ANZAC women’s strong and significant contribution

THE contribution of women in war has often been overlooked. Australian women have made and continue to make significant contributions to the defence of Australia.



THE contribution of women in war has often been overlooked. Australian women have made and continue to make significant contributions to the defence of Australia.

Life was very different for women in the 1900s. There were no televisions, no plastic, no nylon, the pill hadn’t been invented and women did not have equal pay. 

Few women worked and it was expected that those who did would leave the workforce when they married. Most young girls did not leave home until they married and then it was expected they would become housewives, raising children and supporting their husbands.

For those women who worked it was usually in domestic roles, nursing was seen as a working-class woman’s work.

The only military role available to Australian women in WW1 was nursing.

In August 1898 when 26 nurses from the NSW Army nursing service were formed into the Australian Nursing Service, thirteen of these nurses were sent to the Boer War as part of the British Army. Approximately 60 civilian nurses and other medical personal also served in the Boer War, many of them paid their own way. 

These women were the most emancipated, breaking entirely new ground and encouraged especially young women to take up the profession, especially after the nursing services from each colony joined together in 1902 to form the Australian Army Nursing Service.

Women played an important role in war but that contribution was often overlooked.

In WW1 more than 3000 Australian nurses served with the Australian Army Nursing Service and 12 served with the Royal Australian Navy Nurses, another 40 women served as masseuses, 29 of those with the AANS. 

Female doctors were refused by the Australian military but had been accepted by the British Army Nursing Service since the end of the Boer war. More than 20 Australian women served as surgeons, pathologists, anaesthetists and medical officers in England, Egypt, France, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro Russia and Malta.

The NZ Army nursing services were not fully established until after WWI had begun, however nurses from Australia and New Zealand were already serving together with British nurses all over Europe. At least 2498 nurses served overseas with the AANS and approximately 610 NZANS, many other women served overseas in other medical or voluntary services such as the British Red Cross.

To be an Australian Army nurse one had to be aged over 26, unmarried and with at least three years training. 

We know men lied about their age in order to enlist, eager for adventure and to see the world, and so did the women. Some misrepresenting their marital status: “If the men are going then so are we”.

The first 25 Australian Army Nurses left on October 20 1914, a convey of seven ships, one The Geelong from Hobart, they sailed to Albany and joined other troop ships and on November 1, 38 Australian and 10 NZ ships left Albany, WA. They believed they were heading to England and then on to France, however some of these ships were diverted to Egypt.

During this voyage nurses were tasked with provided training to male orderlies.

They were also attending to cases of influenza and pneumonia. There were often out-breaks of measles and mumps on these voyages.

In Egypt conditions for nurses and medical staff were extremely difficult, often housed in flimsy tents in extremes of temperature, with lack of food, medicines, water and poor sanitary conditions.

On the April 25 1915 women were serving on hospital ships on the Aegean Sea. Conditions on those ships were very difficult due to lack of staff and medical provisions the nurses were overwhelmed by the number of dying and wounded.

Kath King from Orange in NSW was among some of the first volunteers and was on board the Sicilia, a hospital ship and experienced first-hand the horrors of war. That night she wrote in her diary  “At 1.30am received many wounded, mostly badly, dreadful wounds. Nearly all were soaking wet, their clothes sticking into their wounds. It was just dreadful. We got them undressed, their wounds attended to, made them warm, gave them hot drinks then all they wanted was sleep.”

Another nurse wrote in a letter home.  “There was a feeling of excitement on board, from my porthole I could see flashes of light as the mortars exploded, I saw men running on the beaches. The feeling changed as mortars started exploding in the water around us. Then the wounded began to arrive and we realised how unprepared and ill equipped we were, it was then we experienced the true horror of war.”

In the winter of 1916 to 1917, France experienced its coldest winter in a decade. One sister noted that on arriving at the makeshift hospital “there were no blankets or pillows and as the wounded were put onto stretchers they slowly sank into the mud.” 

The women serving on warships, makeshift hospitals and in other areas were not always treated with respect, for example, male orderlies often refused to take instructions from women.

In May 1916, the status of nurses changed from civilian to a military capacity. The nurses were awarded military ranks, The Matron in chief ranked as a major and wore a crown badge, and the principle matron became a captain and wore three stars. A sister with two stars was equivalent to a lieutenant. Their pay was less than half of a male of similar rank.

The Australian War Office refused to enlist female doctors. When the war broke out female doctors were famously told to “Go home and sit still”.

Dr Isobel Ormiston from Albany was working in a temporary hospital in Belgium in October 1914 when the Germans invaded, the operating theatre was in full swing, and Isobel refused to leave her post and became a prisoner of war for several weeks. 

Dr Agnes Bennett, from Sydney, became the first female commissioned officer in the British Army in 1915, when as Captain; she worked as a medical officer in war hospitals in Cairo. In 1916 -17 she was in charge of a unit on the Serbian Front with the Scottish Women’s Army operating in Ostrovo, northern Macedonia under the Serbian Army               

Dr Mary De Garis from NSW  was determined to serve. She wrote in a letter.” if the war continues, the need for doctors will be so great that women will have a chance of being accepted and given mitiltary staus for it.” 

Mary replaced Agnes Bennett as chief medical officer in 1917.

Mary was awarded the Serbian Order of St Sava111 class three as well as two British Medals, “for her contribution in a place of peril and medical urgency” This was not recognised in Australia.

 More than 20 Australian women served as surgeons, anaesthetists, pathologists and medical officers in England, Egypt, France Belguim, Serbia Montenegro, Russia and Malta. 

Moving closer to home. 

Clare Deacon was born on March 13 1891 at Pipers River, Tasmania. 

This story is close to my heart as I grew up near Pipers River.  My birthday is in March, but I was born in 1891 not 1891.

Clare trained at Hobart Hospital and passed her nursing exams in 1912. She enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 29 November 1914 and was posted to the Australian General Hospital. She left for Eygpt on the Kyarra with the first contingent and served at Mena throughout the Gallipoli Campaign.  Clare nursed many of the wounded on Lemnos during a scorching summer, temperatures reached over 47 deg Celsius.

Promoted to nursing sister in December 1915 Clare left for France in early 1916. In June 1917 she was temporarily attached to the Second Australian Casualty Clearing station near Armentiers. On the night of  July 22 the station was bombed and Sister Deacon, (off duty at the time) ran into one of the shattered wards and removed patients to a place of safety. Clare was one of our nurses who risked their lives to rescue patients from burning buildings.

For ‘coolness and devotion to duty’ Clare, along with Sisters Dorothy Crawford and Alice Ross-King and Staff Nurse Mary Jane Derrer, were awarded the Military Medal a distinction only awarded for bravery under fire. These were the first Military Medals won by members of the Australian Army Nursing Service. Clare was personally presented the medal by King George V, she was the only Tasmanian woman to receive this medal.

Clare returned to Australia in 1918 and was discharged in March 1919.

On the memorial in Pontville Park are the names of nine Nurses from the local district.

This is a little information about some of them.

Sister Louisa Marcella Curtain, born in Elderslie joined the Australian Imperial force on  July 16 1915 and embarked from Sydney in 1918.

Mary Kate Curtain left on May 18, 1915.

Harriett Curtain and her sister Louisa, from Granton left on the 17th July 1915

Sister Evelyn Hutt was born in Bagdad, trained at the Hobart General Hospital and enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in May 1915. Evelyn left  Australia in May 1915 and arrived on Lemnos on August 8 1915. Two hundred patients arrived at the hospital before breakfast on the August 9. By August 13 Evelyn and her fellow nurses were treating 900 wounded or ill soldiers. In the two months to October 1915; 57,000 sick and 37,000 wounded were evacuated from the beaches of Gallipoli to the allied hospitals on Lemnos.

Evelyn wrote in her diary: “we are on a field of stones and thistles”. Matron Grace Wilson, from Melbourne, wrote, “the conditions are too awful to describe”. Evelyn wrote of the nurses tearing up their petticoats for bandages, the lack of medicine, poor food and lack of water.

Evelyn returned to Australia in 1919.

WWI did not create lasting changes for Australian Women.

Women did however have to learn to live with these very changed men who came home, some missing limbs, some carrying scars and many shell-shocked. Many women had to learn to live without them.

After the war Australia entered into The Great Depression and life became very difficult both men and women.

Roles for women in WW2 were vastly different. Each branch of the armed services formed their own auxiliary corps. Some women were called to work overseas, particularly in New Guinea. They worked as drivers, mechanics, anti-aircraft gunners and radio operators. The Australian Women’s Army Service was formed in August 1941. To be eligible women had to be between 18 and 40 and British Citizens, (Australians were considered British Citizens at that time.) more than 24,000 joined.  Thousands more joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service. Australian Women’s Army Service was the only non-medical women’s service to send women overseas.

A Volunteer force was also set up to work on farms. The Australian Women’s Land Army, formed in July 1942 saw women from the cities going out to help on farms. These women were paid, although half as much as men, and given great praise, there were stories in newspapers and a short film featured women driving tractors, harvesting hay welding and butchering meat.

There were already many women working on their own farms performing the same service however they received no recognition or pay for their efforts.

 Women also worked in factories and shipyards performing occupations previously considered men’s work.

Before the outbreak of war in 1939 it was unusual for women to work outside the home, other than in domestic roles or as teachers and nurses. Over 200.000 women joined the workforce during WW2, forever changing role of women in our society. It was expected that women would work, in factories, offices, to free up men to enlist in the war.

Women took up these roles and were not prepared to give up these opportunities when the war ended.

 From World Wars to modern day. 

The roles of women have changed significantly in 100 years. From being pioneers serving in the Boer War and seen as being subservient, to modern day serving as equals. Women have taken on many, previously male dominated roles, and have proved they can do them well.

Women can now be employed in virtually all military roles, including some combat roles. 

Women are now paid the same as men in military positions; however this is still not always the case in civilian roles.

There are women currently serving in Afghanistan and in other parts of the world such as Iraq and Egypt.

There is a group of soldiers called the Guardian Angels, ‘A Close Personal Protection Unit’ serving in Afghanistan. They are the bodyguards for senior military officers, politicians and diplomats. There is a significant proportion of women in that unit.

In WW1, 25 women died on active service and 4 died after returning home from illness or injury sustained during the war. 388 nurses were decorated and 7 military medals were awarded to Australian Women

I hope that Australia will never be involved in another war, however I think it is important to remember all those who served and those who serve today to defend this county.