“… In the darkened world of warfare, a bright and shining flame, She was mother, sister, sweetheart to them all.”
These words were in a song Dermot Dorgan sang at our local folk club recently. He’d written it about an Australian, Annie Wheeler during World War 1. I was drawn to the story. Who was this woman?
During the Great War, a century ago, any mail simply addressed to “Mrs Wheeler, Mother of the ANZACs, London” was delivered to her door in Westminster Gardens. One Xmas her daughter recalled, the mail that had arrived from Australia was 3 feet deep all through their flat!
A widow in her 40s, Annie had sailed from Australia with her daughter in 1913 so that Portia might finish her education in England. When the war broke out in 1914 they couldn’t return, so Annie Wheeler worked as a nurse and then took the initiative to become a ‘hub’ of news and support for Australian soldiers, between England and, particularly, Central Queensland where she’d lived.
All through the war, Annie gleaned what she could from the nearby Army
Headquarters and wrote fortnightly bulletins, which were published in Queensland
provincial newspapers, giving many families the only news they ever got of what
was happening to ‘their boys’ with the Australian Imperial Force in France … Egypt …
She and her daughter organised letters and gifts from Australia, between brothers,
and family in different battalions, to be forwarded to wherever those ‘ boys’ had
been posted or were in hospital. They sent off supplies of extra clothing & food etc,
wrote countless letters, visited hospitals and were kind to anyone who needed to talk
about home or the mates they missed. By 1918 she had the contact details of 2300
soldiers in a card file (currently held by State Library of Queensland).
One soldier drew a sign and stuck it on their front door showing the distinctive AIF
Rising sun hat badge and a kangaroo with the words “Hop Right In, Dig”
After the war, when Annie and her daughter arrived back in Rockhampton in 1919,
over 5000 people met her train and cheering soldiers (Diggers) pulled her car
through the streets to a public reception. She was given a house to live in paid for by
[State Library of Queensland Image no 69293. Out of copyright]
Here in 1920, she sits in one of the grandest cars in Springsure, I’m guessing from the l
local supplier, a Studebaker Big Six, decked with bunting. Annie Wheeler is about to
unveil a Memorial Fountain at the school.
She was presented with an O.B.E that same year, in recognition of her contribution
as a ‘military welfare worker.’
For kindness itself.
Text by Meg Philp
Dermot Dorgan. Conversation. 13 March 2014.