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Women in action - nurses and serving women

WAAAF Meteorological Officer adjusting a Theodolite

A WAAAF Meteorological Officer adjusting a theodolite, 1942. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial: VIC1426.

For centuries women have been involved in every kind of war and conflict imaginable, especially as nurses. Australian nurses have dealt face-to-face with war - the sick, the wounded and the dead. They have served in Australia, in war zones across the world and on hospital ships and transports.

More recent conflicts have seen the gender based boundaries traditionally seen in wartime blur. These days, there are few jobs within Australia's armed services that are not open to women. Female soldiers, sailors and airwomen are now commonplace.

And while women still fulfil traditional roles of administrators and nurses, it is not unusual to see male nurses and female doctors working together on military missions, such as when the Australian military provided support to victims of the December 2004 tsunami in Indonesia.

Australian nursing services

Matron EJ Gould, Sister Penelope Frater and Superintendent Julia Bligh during Boer WarMatron EJ Gould, Sister Penelope Frater and Superintendent Julia Bligh who accompanied the Second Contingent to the Boer War as members of the NSW Army Medical Corps, 1902. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial: A03962.

The involvement of Australian women as nurses in war began in 1898 with the formation of the Australian Nursing Service of New South Wales, from which sixty nurses served in The Boer War. In 1900, in her long skirts and stays, Matron Nellie Gould volunteered for the Boer War as superintendent of a contingent of NSW nurses. The service was incorporated into the newly formed Australian Army Nursing Service Reserve (AANS) in 1902.

The Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) was established much later, in 1940. Members of the RAAFNS have served in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War.

According to the Australian Department of Defence, 2,562 AANS nurses joined active service during World War I, with 423 of these women serving in Australia. Twenty-five AANS nurses died in other countries during the war.

Fulfilling their traditional roles as caregivers, Australian nurses worked behind the lines in field hospitals and worked on medical ships that anchored off shore near battlefields that were inaccessible by land. World War One was the first time in Australian history that women had made a major contribution to the war effort, outside of the home and country.

nurses in world war one

Essay, France. 1917. Sister Hilda Loxton, third from left, and other nurses in a slit trench in the grounds of the French military hospital during a visit to Essay. Sister Loxton was one of twenty trained civilian nurses who volunteered in Australia in 1916 for service in French hospitals. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

World War I

In the First World War, nurses were recruited from both the nursing service and the civilian profession and served as an integral part of the AIF. They served in Egypt and Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign, in England, France and Belguin in support of the fighting on the Western front, and in Greece Salonika, Palestine, Mesopotamia and India. At least 2139 nurses served abroad between 1914 and 1919, and a further 423 worked in military hospitals in Australia, while 29 died on active service.
The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, page 62.

The first bravery awards for Australian women were given to four nurses. Sisters Clare Deacon, Dorothy Cawood and Alice Ross-King and Staff Nurse Mary Derrer each received the Military Medal for risking their lives to rescue patients trapped in burning buildings after a German raid on the Western Front in France in 1917.

One nurse, Sister Narrelle Hobbs, was with Australian forces at Gallipoli. She wrote:

I've been a soldier now for nearly three years, and please God I will go right to the end ... if anything happened, and I too passed out, well, there would be no finer way, and no way in which I would be happier, than to lay down one's life for the men who have given everything.

She died five months later, in May 1918.

Holding a parasol and notebook, Matron (Margaret) Grace Wilson

Matron (Margaret) Grace Wilson holding a parasol and notebook in Lemnos, Greece, 1915. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: A05332.

Another nurse, Gertrude Doherty, from WA, wrote to her cousin Muriel in Sydney:

We look forward to our letters on mail day. Of course we can never make our letters sound as cheerful as yours. I am sure you will understand why when I tell you that we are surrounded by sadness and sorrow all the time ... do you know, Muriel, that as many as 72 operations have been performed in one day in our hospital alone ... you could not imagine how dirty the poor beggars are, never able to get a wash, mud and dirt ground in and nearly all of them alive with vermin.

They feel ashamed being so dirty, we always tell them that if they came down any cleaner we would not think they had been in it at all.

A group of Australian nurses sailed for France in 1916, organised by the Australian Red Cross and financed by the Australian Jockey Club. Their blue uniforms were made by department store David Jones, hence their name The Bluebirds. They were, they said, 'gifts to France'.
Pam Casellas, The West Australian , 28 July 2008.

Women's service organisations

AWAS personnel operating Anti-aircraft height and range finder at North Williamstown

AWAS personnel operating Anti-aircraft height and range finder at North Williamstown, 1944. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 100378.

During World War I, some women contributed actively to the war effort through military service. But it was not until 1942 that war services other than nursing were opened up for women.

These eventually included the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS), the Royal Australian Women's Army Corps (WRAAC), the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) and the Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF).

World War II

In World War Two, Australian women fulfilled similar roles. For most of this war, nurses were the only females to serve outside of Australia in any capacity, except for the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS). Their losses were much higher, too. During World War II, 3,477 AANS nurses served, and 71 never returned, losing their lives during active service overseas.

During World War II, some women serving as AANS nurses, including Vivian Bullwinkel, were taken prisoner of war by the Japanese forces - thirty-two on Banka Island and Sumatra, six in Rabaul and Japan. Trauma, deprivation, and illness marked this awful war-time experience. Friendships, loyalty and mutual support rose to the fore in these trying circumstances, but not all of the women survived.

Women's Auxiliary Air Force, Naval and Army Services

Gwendolyn Dent (nee Blackett), Corporal Betty Moore and Corporal Eileen Boland

Gwendolyn Dent (nee Blackett), Corporal Betty Moore and Corporal Eileen Boland, 1944. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 140514.

Tens of thousands of women joined the Women's Air Force, Naval and Army Services during World War II. This was in addition to the work of Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD) which continued on from World War I. Many of these women went into the Australian Army Medical Women's Service (AAMWS), formed in December 1942.

Women in the service organisations fulfilled all sorts of duties, from intelligence officers and cryptoanalysts, to drivers, typists and cooks, to wireless telegraphists and aircraft ground staff. As well as positions that were military-based, women also undertook work that was necessary but more general in nature. As with most paid civilian employment at the time, women who worked during the war were paid about two thirds of what men were paid for doing the same job.

Nursing staff of a mobile hospital

AWAS who arrived in Lae from Australia wait for the trucks to transport them to the AWAS barracks at Butibum Road, New Guinea, 1945. Australian War Memorial: AWM 091457.

The Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) included over 24,000 women, the largest of the women's service organisations. 'The AWAS was the only non-medical women's service to send personnel overseas during the war; in 1944 and 1945 AWAS served in both Dutch and Australian New Guinea.'

The Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) was formed in March 1941 after considerable lobbying by women keen to serve and by the Chief of the Air Staff who wanted to release male personnel serving in Australia for service overseas. The WAAAF was the largest of the Second World War women's services.The Women's Australian Auxiliary Air Force (WAAAF) consisted of over 18,500 women in 1944. It was disbanded in December 1947.

Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) was formed in April 1941 as a result of a shortage of telegraphists in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). During World War II there were over 2000 WRANS members although it was disbanded at the end of the Second World War.

RAANC nurses rugged up against the cold in Seoul, 1953

RAANC nurses rugged up against the cold in Seoul, 1953. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P02044.008.

Post World War II

By 30 June 1947 all members of the AWAS, WAAAF and WRANS had been demobilised.

Facing a severe manpower shortage due to the demands of the Korean War and national service in a time of full employment, a new Australian women's air force was formed in July 1950 and in November became the Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF). Enlistment for the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps (WRAAC) began in April 1951 and WRANS was also re-constituted in 1951.

In the late 1970s female soldiers began to be integrated into the Army at large and in early 1984, the WRAAC was disbanded. The WRAAF was disbanded in the early 1980s and female personnel were absorbed into the mainstream RAAF. WRANS was made a permanent part of the RAN in December 1959. WRANS personnel were gradually absorbed into the RAN during the early 1980s and in due course the service was disbanded. Women were not permitted to serve aboard ships until 1983.

Australia's first female air force pilots graduated in 1988 and today, with the exception of the airfield defence units, there are few jobs within the RAAF barred to women.

Corporal Julie Baranowski in Somalia.

One of two Aust RAANC nurses, part of an operating theatre team, Vung Tau, Vietnam, 1969. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. P01702.009.

Malayan Emergency, Vietnam, Korean and Gulf Wars

After 1947, women were not as involved in the services as they had been during World War II. Thirty-three nurses deployed overseas during the Malayan Emergency and Australian service-women worked in British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) hospitals in Japan and Korea during the Korean War.

The Vietnam War involved forty-three members of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC). Australian women civilians also deployed to Vietnam serving as journalists, entertainers, Red Cross support and civilian medical teams. In 1972, the RAANC appointed its first male Nursing Officer.

During the first (1990-1991) and second (2001-Present) gulf conflicts, Australian forces deployed to the Persian Gulf to enforce trade embargoes on Iraq and ground forces were assembled throughout the middle east. Women were active in service during both of these conflicts as pilots, medical and support staff on military bases from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan. Australian Service-women were also deployed on ships in all roles except as divers.

Recognising Australian women's war efforts

Staff Nurse Pearl Corkhill receives a Military Medal

Staff Nurse Pearl Corkhill receives a Military Medal. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P01850.006

Australian women have received formal recognition in their own right, for example 388 of the 2,562 women who served as AANS nurses in World War I were awarded medals.

Recognition of women's war service with the military has not always been extended to the right to march with servicemen on ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day.

The Australian Service Nurses National Memorial is one of several public reminders to commemorate and honour the war efforts of Australian servicewomen, and the supreme sacrifice some made.

Australian Women and War, compiled by Melanie Oppenheimer and published by the Department of Veterans Affairs, was launched with more than 300 photographs from public and private collections. It is a tribute to Australia's women as nurses and volunteers, as workers taking over the jobs of soldiers away at war, as mothers, wives and lovers.

Corporal Julie Baranowski in Somalia.

Mogadishu, Somalia. 1st March, 1993. Corporal Julie Baranowski a member of the Military Police, serving with the Australian contingent to the Unified Task Force in Somalia (UNITAF), in a jeep during a street patrol. She was in demand as the Somali men used to hide weapons under their women's clothes in the hope of avoiding searches by male soldiers. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.


Useful links

Australian women and wartime

Stories of women in war

Australian Women in War - Department of Veterans' Affairs

Other resources

Last updated: 5 August 2009
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al.

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