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Tuesday, September 29th, 2020

Lest we forget our women in war

by April 25, 2017 General

ANZAC DAY: Aussies Play Two Up in Anzac Day Tradition Various1:00

Every Anzac Day, thousands of Australians participate in what?s known as ?two-up?. The coin-toss betting game was popularised during the First World War when Anzacs used what little resources they had to make their own fun. Credit: Various via Storyful


AS Tasmania’s first female Governor to address the Anzac Day Service at the Hobart Cenotaph, I thought it would be appropriate for me to focus today on the role of Australian women in the two world wars.

Anzac Day presents an opportunity for Australians to reflect on the contribution of all servicemen and servicewomen including those men and women who were involved in the war on the home front. It has not always been the case that role of women has been fully included in this reflection.

Anzac Day has primarily been a male story. Women’s contributions have been inadvertently marginalised — a situation which historians, commentators, and film and television producers are now beginning to address.

The story of women in World War I and World War II is a complex one. It covers military service, nursing and voluntary aids, known as VADs, who carried out a wide range of duties — in hospitals, as clerks, ambulance drivers, seamstresses, radiographers, dental orderlies and laundry staff. From October 1941 the VADs began to serve overseas.

Governor of Tasmania Kate Warner at the Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Hobart cenotaph. Picture: RICHARD JUPE

Governor of Tasmania Kate Warner at the Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Hobart cenotaph. Picture: RICHARD JUPESource:News Corp Australia

At home, women formed Red Cross branches and worked tirelessly fundraising and in making items to send to servicemen and women. The Australian Women’s Land Army had over 3000 members enrolled in December, 1943, working a 48-hour week.

During World War I, some Australian women contributed to the war effort through military service, but they were very much the exception to the rule and it was not until 1942 that war services other than nursing were opened up for women. Tens of thousands joined the Australian Women’s Army Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force and the Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service during World War II.

The contribution of women was diverse, but in terms of service abroad, this primarily involved medical support.

By articulating the danger and deplorable conditions in which nurses worked, the [National Memorial] effectively dismantles the myths of their ‘safe’ wartime experience that have trivialised their significant role in war

The Australian Army Nursing Service was formed in 1902, when 60 nurses served in the Boer War. During World War I, some 2500 AANS nurses joined active service, most of them overseas. They worked behind the lines in field hospitals and on medical ships anchored offshore near battlefields that were inaccessible by land.

It was the first time women made a major contribution to the war effort outside home and country. The nurses served in Egypt and Lemnos in the Gallipoli campaign, in England, France and Belgium in support of the fighting on the Western Front, and in Greece, Palestine, India and Mesopotamia. Twenty nine died on active service.

The first bravery awards for Australian women were given to four nurses. They, including Alice Ross-King, received the Military Medal for risking their lives to rescue patients trapped in burning buildings after a German raid in France in 1917. Of the 2500 women who served as AANS nurses, 388 were awarded medals.

What about women doctors in World War I? In 1915, the War Office announced that it could not utilise the services of women doctors. Undaunted, 25 Australian women doctors went abroad privately and served in other units overseas.

ONE hundred years ago in February 1917, Dr Phoebe Chapple travelled to England to enlist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. She was given the honorary rank of captain and was one of the first two women doctors to be sent to the front. She was at a camp in France when three bombs were dropped on the compound. One of the huts exploded on a covered trench used by the women as shelter.

Dr Phoebe Chapple won the Military Medal for her work in World War I.

Dr Phoebe Chapple won the Military Medal for her work in World War I.Source:Supplied

Eight women were killed and seven wounded. Phoebe Chapple worked through the night in the destroyed trench tending to the dead and wounded. She was awarded a Military Medal for gallantry and devotion to duty in and after the air raid. As a non-commissioned officer she was ineligible for a Military Cross.

The women doctors were not allowed to wear the Royal Army Medical Corps uniform or badges until nearly the end of the war and they were not permitted to wear the badges of rank. And because they did not serve under an Australian Army unit, Australian doctors have never been recognised here in Australia for their service in World War I.

For most of World War II, Australian nurses were the only females to serve overseas. Over 3000 AANS nurses served and 71 lost their lives during active service. Some were taken prisoner of war by the Japanese forces, 32 on Bangka Island and Sumatra and others in Rabaul.

THE horrific story of the massacre of Bangka Island, in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, is well known, but as this is the 75th anniversary of the massacre, the story is worth repeating.

There were 65 Australian nurses on board the Vyner Brooke when it was bombed and sunk by Japanese aircraft during the fall of Singapore. Some were killed, 12 probably drowned and the survivors were scattered. Some made it to shore and were taken prisoner by the Japanese. A group of 22 surviving nurses, some civilians and wounded men made land on a sandy beach. The nurses set up a shelter with a large Red Cross sign on it to care for the wounded who were unable to walk to Muntok to surrender.

What happened then would have been unknown but for survival of Sister Vivian Bullwinkel. When the Japanese arrived at Radji Beach they separated the men and took them along the beach and out of sight. When the Japanese soldiers arrived back a short time later wiping their bayonets, the nurses realised what had happened. They were then ordered by Japanese soldiers to form a line and walk into the surf. When they were waist deep they were shot.

World War II nurse Vivian Bullwinkel in 1941 after enlisting in Australian Army Nursing Service.

World War II nurse Vivian Bullwinkel in 1941 after enlisting in Australian Army Nursing Service.Source:News Corp Australia

All but Sister Vivian Bullwinkel were killed. Despite being shot in the diaphragm, she managed to float in the water until the soldiers left and then crawl out of the water and into the jungle. Some 12 days later she surrendered to the Japanese.

Bullwinkel then spent three years in a POW camp and survived the war along with two Tasmanian nurses who had survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke.

Another ship, the Empire Star, carrying Australian nurses from Singapore, left the day before the Vyner Brooke, and despite being bombed and machine gunned and set on fire and losing 17 men who were killed on the deck, it limped into Java and safety.

As I have indicated, the recognition of Australian women’s war efforts has been somewhat meagre.

In fact the right to march with servicemen on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day has not always been recognised. Servicewomen were paid two thirds of the pay men received. Land Army women did not receive the same benefits as members of the other services. Even some of the 24 Vyner Brooke nurses who survived and became POWs struggled after the war to obtain full pension rights.

It was only in the late 1990s that Australian Service Nurses were honoured with a national memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra. There is ample evidence Australian soldiers deeply appreciated nurses in war and their contribution to the war effort. But the nation has been slow to make official recognition of that.

The Australian Services Nurses National Memorial was established to honour the collective efforts and sacrifices made by Australian nurses in all areas of combat and service life since the Boer War.

It acknowledges the harsh truth that, although nurses were guaranteed protection under the Geneva Convention, many experienced physical danger and, like the nurses on Bangka Island, were killed.

In academic historian Madeleine Turner’s words: “By articulating the danger and deplorable conditions in which nurses worked, the [National Memorial] effectively dismantles the myths of their ‘safe’ wartime experience that have trivialised their significant role in war. It is a version of history where the activities of men are not more important than those of women. Nor are horrific war experience memories exclusive to men. Women have shared a part and their memories allow the definition of hero to be reworked.”

When the nurses on Radji Beach knew death was coming they did not scream or whimper. As they walked into the sea Matron Irene Drummond called out, “Chins up girls, I’m proud of you and love you all.”

Alongside remembrance of the brave male soldiers, sailors and airmen of the war, let us diligently remember their women colleagues, the nurses in particular who lost their lives, and let us also remember the contributions made by women in the services, in the Red Cross, the land army and in the factories.

Lest We Forget.

This is an edited extract of the Anzac Day 2017 Speech given by the Governor of Tasmania Kate Warner in Hobart yesterday.

Originally published as Lest we forget our women in war