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Think Piece – Women Need Not Apply

Thursday 14 May, 2015

FIG 2 Colonel Neuhaus with her daughters.In 1914, when Andrew Fisher, Prime Minister of Australia uttered the words that would so profoundly affect our nation: we would ‘stand by the Empire to our last man and our last shilling’ what was clearly implicit was that ‘women need not apply’.

Despite official refusal to accept the service of women and in some cases against advice that their efforts would be ‘better spent improving their knitting skills’, more than 2,500 Australian women served overseas during World War I. This includes nurses and masseuses on hospital ships and military installations, women who worked as volunteer ambulance drivers or as doctors in the uniforms of our Allies.

Small numbers of women broke traditional societal boundaries in their efforts to support the war. Against a background of bureaucracy and discrimination, they were determined to serve their country. Whilst, for example, the idea of a World War I battlefield hospital run entirely by women armed with revolvers was close to unthinkable at the time, it became a reality – and one in which Australian women played their part on both the Western and Eastern fronts.

These women underwent the same hardships, privations and dangers as men. They worked under shells and bombs and they distinguished themselves with valour.

Women on the home front also took on new roles to support the war effort.  Women mobilised their resources to work with a number of voluntary agencies – including the Australian Women’s National League, the Australian Red Cross, and the Country Women’s Association.

As a society we memorialise the service and sacrifice of our men, but the sacrifices of women have largely been overlooked – not just of the women who served in uniform, but also of the mothers who lost their sons, the wives who lost their husbands or whose lives were changed irrevocably to become lifelong carers for men damaged and broken by war.

The Dardanelles Memorial, sometimes called the ‘Mothers Memorial’ in Adelaide’s southwest parklands, is the first memorial in Australia erected to soldiers of the First World War and in small part addresses this loss. Unveiled on 7 September 1915, while the conflict was still underway, it was intended to create a place where mothers and relatives of soldiers killed at Gallipoli could lay floral tributes.

Why is it that womens’ service and sacrifice has been largely overlooked? The reasons are complex. War is traditionally regarded as ‘men’s business’ and concepts of female service sit uncomfortably with society, even today.

In the century since the Gallipoli landings, Australian women have continued to serve with distinction in times of war. Women are now employed in diverse roles as military pilots, engineers, mine-clearance experts and tank commanders.  Many have broken new ground in balancing family and service and have undertaken exceptional acts of courage and gallantry.

As this Anzac Centenary has challenged us to a more inclusive view of our nations history, so too the stories of our women who served and sacrificed are important. We should know their stories; our daughters should know their stories and their sacrifice and their loss should also not be forgotten.

Colonel Neuhaus is a surgeon. She has completed a 20 year military career in both the Australian Regular Army and the Army Reserve as a clinician and a commander, serving in Cambodia, Bougainville and Afghanistan. In 2009, she was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross. She is co-author of Not For Glory (2014) and is Associate Professor of Conflict Medicine, University of Adelaide.

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