  Belle described the snow falling “in great thick flakes”.  Some days a glorious bright and sunny day would change before she had a chance to walk outside.  “London with its many and various climate changes in one day is a queer place.” Belle relayed information about various family members who had been injured in the war and talked about recovering from her cold.

William’s letters to Belle while he was in France are full of domestic matters.  He rarely mentions details of the war but he tells her how he feels each day.  He commanded the 13th division and his anguish when his soldiers are killed is palpable.  He writes to Belle each night before he goes to bed and he relied on her letters.  In the first week of 1917 he received a letter with her handwriting on the envelope but found it was a letter Belle had forwarded.  He tells her how disappointed he was when he opened it and saw there was no letter from her.  He wrote care of the Queensland National Bank in London and they forwarded the letters to Belle at Lancaster Gate.

7 December 1916

On the first weekend in December 1916 Annie Wheeler and her daughter Portia were in Eastbourne having a well-earned break before starting on the Christmas work.  Annie’s husband, Henry Wheeler’s family lived in Eastbourne and Annie was very friendly with her sister-in-law Portia.  Henry died of complications from a horse-riding accident in 1903 and Annie and her daughter Portia were in England because Henry wanted young Portia to finish her education in England. Eastbourne was a Victorian seaside resort town in Sussex and about an hour and a half by train from Victoria Station.

When they returned to Lancaster Gate they started their Christmas work.  Annie had received twenty-five letters from Queensland mothers and needed to write to each of their sons.  Many of the letters asked Annie to send cakes or socks or warm vests to their sons and contained money or details about how the money would be transferred. Parcels to the front from Australia often went missing and mothers knew Annie’s parcels had a better chance of getting to the boys. Not only did Annie and Portia have to answer each of these letters but they had to buy the supplies, make and send the parcels.

On Monday 4th December 1916 Annie went to Mrs Hall’s tea party. Mrs Hall entertained eight boys from the Australian Hospital in Southall every Monday afternoon.  After they had tea, sandwiches, bread, cake and homemade soda, a friend would sing, play and recite for them.  Annie would ply the soldiers with questions asking who they had seen, whether they’d heard anything about so and so?  Annie used this information to follow up requests from families who were desperately looking for their sons and brothers.  Some hadn’t heard anything for months or in some cases years.

In Annie’s index card boxes, which are part of the State Library of Queensland collection, there is a card for Percy Augustus Hiron.  Mrs Hiron wrote looking for word about her son Percy.  She hadn’t heard from him and heard rumours he was shell shocked or injured.  She believed she hadn’t heard from him because “he was no scholar.”  There is correspondence between Mrs Hiron and the military in Percy’s war records digitised by the National Archive of Australia.  Percy was wounded at some stage and did recover but perhaps more interestingly and something they didn’t tell Mrs Hiron was Percy was court-martialled and trialled in 1917.  It seems he and another soldier were escorting two prisoners who escaped.  Percy and the other man (Baker) were not carrying their rifles and were unable to do anything to stop the escape.  Not carrying their riffles was an offence and the reason they were court-martialled.  They elected to be tried together and at their trial they were acquitted and returned to their unit.  Percy survived the war.

Also on this day 100 years ago Lloyd George became prime minister and in December 1916 Belle Glasgow (wife of Major General William Glasgow) who was staying at the same boarding house as Annie and Portia, wrote to her daughters, who were in Gympie, telling them London was so dirty she had to wash her hair once a week.  Belle’s letters are part of the SLQ collection.

December 1916

One hundred years ago, on the 30th November 1916, Annie Wheeler wrote to Miss M.S. Trotman (Mary Stewart) from her boarding house in Lancaster Gate, London.  Annie and Mary had both worked for Doctor Voss in Rockhampton; Annie, a nurse and Mary, Doctor Voss’s secretary.  “Mothering” her boys required money and Rockhampton based Mary was Annie’s financial lynchpin, setting up and managing bank accounts and money transfers, raising funds and co-ordinating fund raising efforts.  Mary was also the primary contact person for Annie and Portia and the boys’ families.  Rather than write to every family about their sons, bothers and husbands,  Annie wrote detailed letters to Mary who ensured the letters were published in the local newspapers, “The Capricornian” and “Morning Bulletin”.

Annie’s letter of the 30th November (a digitised copy is available on Trove) began by expressing her gratitude, “I really do not know how to express my gratitude to all the kind friends who helped Miss Nellie Coar to send me that splendid donation of £86 to spend on my boys.” According to the Reserve Bank of Australia Inflation Calculator, this would be equivalent to about $8,376 today.  Nellie Coar raised this money by publishing a book “Just the Link Between”.  The book (a copy is in the SLQ collection) is really a calendar with quotes for each day of 1917 submitted by people who wanted to thank Annie.  Advertisers paid for the cost of the book and all proceeds from sales were sent to Annie.

Annie acknowledged many other donations totalling £143, almost $14,000 today.  With winter upon them Annie used the money to make up parcels to send to the boys. Since her last letter to Mary Trotman Annie had sent off “fifty-three parcels to one of our battalions, each containing a warm under vest (with long sleeves), a muffler and a pair of knitted socks”.  There was also “playing cards, cribbage boards and race games”.

Another Queenslander, Belle Glasgow, wife of then Brigadier-General William Glasgow was living at the same boarding house at Lancaster Gate as Annie and Portia at the end of November 1916.  Belle had left her two daughters in Gympie and was living in London to be closer to her husband.  The Glasgow letters are part of the SLQ collection.