Home Learning Activity Women and war

Women and war

Background information for students

Nurse accepting a donation from a swaggy, 1915, James Francis Hurley

The Nursing profession

The Third Australian General Hospital was originally set up on the Greek island of Lemnos. At that time it served the casualties from Gallipoli who were ferried there from the Peninsula in hospital ships. AANS (Australian Army Nursing Service) nurses departed Sydney on the 15 May 1915 on the SS Mooltan to staff the hospital, when they arrived there were no buildings or even tents and men and officers were sleeping in the open. Eventually a 1000 bed hospital was set up. By the time it closed, shortly after the evacuation of the Peninsula, it had treated thousands of wounded soldiers.

The Red Cross

The First World War was a massive challenge to the medical services of Europe and elsewhere. Fortunately the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been started about 50 years previous to World War I. Its genesis had been when Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant witnessed the suffering of tens of thousands of soldiers during the 1859 Battle of Solferino and advocated the founding of national voluntary relief associations for treating wounded soldiers as well as international treaties to protect those giving and receiving aid.  This resulted in the first Geneva Convention in 1864 and the founding of a national Red Cross association in dozens of countries. The Australian Branch of the British Red Cross Society was formed nine days after the outbreak of First World War in 1914. Their initial home front activity consisted of sending ‘comfort’ packages to soldiers at the front. In 1915 the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureaux was formed and a national scheme for Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD) was started. VADs worked on menial support tasks in hospitals, such as cleaning, and were initially prevented from serving overseas. Because of this a number of Australian women VADs chose to travel overseas at their own expense and join British services, the policy was changed in 1916 and the first official batch of VADs was sent overseas from Australia in 1916.

Photographs of the Third Australian General Hospital at Lemnos, Egypt & Brighton (Eng.), taken by A. W. Savage 1915-17

Voluntary aid detachments at home

In 1915 with the first reports of the Gallipoli campaign making news in Australia Mr T.A .Gibbs, General Manager of the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney offered his home Graythwaite as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. Under the administration of the Australian Red Cross Society Graythwaite Convalescent Hospital for Soldiers was opened  on 1 March 1916.

Voluntary aid detachments overseas

Olive (Ollie) Lawry Oakley née Waterhouse, was married to Riddiford Colborne Oakley (Rid), a chaplain in the army. She travelled to Egypt at her own expense and worked with the 21st General Hospital in Alexandria as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.), and after her husband’s departure for France with the Y.M.C.A. in Cairo, signing for and receiving a numbered armlet stamped with the Red Cross badge. Her husband subsequently asked if she was entitled to the 1915 star and the victory medal, but was informed that only volunteers attached officially to organisations such as the Red Cross, Y.M.C.A. or the Comforts Fund were eligible for war medals.

Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC)

The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (later Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps) was formed in Britain in July 1917 to free up men from work so they could serve on the front lines. It was the first time women could officially join the army and it was organised into four units: cookery, mechanical, clerical and miscellaneous. They served in England and France. Mrs Britomarte James of Melbourne, Victoria, mother of two sons in the Australian army went to England 27 Sept. 1916 when her eldest son was wounded. There she joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) on its formation, and was a Unit Administrator in Nottingham, England and Boulogne in France. In May 1918 she returned to England, arranged her discharge and went back to Australia, arriving in Melbourne 22 Aug. 1918.

Women on the land

In England the Women’s Land Army was officially formed but Australia was more conservative and the Australian Women’s Land Army was not established until 1942.

Australian Women’s Service Corps

Also in 1916, the Australian Women's Service Corps was formed in an attempt to make the government aware of women who wanted to do more towards the War. The Corps' objective involved training women to be able to work in jobs that they had never done before which would make the men available to enlist. The idea was generally ignored by the government.

Home Front Funds

During the First World War, 1914-1918, a vast array of benevolent societies and privately run patriotic funds and charities were formed to raise money from the public to help support Australia's allies and its soldiers. There were over 200 women's voluntary groups formed in Australia. These private funds filled an important gap by providing the troops with warm clothing and comforts packages, by supervising the care and rehabilitation of returned soldiers and by raising relief funds for civilian wartime victims in Allied Europe.

 They all relied on various methods of fundraising, including door-knock appeals and fetes to assist the men fighting overseas. The ‘comforts’ provided included such things as socks, cigarettes, encouraging letters from schoolchildren etc. (the soldiers sent letters home suggesting they put the cigarettes inside the socks so they didn’t get pinched).

The Enemy

Several diaries in the State Library collection describe encountering Turkish women snipers.

Student Activities

Research project

From sources 1-14, your own knowledge and your own research answer the following questions:

  • What were the constraints and possibilities for women at this time? Consider family life, employment, education, the vote and travel.
  • How did society’s perception of women change because of WWI?

Choose one woman from sources 1-14 and complete the following task:

You are working as a war correspondent and have been asked by the Australian Women’s Weekly to write a 500 word article profiling the experience of one woman who participated in this major historical event.

  • What is the name and background of the woman you have chosen?
  • What was her motivation to participate in the war?
  • What was her contribution?
  • Where did she participate in the war effort?
  • When did she participate?
  • What were the challenges she faced?
  • What happened to her after the war?
  • How does her experience compare with other women of a similar age and background?
Syllabus Information

The Making of the Modern World

Depth Study 3 Australians at War: World Wars I and II (1914-1918, 1939-1945)

The making of the modern world from 1750 to 1918. It was a period of industrialisation and rapid change in the ways people lived, worked and thought. It was an era of nationalism and imperialism, and the colonisation of Australia was part of the expansion of European power. The period culminated in World War I (1914 - 1918) and World War II (1939 - 1945)


Significant events and the experiences of Australians at war (ACDSEH108) using sources, students investigate the following features of each war: 

  • the role of women


HT5-1 explains and assesses the historical forces and factors that shaped the modern world and Australia

HT5-4 explains and analyses the causes and effects of events and developments in the modern world and Australia

HT5-9 applies a range of relevant historical terms and concepts when communicating an understanding of the past

HT5-10 selects and uses appropriate oral, written, visual and digital forms to communicate effectively about the past for different audiences.


Comprehension: chronology, terms and concepts
  • read and understand historical texts
  • use historical terms and concepts in appropriate contexts (ACHHS165, ACHHS183)
  • sequence historical events to demonstrate the relationship between different periods, people and places (ACHHS164, ACHHS182)

Analysis and use of sources

  • identify different types of sources
  • identify the origin, content, context and purpose of primary and secondary sources (ACHHS169, ACHHS187)
  • process and synthesise information from a range of sources as evidence in an historical argument (ACHHS170, ACHHS188)

Perspectives and interpretations

  • identify and analyse the reasons for different perspectives in a particular historical context (ACHHS172, ACHHS173, ACHHS190, ACHHS191)

Empathetic understanding

  • interpret history within the context of the actions, values, attitudes and motives of people in the context of the past (ACHHS172, ACHHS173, ACHHS190, ACHHS191)


  • plan historical research to suit the purpose of an investigation
  • identify, locate, select and organise information from a variety of sources, including ICT and other methods (ACHHS168, ACHHS186)

Explanation and communication

  • develop historical texts, particularly explanations and historical arguments that use evidence from a range of sources (ACHHS174, ACHHS188, ACHHS192)
  • select and use a range of communication forms, such as oral, graphic, written and digital, to communicate effectively about the past for different audiences and different purposes (ACHHS175, ACHHS193)



  • Cause and effect: events, decisions and developments in the past that produce later actions, results or effects
  • Significance: the importance of an event, development, group or individual and their impact on their times and/or later periods
  • Contestability: how historians may dispute a particular interpretation of an historical source, event or issue


  • Numeracy

Background information for teachers

Military parade, Macquarie Street, Sydney
A birthday treat(y) signals a short-lived period of world peace

Being an ardent pacifist I was delighted to discover that the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June – my birthday!  An examination of the souvenir programme, Victory Celebrations (Signing of Peace), revealed a route  that was to pass in front of the original Mitchell Library.  Further searching of the Library’s collections revealed this magnificent photo of the event.

Ph: +61 2 9273 1414
Fax: +61 2 9273 1255

State Library of NSW
Macquarie Street,
Sydney NSW 2000,

Media Enquiries