Vera Deakin

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.

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The Flicker of Hope

Emma McQuay always believed that her son George would return home from France, even though he had been listed as missing since 1916.

When the war ended, Emma visited the docks and searched the faces of the homecoming soldiers hoping to see George. Emma attended every Anzac Day service. As she watched the veterans march by, she found herself staring at their faces. This ritual seemed to lift her spirits. She always returned home with a renewed strength, convinced that George would return one day.

In 1928 a journalist visited Emma and told her that her son was indeed alive. He explained that George had languished in Callan Park Mental Hospital, ever since he had been found wandering aimlessly about the battlefield.
Authorities organised Emma’s passage to the asylum. Upon arrival, the superintendent delicately explained to Emma that George suffered a severe psychiatric condition with no chance of recovery.

Emma, upon meeting George, embraced him and called out ‘Darling, darling.’ After a brief moment of bewilderment, George responded, ‘You have been crying mum.’ Emma and George obligingly walked through the nearby gardens for the gathered photographers. Away from the prying cameras, they stood together, holding hands, Emma quietly sobbing while she gently stroked George’s head.

George had only been identified after the asylum’s superintendent shared his photograph with newspapers. What had followed was a sad procession of hundreds of parents to the asylum, who had cherished through the years the flickering hope that perhaps their boy might have been wrongly reported as missing.

It was the flickering hope that Emma had harboured for George’s return. And it was the same flickering hope that compelled thousands of mothers throughout Australia to maintain their missing son’s bedroom exactly as they had left it: linen freshly laundered, flowers displayed, and clothes laid out for that improbable day they returned home. Unlike George, they never did.

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Nameless Names #6: My Research

Two incidents compelled me to research the Great War’s missing. Firstly, standing beneath the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres that lists 55,000 missing British Empire troops. I felt numbed and unable to penetrate the endless lists to connect with an individual name. And secondly, reading a 1926 article about a French father who climbed the Arc De Triomphe and then dived to his death. He had been tormented by the belief that it was his missing son who had been interred in the Unknown Soldier’s Tomb beneath the arch. The story made me reflect on how the unresolved fate of missing Anzac soldiers must have affected Australian families.

My approach to research is to dive deep and find those hidden facts that no other researcher has bothered to uncover. It’s a bit like gold panning — hours of boredom sifting through tailings, which are suddenly forgotten when you discover a nugget. One of those priceless nuggets was Kath Chapman’s story. I stumbled on it when reading a private family history, which contained an uncaptioned grainy photograph of a woman standing over a white headstone. That photograph helped reveal the mysterious story of Kath leaving Australia in 1920 to grieve at the grave of her beloved Theo Pflaum. That photograph captured for me more poignantly than any other the link between feelings and place.

Pauline Reid’s story was another nugget. She was the wife of a missing soldier I featured in the book, Mordaunt Reid. While Mordaunt’s story was compelling, what was unexpected was the gradual unfolding of Pauline’s story. Research revealed that Pauline travelled to Cairo in her search for Mordaunt, and then onto London, where she worked for the Red Cross Prisoners of War Department. In 1920 she was awarded an Order of the British Empire in recognition of her war work. Remarkably her story also intersected with other characters in the book, such as Vera Deakin.

Often I am most excited about a minor detail I uncover, which helps render a character or scene. It might be Theo Pflaum scratching his name into the soft mortar beneath his homestead in 1910 or Theodor Pflaum’s drawing room carrying the faint smell of cigar smoke.

And finally, no matter how riveting a piece of research is, it must ‘fight for its life’ to survive the editing process.

 

The Nameless Names #4: Mary Reid

In early June 1915 Reverend Mr Langley walked from his St Mary’s vicarage in Caulfield to an unfamiliar Currall Road address in Elsternwick. He opened the picket fence gate, walked up the path and knocked on the door. Sixty-five-year-old widow, Mary Reid, answered the door. Langley guided Mary into a room, sat her down and shared the ‘sad tidings’ that her son, Lindsay, had died on the first day of the Gallipoli landings. Mary must have slumped in her chair and stared at that telegram. No doubt, Reverend Mr Langley would have offered Mary words of comfort but she would have no memory of them and would not recall how long he stayed or when he left.

The news of Lindsay’s death overwhelmed Mary. Everything seemed swept away by the hand of fate. Yet, Mary knew that Victorian sensibilities meant that displays of emotion in public were frowned upon. Weeks earlier, Melbourne’s Argus had told readers that they must exhibit the self-control of a ruling race and not let their private sufferings dim their eyes to the glory of those killed for the empire.

From darkened rooms, such as Mary’s, came, throughout 1915, what Gallipoli soldier and poet Leon Gellert evocatively described as the ‘sound of gentle sobbing in the South’.

Discover Mary’s moving story in Scott Bennett’s ‘The Nameless Names: Recovering the Missing Anzacs.’ Available in bookshops on 29 October 2018.

08 Mary Reid

 

The Writing Craft #2: 10 tips to help you combine full-time work with part-time writing

The absolute challenge of working full-time and writing part-time is time management. Every minute devoted to writing must be productive. Here’s what works for me:

1. Set non-negotiable blocks of time for writing.

I have four blocks of time per week when I write. These times are typically late evening or early morning so I can’t be disturbed and I don’t excessively eat into family time. I obsessively adhere to these times irrespective of whether I want to write or not, feel tired or have pressing work deadlines.

2. Clearly set priorities around writing, family, work, socialising and health.

Despite best intentions, 1 or 2 of these important priorities will be compromised by electing to write. Make conscious choices – by choosing to write am I prepared to:

  • Be off my game at work because I’m tired?
  • Sacrifice quality time with my kids?
  • Put on a few extra pounds because I can’t exercise regularly?

Being selfish is an essential ingredient to writing.

3. ‘Steal’ extra blocks of time for writing

I am forever on the lookout for extra blocks of time to write – during flights, in hotel rooms, on family holidays, public holidays, sick days, long car trips, supervising the kids playing in the park. I unashamedly work on my manuscript whenever possible.

4. Get into the writing zone quickly.

With limited writing time, it is important to get into the ‘zone’ quickly. Reading a few pages of good writing by an admired author and having a caffeine fix helps get me into a ‘flow state’ quickly.

5. Set up writing SPRINTs

I set SPRINT objectives for each writing block. This may be: reviewing a certain number of articles, editing a specified number of chapters, or rendering a scene or character. I cannot afford the luxury of ‘writer’s block’. I never set word targets, only writing objectives.

6. Rationalise the reasons why you write.

Self-doubt about choosing to write often plagues my mind, particularly when I sacrifice family time to do it. To combat this, I rationalise why writing is a worthwhile pursuit. For instance:

  • If I weren’t writing I’d probably be watching TV – would I prefer to write something I’m proud of or keep up to date with Game of Thrones?
  • Writing is a good way to turn off from work.
  • It’s better to be at home writing, rather than going to the pub or gambling.

7. Keep detailed supporting notes and references

It will take a part-time writer longer to complete a manuscript than a full-time writer – my books have taken between 4 and 6 years to complete. Early on I was lax in sourcing and referencing material. Subsequently I spent a lot of time backtracking to reference material. Keeping copious and detailed notes will prevent this.

8. Being Obsessive Helps

To improve your writing you must be obsessive about it. You must feel excited about the prospect of getting up at 4.00am on a Sunday morning to write.

9. Brutal Editing

Edit, edit, edit and then edit some more. Every word or idea in your manuscript must ‘fight for its life’ to stay there.

10. Writing is a skill

In my view writing is a skill rather than an innate ability; therefore, with practice and feedback you will improve. Malcolm Gladwell contends that you must practice for 10,000 hours to become proficient at a chosen skill – unless you are writing regularly you’ll never be able to work your way along this skill continuum.

The Nameless Names #3: Lieutenant Mordaunt Reid

Lieutenant Mordaunt Reid’s story flickers through all significant historical accounts of the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915. Official historian, Charles Bean paid him the ultimate accolade stating that he displayed all the attributes of a ‘born leader’ that morning. Yet Mordaunt’s story peters out, with the circumstances of his disappearance later that day consigned to footnotes. Intrigued, I searched old newspapers, soldiers’ dairies, and battalion histories, and tracked down aged relatives to uncover a poignant story that sweeps well beyond Mordaunt’s disappearance.

Mordaunt’s wife, Pauline Dowd, was convinced that he was alive; however, beyond the defence department’s Office of Base Records, there seemed no other agency Pauline could turn to for reliable information. Rather than impotently wait for official news on Mordaunt, Pauline wrote to the newspapers and cabled hospitals overseas seeking answers. In mid-1915 Pauline sailed for Cairo and then later, in 1916, on to London in her unending search for news. Pauline’s main hope centred on Bugler Frederick Ashton, who had disappeared on the same day as Mordaunt, but was subsequently confirmed as a prisoner-of-war. His letters confirmed that there were also other Australians held as prisoners. Pauline was convinced that Mordaunt was one of them.

Discover Mordaunt and Pauline’s moving story in Scott Bennett’s ‘The Nameless Names: Recovering the Missing Anzacs.’ Available in bookshops on 29 October 2018.

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The Writing Craft #1: 10 immutable principles

Ten principles that I anchor my writing process to:

  1. ‘The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows’.
  2. Back off. Let the reader do the creating. Give elbow room to the creative reader.
  3. Avoid adverbs and words ending in ‘ing’.
  4. Maniacal focus on fluency, clarity and narrative urgency.
  5. Focus on sparse detail so there can be a real feeling of it – sights and sounds, smells and colours.
  6. Readers deserve more than half-hearted opinions.
  7. Don’t join all the dots for the reader; let their mind move ahead after the text is finished.
  8. Use simple words to explain complex issues.
  9. Don’t be a prisoner of language – bully it to do want you want.
  10. Success isn’t found in writing, but rewriting.

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The Nameless Names #2: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

In 1927, an elderly man visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris to commemorate his missing son. The man calmly stepped through the crowd and climbed the Arc De Triomphe’s spiral staircase. Atop the terrace, overlooking Paris, he let out a mournful cry and dived to his death.

The tormented father believed that his son was the Unknown Soldier entombed beneath the grand arches.

What circumstances lead to such dire actions? Scott Bennett’s book, The Nameless Names, explores this question, sensitively revealing the anguish experienced by Australian families of the missing.

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The Nameless Names #1: unending grief

Who is this woman and why did she save her pennies and quietly depart Australia in the 1920s to mourn at this soldier’s grave located in Belguim.

Although the woman’s eyes are hidden beneath the shadow of her hat, her tight mouth and the white handkerchief she clutches betrays her emotion. Her story is one of forlorn love and unacknowledged grief.

Her name is Kath Chapman and she stands over the grave of Lieutenant Theo Pflaum.

Discover her moving story in Scott Bennett’s ‘The Nameless Names: Recovering the Missing Anzacs.’ Available in bookshops on 29 October 2018.

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