Annie and Portia Wheeler worked closely with a young woman, Vera Deakin, who arguably did more for Australian soldiers and their families than any other woman during the first world war. Vera lived a big life; perhaps not surprising as the youngest daughter of Australia’s second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin. Back in Melbourne in 1915 after some time studying in London and Europe, and fresh from a trip to America with her parents, Vera decided to return overseas as a volunteer. The Red Cross in Australia were training VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments) but were restricted from sending them overseas, so Vera took matters into her own hands. She cabled Norman Brookes, a Red Cross Commissioner in Cairo, and booked one of the last passages to Egypt on the SS Arabia. Her father was against it, thought Vera should work alongside her mother who was doing good work for the war effort in Australia. He didn’t understand why Vera needed to go and wasn’t convinced her efforts would be of value. Now retired, he felt she should spend time with him. Vera, “selfish and headstrong”, told him if he was set against it, she wouldn’t go but if his reason was primarily to do with her, “ending up in a harem”, she was prepared to take the risk and go. Brooks’ return cable, “come at once and bring as many like you as you can”, her mother’s support and her friend, Winifred Johnson’s decision to accompany her, convinced her reluctant father. The night before she sailed, she sat the Red Cross Medallion exam. She was so nervous during the oral exam; her knees were shaking. She passed.
A few hours after arriving at the hotel in Cairo, the Red Cross Commissioners visited. The British Red Cross were handling all Australian enquiries and were very anxious to be relieved as they were overloaded with their own casualties from Gallipoli. Vera would be required to open the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Bureau at nine-thirty the next morning at Gresham House. Luckily, it wasn’t too far from the hotel and Lady Barker, in charge of the British bureau, was overjoyed to see them. Also, in her early twenties, Lady Barker was afraid they would send some stuffy man who would object to a woman showing him the ropes. There was a small staff of typists and multilingual clerks, but Vera needed to urgently recruit tracers to work in the field and move among the troops. Tracers needed to quickly but sensitively gain the men’s confidence to question them about the missing and dead. They needed to be meticulous and accurate. The list of casualties and missing arrived straight off the rollers in the morning and the staff worked long hours tracing the men. Vera wouldn’t go home until she dealt with any information that had come in. The thought of a family waiting any longer than necessary for information about their son or husband was unbearable. She sent brief cables at night and more details the following day.
When Australian troops moved to the Western Front in 1916, Vera moved the office to London. The number of soldiers missing, presumed dead increased dramatically after 1916. By the end of the war 25,000 soldiers were missing. Heartbroken families in Australia were desperate for details. They couldn’t understand how their boy along with discs, paybooks, kits, could simply vanish. Vera and her team traced every soldier and gave families any information they uncovered. Charles Findlay’s mother Ann repeatedly wrote to the AIF and Annie Wheeler, desperate for information about her son. Annie asked Vera to investigate. The tracers tracked down two witnesses who were with Charles when he died. Their statements typed by the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Bureau staff are in his file. He was blown to smithereens at the Tin Shed near Louverval in the battle of Messines at about 6 o’clock in the evening.
In 1918 Vera asked to go to France to see the work first-hand. She wanted to thank the tracers and impress on them the importance of their detailed reports for Australian families who were so far away. Some of the British tracers didn’t understand the distance to Australia impacted the reports and required far more detail than British reports. She travelled just before the August push with a small number of English relatives of soldiers who were dying. Crossing the Channel was dangerous and some of her friends feared they may not see her again. Two travellers, a mother and a young wife were particularly distressed about what they would face and anxious because they had never been on a boat before. Vera spent the voyage comforting them, talking to them about Australia. In France she visited the Red Cross offices and men on the dangerously ill list in hospitals. At one hospital, after hearing her accent, a nurse asked her to visit a man who had lost his leg the night before and they couldn’t get him to talk. He had lost his will to live. Vera sat with him, praying silently to do and say the right thing, and told him why she was in France. He showed an interest and she extended an invitation for him to visit the London office once he was up and about using his crutches. She looked after him when he was transferred to Wandsworth hospital and they became good friends. On the way to St John’s church on her wedding day, she stopped on Toorak Road to pick him up, much to the horror of her brother-in-law. Coincidently, both Vera and Annie Wheeler walked down the aisle on the 22 March 1920. Vera married Tom White in Melbourne and Annie walked her daughter Portia down the aisle to marry Fred Fox.
Both Vera and Annie were awarded OBEs for their services during the first world war.
All information sourced from Tom Harley’s interviews of Vera Deakin White. The interviews can be found at Trove, the National Library of Australia. https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-217479701/listen
Continue reading the blog for more stories about Annie and Portia Wheeler, Belle Glasgow and Eleanor Bourne