“… 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 sang at our local folkclub 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, she had sailed from Australia with her daughter in 1913, in order to finish Portia’s 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 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 … Palestine …
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 need to talk about home or the mates they missed. By 1918 she had the contact details of 2300 soldiers in a card file.
One soldier drew a sign and stuck it on their front door showing the distinctive AIF Rising sun hat badge, a kangaroo and the words “Hop Right In, Dig”
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.
[State Library of Queensland Image no 69293. Out of copyright]
Here in 1920, she sits in one of the grandest cars in Springsure, 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 adapted by Meg
Dermot Dorgan. Conversation. 13 March 2014.