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Vera Deakin and the Red Cross - Carole Woods OAM

First World War (1914-18)
Women’s organisations

Vera Deakin, a 23 year old woman from Melbourne and youngest daughter of Australia's second Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, travelled to Cairo to establish the Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau. Her work brought comfort and answers to grieving families across Australia. The legacies of her work endure to this day.

Join author and historian Carole Woods OAM in conversation with Leigh Gilburt, Production Coordinator at the Shrine, as they discuss Vera's remarkable contribution to the First World War.

Vera Deakin and the Red Cross is available for purchase through the Shrine shop.


Leigh Gilburt: Welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance podcast exploring all facets of our wartime history. My name is Leigh Gilburt and I'm the Shrine's Production Coordinator. It is my great pleasure to be joined today by Carole Woods OAM. Carole is a Fellow and Honorary Secretary of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. She has curated two exhibitions related to the Australian Red Cross and today we will be speaking about her recently published book, Vera Deakin and the Red Cross. Vera, the youngest daughter of Australia's second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin travelled to Egypt in 1915 to set up the Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau. It was our honour at the Shrine to be the venue for the official launch of Carole's book in May this year.

Thank you, Carole, for joining me today. Vera forged an incredible life and legacy and there are so many remarkable aspects of her life that we could talk about today. For our discussion, we are going to focus on her work during the First World War. Carole, could you please introduce to us the young woman who was Vera Deakin in 1915.

Carole Woods: Vera was born on Christmas Day 1891 to Pattie and Alfred Deakin at their home Llanarth in Walsh Street, South Yarra. Walsh Street is close to King's Domain and the site of the Shrine. Alfred was three times Australian Prime Minister and Pattie was the leader of several welfare groups, especially those benefiting children. Vera attended Melbourne Church of England Girls Grammar School, near the Botanical Gardens, under the progressive principals Mary and Edith Morris who fostered leadership, ability and a social welfare ethos. Vera was gifted musically and studied cello and voice in Budapest on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War.

Leigh Gilburt: So what inspired Vera to travel to Cairo to establish the Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau.

Carole Woods: Vera was motivated by her welfare background, and immersion in British Empire imperial fervour. Vera was brought up to be strongly welfare oriented. After the outbreak of war, her mother Pattie managed a soldiers refreshments stall, later known as the Anzac Buffet in St Kilda Road. One day while assisting at this store, Vera met a couple who were distressed by news that their soldier son was missing and they couldn't find any detailed information. This immediately triggered Vera's sympathy and curiosity. Meanwhile, Vera had been reading a book by Lord Robert Cecil about efforts of the British Red Cross in France to trace missing soldiers. Vera was immersed in the imperial and military fervour of the time. She grew up surrounded by the iconography of the British Empire. She was familiar with the grand marble statues of Queen Victoria in Victoria Gardens and at Parliament House. Her family had a holiday house Ballara which is still standing at Point Lonsdale. And here she saw the fortifications at the Heads and sometimes accompanied her father, when he was Prime Minister, to the fort at Queenscliff. She did not hesitate to answer the British Empire's bugler's call in 1914.

Leigh Gilburt: So, what sort of support did she require in order to secure her travel to Cairo?

Carole Woods: Vera needed the backing of an organisation and financial support. The Australian government paid nurses to participate in the war effort, but excluded other women even women doctors. Vera’s determination to serve coincided with the formation of the Australian Red Cross in August 1914. Under the enterprising leadership of Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, this society developed far flung operations, including in Egypt, Britain and France. Norman Brookes, businessman and former Wimbledon tennis champion was appointed a Red Cross Commissioner in Egypt. Coincidentally, he was the brother of Herbert Brookes, husband of Vera’s sister Ivy. Vera wrote to Norman asking whether she could help the Red Cross in Egypt and he replied, ‘Come at once and bring as many like yourself as you can’. The Red Cross subsequently prepared to subsidise various living expenses.

Vera also needed support from her family. Alfred Deakin was strongly opposed to Vera’s departure. He trained her to be independent but once she asserted her independence, he became very distressed. He wanted her to work nearby in the safety of her mother's soldiers refreshment stall. His wife Pattie gradually persuaded him to accept Vera’s proposal. She stressed that there were thousands of soldiers stationed in Egypt who would protect Red Cross workers. Pattie offered to pay Vera the cost of her living expenses at home and Herbert Brooks provided further funds. Alfred was then in a state of mental decline. He later regretted his approval and wrote letters pleading with Vera to return, thus undermining her morale. Vera lived frugally and when in England used her savings to assist soldiers on leave to go to light-hearted plays and excursions. Reluctant to disappoint soldiers, she saw the Maid of the Mountains 20 times.

Leigh Gilburt: So what was the work of the Bureau? What was the process of tracing the missing?

Carole Woods: I just need to go back a step. AIF [Australian Imperial Forces] administrative headquarters couldn't cope with the thousands of enquiries about missing soldiers. They just didn't have the resources. And this placed enormous stress on the base records at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. And this story has been very well told by Carol Rosenhain in a book called The Man Who Carried the Nation's Grief. And this is about Major James Lean who commanded the base records at Victoria Barracks and he was just besieged with families desperate for information. So the Red Cross set up the enquiry work that we're talking about today. And this occurred in Britain and Australia and other countries. And the focus was on trying to find information about the missing.

Vera’s mentor in Egypt was Lady Barker, head of the British Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau in Cairo. Like its British parent, the Australian Enquiry Bureau searched for the missing, sought news about the sick and wounded and gathered information about those who had been killed or died of wounds. The British and Australian enquiry bureaus used searchers to find information in military camps and hospitals. Vera argued that lawyers who were trained to be precise were well suited to this task. She especially valued William Isbister, a barrister, and Stanley Addison, a science graduate, both from Adelaide.

Now the Red Cross has wonderful diaries written by Stanley Addison, where he talks about his trip to the Gallipoli Peninsula to search for missing soldiers there. Vera refused to use women searchers while based in Cairo. On moving to London, the work greatly expanded and she became heavily reliant on the British system, which used both women and men as searchers.

The Australian Bureau in Cairo and later London was Australia's national bureau. It received some direct enquiries, but overwhelmingly enquiries came from the six Red Cross information bureaus in the Australian capital cities. The national bureau's statistics for 1917, when it was operating in England, showed the magnitude of the tasks performed. The bureau received nearly 27,000 cabled enquiries, and 9000 posted enquiries from Australia. Another 11,500 enquiries came from Britain and France. Searchers' reports amounted to 33,700 and there were additional reports from soldiers, matrons of hospitals and padres.

Leigh Gilburt: That's an extraordinary volume of information. quite amazing.

Carole Woods: Well, it’s quite amazing, that’s right.

Leigh Gilburt: What was Vera’s role in the bureau?

Carole Woods: Vera was only 23 when she became inaugural Secretary of the Australian Enquiry Bureau in Egypt, and she narrowly escaped replacement by a man. The Red Cross thought that a woman would not be capable of this very demanding task. She was saved by the intervention of Lady Barker who quickly saw Vera’s leadership potential. Vera welded a disparate group of volunteer workers into a disciplined, dedicated team and persuaded her key supporters to stay for the duration of the war. She set an example herself by working long hours, she clearly explained goals and motivated staff to achieve them. She was a young woman in a man's world but she stood up to and was respected by the military. Vera once described herself as a despot but she was an enlightened one. She had a strong management style, suited to the demands of wartime, but it was always tempered by compassion.

Leigh Gilburt: You’ve mentioned that she had faced some struggles because of her gender. Were these the only challenges that she faced in the role?

Carole Woods: The main thing was that she was dealing with volunteers and she had to find capable, dependable staff. And it was a tribute to her that she attracted outstanding staff. The typists were probably the only staff actually paid. All of her senior staff for young Australian women. Her friend Winifred Johnson, a descendant of the Ebenezer Syme family of The Age newspaper fame, sailed with her to Cairo and became her deputy. Marjorie Syme a cousin of Winifred’s joined the Bureau in Cairo and took charge of searchers' reports. Lilian Whybrow, later Mrs. Scantlebury, started work at the Bureau in London in 1916 and quickly became indispensable. She took charge of the letter writing department, a task which required skill and empathy. For many of the letters were to the bereaved. This was the beginning of some 30 years of Lilian's collegial work with Vera at Red Cross.

Another challenge was that Vera had to negotiate with military authorities for access to records and these negotiations were sometimes quite drawn out. She also had to endure German bombing attacks on London. On one occasion when bombs fell near her office, she went briefly to the basement with staff then returned to her desk saying she had work to do which could not be interrupted by a few bombs.

Vera also faced unjust internal criticism from Langer Owen, a barrister who was in charge of the Red Cross Information Bureau in Sydney. I think Langer Owen was somewhat doubtful about Vera’s capacities. She was a young woman; he was a highly qualified senior barrister. He criticised delays in replies to enquiries which were unavoidable given all the obstacles faced by the national bureau. Owen later capitulated when Vera was appointed OBE in 1918 and like J Beacham Kiddle, head of the Melbourne Information Bureau, he highly praised Vera.

Vera also contended with homesickness and disapproving letters from her father. But she had many friends and she wrote of trips to see the antiquities of Egypt and weekends away in the beautiful English countryside.

Leigh Gilburt: What was the impact of Vera and the Bureau's work on the families of Australia’s servicemen?

Carole Woods: Bart Ziino in his book, A Distant Grief, describes the great suffering of Australian families because they were just so distant from the battlefields and from the people who were actually searching for missing soldiers and providing news about soldiers who were wounded. And Jay Winter, author of a highly esteemed book called Sites of Memories, Sites of Mourning wrote that the bureau staff, ‘were the eyes and ears of families stranded half a world away.’ These families desperate for information sometimes developed a kind of kinship bond with the staff who were helping them. For example, after the death of a soldier friend, Captain Stanley Davis at Bullecourt in 1917, Vera corresponded with Stanley’s father, until his death in the 1930s.

Vera and the bureau received numerous letters of thanks. Families craved information, even if the news was tragic. They wanted as much detail about the death and burial as possible. Now, I've got an extract from a father who lost his son to the war and it encapsulates a great deal of the work that Vera and her staff were doing. The father wrote,

It will give great comfort to his mother, that he was buried and his grave marked. It will also be a great consolation, to know that he was killed outright without long suffering. May I thank you most sincerely for your kindness in this matter. Such human sympathy does more to soften the agony of bereavement than your kind and devoted workers can possibly realise.

The eminent scientist David Rivett, husband of her sister Stella, said that Vera had brought an infinity of consolation to so many people.

Leigh Gilburt: That is just a huge impact on those families to be able to bring them comfort and knowledge of what happened to their loved ones. And we've been talking about Australia's servicemen - the brothers, the fathers, sons - but were there any women that the Red Cross traced?

Carole Woods: You asked me this question on another occasion but I haven't found any evidence of that. But that doesn't mean that it didn't happen. It may well have done so.

Leigh Gilburt: And, I guess, moving on from the immediate impact at the time during the First World War, what has been the legacy of this work that Vera established for Australia since the First World War?

Carole Woods: The experience gained in the First World War enabled Vera to advise the Australian Red Cross during the Second World War.  Together with Lilian Scantlebury, she took charge of the enquiry service of the Victorian division in the Second World War. She was based in Melbourne. Vera’s search for the missing was the foundation of the tracing service, which today is a core service of the Australian Red Cross. The Australian War Memorial has made 32,000 case files of the enquiry bureau available online. These eyewitness accounts are a major archive on the First World War and have been used intensively by professional and amateur historians, and especially by family historians.

In recent times, they were used by the identification board of the Fromelles project. This involved searching for the missing who'd been buried in a mass grave and their reinternment in a new cemetery. It was a very sad and moving project and I was fascinated that Vera's work was actually used. There is now a small display about Vera Deakin in the Shrine of Remembrance, reminding visitors from across the world of her humanitarian wartime service.

Leigh Gilburt: So Carole, how did you go about piecing together this biography of Vera and her work? What sort of resources were you able to track down?

Carole Woods: Just a little background is needed. In 1920, Vera married Captain Thomas White—an Australian pilot who had served in Mesopotamia with the Australian Flying Corps, which was the forerunner of the RAAF. He became a federal cabinet minister and when he was knighted in 1952, Vera became Lady White. So, I'm now talking about Vera Deakin White. Judith Harley, the youngest daughter of Vera Deakin White, initiated my biography. And at first, I thought there was only enough material for an article and I was side-tracked by other projects. Gradually Judith discovered many family letters. In fact, she kept discovering them and I was almost overwhelmed because I didn't want to write a family history. I wanted to focus on Vera's wartime services.

I also used the enquiry bureau's case files on the Australian War Memorial website and Deakin family papers at the Australian National Library. Oral History was crucial for this project. Tom Harley, one of Judith’s sons had recorded wonderful interviews with his grandmother, and I think these are actually available now online. I had long conversations with Judith Harley. An artist and writer herself, she had vivid memories of her mother's life and introduced me to some of her mother's friends such as Nancy McConnan, daughter of Walter McConnan, who had been one of the Vera’s soldier friends in Egypt.

Leigh Gilburt: She really kept quite a close connection with the people that she assisted and that she had worked with over her lifetime.

Carole Woods: She had a tremendous flair for friendship. And you're quite right, at home she kept in touch with one of the men who had been working as a searcher until he was in his 90s.

Leigh Gilburt: And now that the book has been published, what are your reflections on this project?

Carole Woods: The project was a kind of odyssey and I was nearly shipwrecked when various commercial publishers rejected the manuscript saying there would be no interest in Vera Deakin. The manuscript spent some years in the proverbial ‘bottom drawer’.

Throughout the project, I was struck by the strong interchange between past and present. And with the launch of my book, there was a sense of coming full circle. Her Excellency Linda Dessau AC, Governor of Victoria, launched my book at the Shrine of Remembrance on 25 May. The Governor was a woman representing Government House, thus creating parallels with Vera’s initiation into the Red Cross. The Australian Red Cross was formed at Federal Government House, Melbourne under the remarkable leadership of a woman, the Governor-General's wife, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson.

It was at Federal Government House, so called because the Federal Government was then based in Melbourne, that Vera began her long service to the Australian Red Cross. She sorted garments in the ballroom which had been turned into a kind of warehouse full of items that could be useful to soldiers overseas. 60 years later, the Red Cross and Vera celebrated their Diamond Jubilee, at Government House.

Vera and her husband Captain Thomas White had a long involvement with remembrance traditions, and especially with services at the Shrine of Remembrance. She was honoured in her lifetime, but after many years slipped into obscurity. The event on 25 May, in the presence of the Governor and several staff and two Trustees of the Shrine seemed to open a new phase of remembrance for Vera’s search for the missing. It was like a homecoming for both Vera and her biographer.

Leigh Gilburt: Wonderful, thank you, Carole for your time today sharing with me and our listeners the life and work of Vera Deakin. And congratulations on the publication of Vera Deakin and the Red Cross. It is an incredible resource covering not only what we've been speaking about today, but many other outstanding aspects of her life. One of my personal favourite sections of the book was the glimpse into life in pre-war Europe as Vera studied music in Budapest in the summer of 1914. And of course, you can't go past the story of how Vera met her husband, Captain Thomas White. It really is  the content of romance novels and to really, you know, see it actually happening in real life is just, it's really quite beautiful. And one other aspect of the book which I loved was when you explained how Vera set up the gunfire breakfast after the Dawn Service with the Red Cross giving refreshments to people that had attended. [Correction: the refreshments stall was run by the Anzac Fellowship of Women not the Red Cross].

Carole Woods: That was lovely. Tom Harley talked about that in a very moving way at the launch of my book and he actually said that the coffee was laced with rum. That was news to me. That was the importance of oral history, I didn't find anything in the documents about that. [The Anzac Fellowship of Women did not provide the rum. It was brought by the old soldiers.]

Leigh Gilburt: I'm sure they didn't keep official records of that aspect. I'm sure all the returned veterans appreciated that.

Carole Woods: It was so cold in the very early morning, it was a heart warming episode.

Leigh Gilburt: Vera Deakin and the Red Cross is available for purchase now through the Shrine Shop or other book retailers and links to that are in this episode’s show notes. And next time you are at the Shrine, please do make sure to stop by our Galleries where you can view some of our items related to the Red Cross and their service in the First World War. Thank you, Carole.

Carole Woods: Thank you, Leigh. It's been a great pleasure.