Originally from Warrugul in Victoria, Ernie & Annie Wheeler moved the family to Western Australia, taking up residence in 1901 at Mandurah Road South Fremantle.
A large family, the eldest sister Helen Ethel Wheeler, married Walter Ware, brother of William Ware, the founder of Mills & Ware. Six of Ernie & Annie’s sons went away to fight in the Great War, while the 7th son born in 1901 tried to enlist but was fortunately retrieved by his parents from the recruitment office.*
Harold (known as Howard), Max, Roy, Ralph, Rex & Herbert Wheeler however were accepted for service into the AIF.
Amazingly five of the brothers were to go on to serve with the 16th Battalion. Rex and Ralph enlisted together on the 10th of September 1914 and were given the respective service numbers 167 & 168.
Roy, enlisting on the 15th January 1915, was assigned to the 3rd Reinforcements to the 16th Battalion and had the service number 1555.
Harold & Herbert, enlisting together on the 12th of February 1915 were assigned the respective numbers 2059 & 2060 and formed part of the 5th Reinforcements to the 16th Battalion.
The only brother not in the 16th battalion was Max. He enlisted on the 19th of October 1914 and was assigned to the 10th Light Horse Regiment with the service number 529.
All six brothers went on to serve at Gallipoli.Rex, Ralph & Roy landed with the 16th Battalion at Gallipoli in the early evening of the 25th of April 1915.
Rex (photo on right) was treated for sickness in early May at the 4th Field Ambulance but returned to his unit and was wounded on the 6th of June. He was evacuated to Malta and further on to England.
He arrived back at Gallipoli in early December and was withdrawn again to hospital on the 19th December, just prior to his battalion’s evacuation.
Ralph served at Anzac until September when he was evacuated with wounds and general debility. He was then sent back to hospitals in Malta & England. He never returned to Gallipoli.
Roy served at Anzac for 4 weeks and after getting a wetting in the trenches he was evacuated with bad rheumatism and was sent to hospital in Alexandria.
He rejoined the 16th at Gallipoli in October 1915 and was part of the 2nd Day Echelon of A Company that was withdrawn on the 19th of December 1915.
Max, part of A Squadron 10th Light Horse, was the next to arrive at Gallipoli, albeit without permission. He had been appointed to base camp duties in Egypt but stowed away with his mates and arrived with the 10th Light Horse at Anzac Cove on the 19th May 1915. His presence was soon discovered and he was returned to Heliopolis Camp.
Max stayed in Egypt until the 5th of August 1915 when he was posted to Gallipoli, fortunately arriving just after the Regiment’s infamous charge at the Nek. Though he did take part in the 10th Light Horse’s attack at Hill 60 and survived front line service until late September, when like his brother Roy, he was evacuated with Rheumatism.Harold & Herbert were the last of the brothers to arrive at Gallipoli. As part of the 5th Reinforcements to the 16th Battalion, they were taken on strength on the 13th of July 1915. When they arrived the only one of their brothers still at Anzac was Ralph.
I remain your aff son R. Wheeler. (Ralph)
(Photo of Ralph – left)
The three brothers subsequently took part in the 4th Brigade’s assault towards Hill 971 on August 7 & 8th 1915.
Both Howard & Herbert fell in this assault. Family lore has it that Herbert was found by Ralph lying wounded and despite being under fire he attempted to carry his brother to safety only to find that another bullet had hit Bert in the head as he was carrying him, killing him instantly.
Members of the Wheeler family also remember a letter in their family’s possession written by a 16th Battalion soldier friend of Howard stating that after they had been pressed back by heavy fire, Howard was seen dressing a wound he had received. When asked if he needed help Howard replied that he was alright.
As his mate went further back he heard an explosion and looked around to see the area where Howard had been sitting was a smoldering crater in the earth with all shrubs in the immediate vicinity gone.
Harold & Herbert (photo above) were both officially listed as being killed in action. Unfortunately their bodies were not recovered and they are therefore commemorated on the Lone Pine Memorial Gallipoli.After the Gallipoli evacuation, the four remaining brothers continued with their service.
Max (in photo right) continued his career with the 10th Light Horse and apart from being hospitalized with sickness several times during the desert campaign and brushes with military discipline; he survived the war and returned home in early 1919.
Rex had been admitted to hospital in England after his evacuation from Gallipoli and did not rejoin the 16th Battalion in Egypt until April 1916.
He embarked with his unit for France in June and served at Pozieres & Mouquet Farm. He took part in the 16th’s successful attack on the 9th of August, but when the 16th Battalion was relieved by the 50th Battalion a few days later; Rex stayed at the front and was officially posted as missing, but fortunately re-appeared from the line 3 days later to rejoin his battalion.
He continued to serve with his battalion until February 1917 when he was admitted ill to the 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Dartford, rejoining his unit a few weeks later. Rex was one of the more fortunate 16th soldiers, in that he did not take part in the 4th Brigade’s assault at Bullecourt, and continued with the Battalion till a period of leave in February 1918. He was then promoted to the rank of Sergeant. He was wounded in action for the 2nd time in the war on the 28th July 1918.
According to the 16th Battalion history by Cyril Longmore, a German plane dropped a bomb close to the "A” Company NCO tent with the result that 3 were killed and 12 seriously wounded. After being evacuated through the 13th Field Ambulance & 2nd Canadian General Hospital at Etaples he transferred to ‘Blighty’ & the 5th London General Hospital at Lambeth.
The wounds to his ankles & feet proved serious and he did not return to France. He embarked England for Australia on the 13th December 1918, finally being discharged on the 24th of April 1920.
Ralph spent the first half of 1916 in Hospital and training camps in England and only rejoined the 16th Battalion on the 17th August 1916, just in time for his unit to have another go at Mouquet Farm. Unfortunately despite much bravery the attack was a failure and casualties were once again heavy, though Ralph came through unscathed.
Apart from a period of leave in December, Ralph stayed with the 16th until April 1917. During the 4th Brigade’s assault at Bullecourt, Ralph was one of the many hundreds of Australians who was taken prisoner by the Germans.In May 1917 he was able to write from Kriegslager Wahn Germany, to a friend in Devon, England.
Just a few lines to let you know that I am still alive which is the main thing though I can’t say I am enjoying myself too much as the food is pretty light and we are working most of the time but I think I shall see it through in time that is, if the war does not last too many more years which is not a thing I am looking forward to.
Rex got a good job just before we went in the line and he missed the stunt so he can consider himself very lucky. I think the only thing that I should miss would be a quid if it was lying in the street, I think I would be paralised and not be able to pick it up. If you write to young Roy tell him to send some cigarettes and tobacco over if he can get any chance though by the time you receive this letter he may be shifted from the camp back to the front again.
I wrote a letter home so they shan’t be worrying over that way but I will be very pleased when the whole affair is over and I can get back again as I am getting sick of these cold countries which do not suit my tastes too much. Well hoping that this note finds you in the best of spirits.
Ralph saw out the war as a Prisoner of War and after arriving in England took some leave which he must have enjoyed as he never embarked on his troopship in March l919 but he embarked the following month for home aboard the "Runic”.
Roy Wheeler spent the first months of 1916 in hospital, only joining up with the 16th Battalion in May 1916. He survived the battles on the Somme and was with the battalion until January 1917 when he was evacuated sick.
He was sent to England to recuperate and once better was sent to the 70th Battalion of the 6th Division which was then forming in England. This transfer did not last long as he was soon sent back to the 4th Brigade Training depot at Perham Downs. Roy spent the remainder of the war in training camps in England as due to his recurring bouts of Rheumatism he was seemingly classed as unfit for further active service. He returned to Australia in February 1919.
The Wheelers had seen plenty of service in the Great War and though two of the brothers made the ultimate sacrifice at Gallipoli, the other 4 came through the war years, not unscathed but at least able to come home to their loved ones.
Post War, Max, Ralph, Rex and Roy wandered around the bush and city, finding it hard to settle down. Roy spent much time at Beverley & Narrembeen & in 1930 he died of a suspected heart attack. Ralph after seeing service in WW2 with the 5th Garrison Battalion died in East Coolgardie of pneumonia in 1945.
Both deaths were put down to spending too much time in the scrub. Max traveled around the country and in WW2 he saw service with the 10th Garrison Battalion. He died post WW2 in Alice Springs.Rex died in 1975 at a Nursing home. According to his family a big heavy set rough nurse was trying to get him out of bed and he told her that he needed his boots as one foot was an inch or so shorter than the other. She wouldn't listen to him and pushed him out of the bed which resulted in him falling and breaking his hip. It got very infected and unfortunately caused his death.
*James Wheeler successfully enlisted in WW2 and served with the 2/3rd & 2/2nd Field Regiments in the Middle East & Australia. He was discharged medically unfit in 1943.