Australian Women in World War 1

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Australian women, although 20,000 kilometers away from the major war zones, were nonetheless deeply affected by the First World War. They mobilized for war in a number of ways: as nurses, doctors and other volunteers in the battle zones; as workers, both paid and unpaid, on the home front; as protagonists in war-related political and industrial struggles and as agents of remembrance. Their contributions were an important part of Australia’s war effort. While in many ways the war reinforced existing gender stereotypes and roles, women’s experiences of wartime mobilization had lasting effects on their participation in post-war organizations.

On 18 December 1894, the South Australian Parliament passed the Constitutional Amendment (Women’s Suffrage) Act.

The legislation was the result of a decade-long struggle to include women in the electoral process. It not only granted women in the colony the right to vote but allowed them to stand for parliament.

This meant that South Australia was the first electorate in the world to give equal political rights to both men and women.

Fundraising and Support Roles

At the outbreak of World War I, the expected role of women was to manage the home and raise children. Women were strongly encouraged to help the war effort by joining voluntary organizations.

Groups active at this time included the Australian Red Cross, the Country Women’s Association, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Australian Women’s National League, the Voluntary Aid Detachment, the Australian Comforts Fund and the Cheer-Up Society.

When World War I started, it was uncommon for many women to have jobs, apart from domestic serving roles. The number of women working outside the home did increase slightly during the war but mostly in food, clothing and printing industry jobs that were already established as female roles.

The idea that a great number of women could take up paid work in place of the men who had gone to war was resisted for a number of reasons. This resistance lasted into World War II, even though ‘women beat a path to the doors of the authorities, begging to be allowed to assist, to help win the war, to give of their talents’. (Adam-Smith, Patsy 1996, Australian Women At War , Penguin Books, Australia, p 5)

By 1942, the tides of war had shifted to Australia’s doorstep and roles changed out of sheer necessity. Australian women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers and were even allowed to take on ‘men’s work’. These were jobs for the war, not for life. Women were paid at lower rates than men and expected to ‘step down’ and return to home duties after the war.

Nearly 3,000 Australian women served as nurses during the First World War. Most of these served in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), although a dozen are also known to have served as Royal Australian Navy Nurses. The rest joined other Allied organisations such as the Red Cross (French, British and Australian), Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, Territorial Force Nursing Service, Lady Dudley’s Australian Voluntary Hospitals, Salvation Army Nurses and the New Zealand Army Nursing Service. Approximately forty women served as masseuses, twenty-nine of these in the AANS.

Female doctors, whose services were refused by the Australian military, had been accepted in British army nursing since the war against the Boers, despite lingering reservations amongst some senior military officials about their suitability for active service. Twenty-three Australian women doctors made their own way to Europe to join organisations such as the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, the Endell Street Military Hospital, Royal Army Medical Corps and the French Red Cross, one of whom, Dr. Phoebe Chapple (1879-1967), became the first woman doctor to be awarded the British Military Medal. A further 120 Australian women are known to have served in the Voluntary Aid Detachments established by the Red Cross.

Australian women had a variety of motives for heading off to war, just as did the men who enlisted. Patriotism and a sense of duty featured strongly in their own explanations of why they signed on – a strong feeling that they needed to “do their bit” for their country and the Empire. Many also wanted to be close to their menfolk, whether relatives or friends. And like the men, most were excited by the opportunity that the war presented for travel, adventures and perhaps even romance.

Nurses embarked on the first convoy of ships that sailed to Egypt in November 1914 and, like their male comrades, saw their first action at Gallipoli in April of the following year. Confident of a quick campaign, the Allied command had made little provision for the wounded. For many hours after the landing on 25 April 1915, the wounded lay exposed on the narrow beaches, showered by enemy gunfire. Those who survived were laid out on transports and slowly towed away to safety. Throughout the Gallipoli campaign, the nurses waited to receive the wounded, stationed on hospital ships off the shore or in the hospital camps of Alexandria and Malta, and later on Lemnos Island.

Conditions were particularly bad on the hospital ships in the early weeks of the conflict, with lack of staff and medical provisions making the task of providing adequate care impossible. Each time there was a major battle, medical facilities quickly became overwhelmed with the wounded and dying. Conditions on Lemnos were also very bad, with inadequately equipped and underfed staff living in flimsy tents for most of their stay, subject to freezing conditions and gale-force winds. There were too few staff to cope with the “invasions” of patients during offensives on Gallipoli and a majority of the medical staff succumbed to a severe form of dysentery that plagued the island.[6] These conditions were good preparation for those nurses who went on to the Western Front after the withdrawal from Gallipoli at the end of 1915.

In France and Belgium, those stationed at “casualty clearing stations” faced extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions, exposed to gas and bomb attacks. Conditions in the base hospitals behind the lines were better, as they were in England. Most nurses experienced a variety of these assignments, but all were exposed to the physical and mental strain of dealing with the huge number of casualties generated by the battles of 1916-1918. The fact that so many nurses had close personal relationships with men who were severely injured or killed added to the strain.

Those who joined the AANS had no choice but to serve for the duration of hostilities, unless they got married. Many served throughout the conflict. Some forty-three Australian women died serving overseas, twenty-six of whom were nurses. A handful were killed by enemy attack – including four stewardesses who died when the ship on which they were serving hit a mine – but most died from the effects of illness and exhaustion.

Australian nurses also served on the “forgotten frontiers” well away from the main action on the Western Front. 500 Australian army nurses were sent to India and Mesopotamia and 300 to Salonika. The women deeply resented these postings. Having joined up to help the Australian war effort, they found themselves nursing almost every imaginable nationality but their own. They also dealt mainly with the sick rather than the wounded. For these nurses, the war often meant hunger and isolation as well as discomfort and exhaustion: there were no outings for them to Paris or leaves in London to provide relief from their working lives.

Regardless of where they served, Australian army nurses chafed under their anomalous status within the military. Although recognised as “honorary officers”, they were not issued with badges of rank until 1916 and were never paid at male officers’ rates (unlike Canadian nurses, whom they often worked alongside).

After the armistice, most nurses and other women volunteers returned to Australia. For many, their health never recovered from the physical and emotional stresses of wartime service. Nurses, however, found their wartime experiences led to a new confidence in their abilities and new understanding of their role as workers. During the worst battles of the war on the Western Front, they had been called upon to do work previously reserved for men, such as surgery and anaesthetics, although men reclaimed this territory as soon conditions allowed. After the war, nurses formed union-like organisations whose membership was dominated by those who were “ex-AIF”.


Cite this paper

Australian Women in World War 1. (2021, Feb 07). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/australian-women-in-world-war-1/



What did female workers women do in World war 1?
Female workers in World War 1 filled a variety of roles including working in factories, nursing, clerical work, and even serving in the military. They played a crucial role in supporting the war effort and breaking down gender barriers in the workforce.
What role did Australian women play in ww1?
Australian women played an important role in World War I as nurses, mechanics, and service workers. They also took on traditional roles such as cooking and cleaning for the troops.
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