Australian women faced an array of challenges during World War I, from sole responsibility for children and family to coping, in many cases, with the reality of losing a loved one. A large number of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men, particularly in the armaments sector, while others threw themselves into projects such as the Comforts Fund in support of the troops.
Although prevented from serving on the front line, more than 3,000 Australian women also volunteered for active service as nurses, medical workers and ambulance drivers. Stationed in Europe, Britain, the Middle East and India, they worked in hospitals, on hospital ships and trains, or in casualty clearing stations close to the front lines where they were exposed to threats from artillery and bombing.
The nurses carried out their nursing duties with diligence and care, and were called upon to display extreme bravery.
On the night of 22 July 1917, the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station near Armentières in France was targeted by a German bombing raid. In dangerous circumstances, Sisters Clare Deacon, Dorothy Cawood, Alice Ross-King and Staff Nurse Mary Derrer helped injured men escape from the Station’s burning remains.
Each nurse received the Military Medal – awarded to personnel for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire.
In all, eight Australian nurses received this award during the course of the War. Tragically, 25 were killed while on active service, and four died in Australia from lingering injuries or illnesses.
One hundred years after nurses proved themselves to be an essential part of the military, Australia Post has issued a Stamp and Coin Cover entitled Women in War – A Century of Service. Displaying poignant historical imagery, it includes an Australian commemorative coin crafted by The Perth Mint in honour of our nurses’ achievements and sacrifices.
The image of Staff Nurse Ella McLean from Roma, Queensland is seen in the foreground of the commemorative $1 stamp. Originally working on home service at Kangaroo Point Military Hospital, she embarked on the Khiva in May 1917, serving first in India and then Egypt.
In the background is a photograph showing a woman knitting socks direct from the fleece of a sheep. The Australian Comforts Fund packed finished garments like these into bales and shipped them overseas for the troops.
The main envelope image shows nurses tending a ward of wounded troops in the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station near Steenvoorde (about 30 kilometres from Armentières) on 30 November 1917. Most of the patients treated there were injured during the Third Battle of Ypres, where in eight weeks of fighting Australian forces incurred approximately 38,000 casualties.