In 2010 the Australian War Memorial retrieved 305 dusty cardboard boxes from its archives. In these boxes were 32,000 files – each containing the harrowing correspondence between the Australian Red Cross inquiry bureau and an anguished family of a missing soldier.
What was remarkable about the bureau’s letters to families, was that tens-of-thousands of them carried Vera Deakin’s signature.
Vera was the bureau’s honorary secretary throughout the Great War, firstly in Cairo and then in London. Vera and her volunteers unrelentingly searched for answers on behalf of families of missing soldiers.
Tragically, the bureau rarely had positive news to share with parents. A correspondent once asked Vera what generally happened to the missing men. ‘Dead,’ she dejectedly replied.
And Vera often had to break the news to a mother, a wife, or a sister that their beloved had perished. ‘I’m afraid I did it very crudely,’ she would later reflect. ‘I wasn’t fitted to doing it; all I could do was the best that i could know.’
Sadly, after the war Vera’s selfless story was largely forgotten – until the war memorial decided to digitise those 32,000 files and make them available to all Australians.