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At the time of World War I, it was thought that a woman's place was in the home. A group of Australian nurses, however, did travel overseas to assist Australia's war effort and to help save wounded soldiers. Yet they did more than just save the lives of Australian soldiers, they managed, through their skill and resourcefulness, to build the foundations for a strong reputation for nurses everywhere.

The context

When women offered to be actively involved in supporting Australia by serving in the war, their offer was immediately rejected by the government. Women were not even permitted to work in factories because it was seen as being 'unladylike' for them to be exposed to an environment of that nature. Having to uphold the time-honoured codes of traditional female roles, the only way that the government permitted women to participate in active service in the war was through nursing. Female doctors were not even allowed to serve in the medical services overseas because it was thought they would not be able to deal with the morbid landscape or the physical demands.

On 1 July 1903 the Australian Army Nursing Service was established. It was a reserve unit comprised the nursing services from each former colony. It was staffed entirely by part-time, volunteer civilian nurses. At this time, however, there was a negative image attached to Australian military nurses. They were perceived as no more qualified or skilled than first aid workers.

Even during the early stages of the war the Director of Medical Services doubted the capabilities of the nurses. His ignorance was shown through his belief that female nurses proved more effective at contributing to the convalescence of a soldier than they did to saving his life. Little did he know that not only were the nurses boosting the morale of the soldiers, but also that they were very accomplished.

While the female nurses who were involved in World War I have gone relatively unrecognised in comparison to the male soldiers, there were a few who were exalted to an official place in history by being decorated with the Royal Red Cross. The Royal Red Cross is awarded by the British monarch and was initially established in 1883 by Queen Victoria. It was originally only able to be awarded to women and was a way of awarding trained army nurses who had displayed outstanding proficiency in their nursing duties over a period of time. It could also be awarded if a nurse performed an act of exceptional bravery.

If a nurse displayed devotion and bravery under fire, she was awarded the prestigious Military Medal which was equivalent to the Military Cross but originally created for other ranks in the army. Dorothy Cawood was just one of three nurses who were awarded the Military Medal in 1917 for the evacuation of patients under the bombing of the 2nd Casualty Clearing Station. See image 1

The Florence Nightingale Medal which was bestowed on its recipients by the International Committee of the Red Cross was also awarded to several Australian nurses for their exceptional care of the sick and the injured during World War I. One of these women was Miss Elsie Pidgeon who received it four times during her lifetime.

The role of nurses

The first sisters to form the medical units left Australia in September 1914. They followed the Australian troops to all parts of the world, including Egypt, England, France, Belgium and Mesopotamia (now occupied in part by modern-day Iraq). They served in hospitals, hospital ships and hospitals constructed under tents without any floor covering.

The duties of the army nurses were much more varied than would have been the case in the civilian nursing profession. They were often forced to improvise, using what limited and under-resourced supplies and equipment they had. They needed to be decisive and quick-thinking when determining treatment, cleaning wounds and attending to minor surgery. Physical strength and a high level of efficiency were required. They endured an excessive workload and a lack of staff to meet the demands. It has been calculated that during World War I, one matron, 15 sisters and 30 staff nurses attended to 1000 patients in a makeshift hospital of hundreds of tents. See image 2

The conditions made life even more difficult for the nurses. The burden of understaffing resulted in exhaustion and they experienced shock and terror on the occasions when they came under fire. They were also at risk of contracting contagious diseases such as influenza from the sick soldiers. The nurses also experienced many of the same hardships as the soldiers. The harsh, foreign climate, inadequate basic necessities and consequent dysentery were all endured by the female nurses as well. Having seen all the horrors and devastation, many women also suffered from the same types of psychological traumas, such as depression and nightmares, which plagued the men when they returned home.

In Gallipoli, the nurses worked aboard hospital ships and had to spend a large portion of their time at sea. They travelled between the waters just outside Anzac Cove and the general hospitals on the Greek Islands, sometimes sailing up to 1050 kilometres to Alexandria in Egypt. On board these ships it was not uncommon for a nurse on night duty to look after 250 patients with only one orderly to assist her. See image 3

Perhaps one of the most difficult duties for all of the nurses was the need to remain high-spirited in the face of such adversity. Aside from being nurses, they were also women and had to be almost mother figures to their patients who were in need of comfort. Many friendships were formed between the nurses and the soldiers. This attachment would have made the loss of a soldier even more emotionally taxing for them. The Allied soldiers often commented that the Australian nurses were among the most kind and caring of the nurses.


Throughout World War I, a total of 2139 nurses served overseas in places like Gallipoli and France, while a total of 423 served in hospitals in Australia. Of these, 25 died and 388 were honoured for their service, seven of them being awarded Military Medals. The number of lives that the Australian nurses saved can never be calculated. What we do know is that their contribution to the war earned them a new respect from not only the medical profession but also the Australian public.

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Question 1/5

1. Why were female doctors not allowed to serve overseas?

Female doctors did serve overseas

There were no female doctors at the time

It was believed that they would not be able to manage the physical demands or be able to handle seeing the morbid landscape

They were needed in Australia because all the male doctors were overseas


No thanks. Remind me again later.