Launceston-born Clare Deacon (pictured) went beyond the call of duty in World War I. However, until recently many people, including her relatives, were unaware of her remarkable story.
The nurse was one of the first four women to be awarded a military medal for bravery in the field, given to her at Buckingham Palace by King George V, who personally pinned it on her cloak. Last month, a memorial frame featuring replica's of Clare's total of four war medals were hung in the Army Museum of Tasmania.
It was thanks largely to family descendant Fay Grimsey, who helped compile Clare's story with the support of five of her great nieces and nephews.
Clare was the first cousin to Mrs Grimsey's grandmother Ada (Deacon) Broad, with the two growing up together in the Burnie area.
Over the years the family collected newspaper cuttings detailing Clare's post-war honours. But with no children of her own, as Mrs Grimsey explained, it was almost a story that got lost.
"I spent a lot of time compiling the Deacon family history in the 90s, and my mother just happened to mention Clare and a story her mother used to tell her," she said.
"It started me on this journey and I connected with Clare's nieces and nephews. Now with her story in the medal room, it's very important and exciting to know it won't be lost."
An excerpt of Clare's story
Clare, born in 1891 at Pipers River, and spent her early years living in Melbourne Street, Launceston. After the war she returned to the city to nurse amputee and shell-shocked soldiers at a Launceston rehabilitation hospital, known as the 'Hornesey'. After the death of her mother, Ellen, in childbirth, her father William moved the family to Burnie where Clare was taken in and raised by his sister Flora.
Having trained as a nurse at the Royal Hobart Hospital, Clare, aged 23, enlisted in the first batch of 11 RHH nurses in late November 1914 with the Australian Army Nursing Service in the First Australian Imperial Force, second Australian General Hospital and embarked from Melbourne with the HMAT Kyarra for the war zones on December 5. She was promoted to Nursing Sister and served in Egypt, England and then to France where she was serving at the Second Australian Casualty Clearing Station at Trois Arbre, near the Belgium border, when a German air raid occurred during the battle of Messines.
On July 22, 1917 Clare had just finished her exhausting 12-hour shift when the bombing began, but she defied orders to take shelter in the dugouts and returned to the wards to protect "her boys". As bombs exploded around them, Clare and three other nurses, Sr Alice Ross-King, Sr Dorothy Cawood and nurse Mary-Jane Derrer, who also refused to leave their patients, calmed their boys and tried to protect them from shrapnel by placing tables over their stretchers and bowls over their heads. A bomb landed in their midst creating a huge crater. Somehow the nurses escaped serious injury, but four soldiers were killed and many wounded.
Instead of the expected reprimand for her defiance, Sister Clare Deacon received a dispatch informing her of the military medal award - which she dismissed as a joke, as did her three colleagues. It was only awarded to soldiers, but unbeknown to them, King George V had established the medals for enlisted women also. Confirmation came from Sir William Birdwood at the station when he visited and unofficially presented the four nurses with a piece of ribbon as used to adorn the medals. In Burnie, Clare's father, William, was notified of her award for her "conspicuous service", and she was later presented with her military medal at Buckingham Palace by King George V, who personally pinned it on her cloak. The medal was an award for gallantry and devotion to duty when under fire in battle. Only seven of 2692 Australian nurses were awarded a military medal. Clare was also awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.
Clare returned to Tasmania on January 29, 1918 as matron on the hospital ship Kanowna. On March 27, she was honoured at the Hobart Town Hall where Major Sprent, who had seen her in action at Mena House in Egypt during the Gallipoli campaign, and later in France, spoke of his admiration for her work. Clare was discharged from service on March 29, 1919, aged 28. In 1922 she married dentist James 'Jock' McGregor in Melbourne and settled in Sydney where she died in 1952. She had no children, but our "Tasmanian war heroine" who was known as a charming and kind person with a strong sense of duty, has left a special legacy of service to her nation.
In September 2006 Clare was posthumously inducted into The Tasmanian Honour Roll of Women. And recently in March 2021, on the anniversary of her discharge 102 years ago, a memorial frame featuring replicas of her four medals and her story was hung in the Medals Room at the Army Museum of Tasmania at Anglesea Barracks in Hobart to honour her service.
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