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Australian women on the Western Front

Nurses tending to men in beds injured in battle
A ward in the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station near Steenvoorde. Most of the patients being treated were wounded in the fighting of the Third Battle of Ypres (AWM E04623)

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Posted on February 3 2018

Official histories of women in the First World War tend to focus on overseas nursing and charitable activities on the home front, but the role of women was much broader.

While women in Allied countries were prohibited from combat duty, they served on the frontline as doctors, ambulance drivers, cooks, clerks, mechanics, reporters and artists.

They even served as instructors in the use of gas masks, deciphered codes and worked as signallers.

More than 20 Australian women served as surgeons, pathologists, anaesthetists and medical officers, in countries including England, Egypt, France and Belgium.

 

The Australian Women’s History Network has found that female doctors wanted to honour and test their training, serve the Empire, escape family expectations, travel abroad, and join loved ones overseas.

Dr Phoebe Chapple (1879-1967), from Adelaide, was Australia’s first woman to receive the Military Medal, for ‘gallantry and devotion to duty’, when she and 40 others were bombed in a trench on the Western Front.

Dr Chapple was a contemporary of the Australian doctors Agnes Bennett, Lillian Cooper and Mary de Garis, who joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service to work at clearing stations and on medical ships.

Dr Bennett encouraged many other women, including orderly Miles Franklin, who is best known to Australians as the author of My Brilliant Career (1901).

Another was Olive King (1885-1958), from Sydney, who was in England when war broke out. King took her own ambulance, nicknamed ‘Ella’, to Belgium, France, and then Serbia.

She travelled among battle debris to take wounded soldiers to medical treatment, and she did her own mechanical repairs, evading capture several times.

Later, with funds from her wealthy father in Sydney, she set up a network of canteens to help refugee families and soldiers, and was subsequently decorated by the Serbian Government.

Olive King (1885-1958) in France with her motor ambulance, Ella. King’s experiences on the frontline were ‘unimaginable’ to her family and friends in Australia.

Other women had a more formal role in mechanical matters.

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed in Britain in 1917 to release experienced soldiers from non-combatant roles – in clerical, cookery and mechanical areas.

It was headed by female controllers who recruited many Australian women to join others who served on the frontline.

Aspects of military life were captured by unofficial war artists, including Hilda Rix and Isobel Rae.

Rix, whose husband was killed at the Somme five weeks after their wedding, painted several noted works that focussed on the ruin and grief of war.

Isobel Rae was living in the French coastal town of Étaples when war broke out. She was not named among Australia’s 16 official war artists, but remained in the town and created 200 images of the war.

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