Australians on the Western Front: A lifeline for families

Vera Deakin, youngest daughter of Australia’s second Prime Minister, ran the bureau that gave families information about wounded and missing soldiers on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918.

Captain Harold Wanliss DSO, an orchardist from Lorne in Victoria, was so highly regarded that Charles Bean wrote contemporaries believed he was “possibly destined, if he lived, to lead Australia.”

Their lives became linked after Wanliss, 25, was killed in the Battle of Polygon Wood on September 26, 1917, and Deakin searched for the truth about his death and place of burial.

At 23, Vera Deakin sailed to Egypt late in 1915 – despite her father Alfred’s concern – after seeking work opportunities from Australian Red Cross commissioner Norman Brookes (the tennis champion and a relative).

Vera and her friend Winifred Johnson established the Australian Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau in Cairo and, when Australian troops went to France, they moved to London in May 1916.

For three years they fielded heart-rending queries from anxious families across Australia about their soldier relatives.

Vera was relentless in chasing more details than the sometimes-inconclusive official military accounts.

She managed a team of 60 ‘searchers’ who used Red Cross sources and wrote to or interviewed soldiers on active service or in hospitals about the fate of their comrades.

According to Australian War Memorial historian Craig Tibbitts, the bureau created 32,000 individual soldiers’ files that are now digitised.

Some 400,000 responses were sent to those who placed enquiries with the bureau.

“Often letters back to families quoted reports verbatim from researchers; the language was often unsanitised, from straight-talking soldiers and the descriptions sometimes quite graphic. Reports … could be wildly contradictory or clearly wrong, but they were still passed on so that families would have as much information as possible.”

In the case of Captain Wanliss, he was wounded three times in a disastrous raid at Bois Grenier in France in July 1916.

He recovered but was killed in action near Zonnebeke in Belgium in 1917.

Wanliss’s 25-page file shows both the thoroughness of the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau and the challenge of certainty in the chaos of war.

It contains eyewitness and second-hand reports of his death from no fewer than 21 soldiers of the 14th Battalion.

In a letter to Vera Deakin, Lieutenant NC Aldridge, Wanliss’s second in command, said he was alongside Wanliss when he was killed by machine gun bullets as they reached their objective.

“He was shot in the throat, heart and side and was buried … where he fell. His death was instant. He was a thorough gentleman and respected by everybody – also he was brave.”

Other soldiers gave similar versions but the file also contains reports that Wanliss was shot from behind by a German prisoner who had grabbed a rifle.

One soldier called Wanliss “the finest officer” he’d met. Another said “his men worshipped him.”

Wanliss’s father Newton, a Ballarat solicitor, spent years engaging with authorities to find his son’s remains.  

In 1926, he provided location details of Harold’s grave, mapped by Captain Albert Jacka, the 14th Battalion’s most famous member, and by Lieutenant Aldridge.

But to no avail – Harold Wanliss is listed on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres.

As for Vera Deakin, she declined an offer to run the American Red Cross enquiry bureau, choosing a different path

In 1920 she married Captain (later Sir) Thomas White, a prisoner of war in Turkey who became Australia’s High Commissioner in London.

Lady Vera White died in 1977 aged 86. Her grandson Roger Harley described her in 2018 as a life-long, hands-on philanthropist.

“As a 24-year-old girl, at a time when nearly all senior administration roles were dominated by men or titled women, during a time of crisis, she succeeded in managing a vital humanitarian service of vast scale and complexity.”

Historian Michael McKernan once wrote in Australians at Home that “there is little place for women in the great national celebration of Anzac. Instead women were required to ‘wait and weep’.”

Vera Deakin White and Mary Elizabeth Chomley, who ran the Australian Red Cross Prisoners of War branch in London, rank among independent Australian women whose heroics in the First World War are increasingly acknowledged a century on.

Women such as adventurer Olive King, who joined the Serbian Army as an ambulance driver, and Doctor Laura Forster who ran a hospital in Russia when she died of influenza in 1917.

Indefatigable nurses such as Matron Ida Greaves who spent more wartime in Europe than any Australian soldier – she was in France by August 1914 and did not return to Newcastle until September 1919.

Women such as Cecilia John and Jessie Webb, leaders of the campaigns against and for conscription in 1916 and 1917.

Historian Joy Damousi has written that after the war Cecilia John was active in the Save the Children organisation from its inception while Jessie Webb was Australia’s alternate delegate to the League of Nations assembly.

  • The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.


AWM Craig Tibbitts on Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiries Bureau 400,000 responses and 32,000 files:

AWM: Vera Deakin

Vera Deakin White

Roger Harley speech at Royal Historical Society of Victoria exhibition on Vera Deakin, in History News June 2018

Captain Harold Wanliss Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau file  

Harold Wanliss p62-3 Father’s letter to Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Harold Wanliss Australian Dictionary of Biography by Bill Gammage: Bean comment that Wanliss may have lead Australia  ,

Michael McKernan: The Australian People and the Great War/Australians at Home

Olive King

Dr Laura Forster

Matron Ida Greaves

Mary Chomley

Cecilia John and Jessie Webb Chapter 15 Hidden by the myth: Women’s leadership in war and peace by Joy Damousi in The Honest History Book p211-225