Opportunities to Engage: The Red Cross and Australian Women’s Global War Work

Melanie Oppenheimer

We feel rather sorry for you people here [in Australia] who did not go through the war years as we did in London and France... You have missed a lot, and in spite of everything I think we have had the best of it.1

So stated sisters Peggy and Mary Murdoch in a newspaper interview on their return to Sydney in July 1919 at the completion of their war service. The two young women had volunteered for work with the Australian Red Cross, in France and London, respectively. Like their military brothers and sisters, most wartime volunteers quietly returned home and slipped back into their civilian lives with little public fanfare. Others, such as Peggy and Mary, attracted some attention in the media, where the wartime exploits of these “two Aussie girls” and their “Red Cross work abroad” was captured by Sydney’s Sun newspaper. “One by one the Australian women who went to the other side of the world to do war work are returning home,” the article stated.2

Peggy and Mary Murdoch represent a swathe of young and not so young women whose volunteer war work overseas was well understood by Australian society at the time. However, much of their war contribution has been forgotten, downplayed and expunged from official histories and

M. Oppenheimer (*)

Flinders University, Adelaide, SA, Australia e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

K. Ariotti, J.E. Bennett (eds.), Australians and the First World War, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-51520-5_6

broader war historiography.3 Only now are we beginning to extend our attentions and shift our gaze to consider the extraordinary range of endeavours that make up the kaleidoscope of wartime experience undertaken by both men and women on the home and war fronts during that global conflict.

Throughout the First World War, women across Australia were attracted to a range of voluntary organisations such as the Australian Red Cross Society, which had formed on the outbreak of war in August 1914 as a branch of the British Red Cross Society (BRCS). The Red Cross Movement, a transnational humanitarian entity known for its Geneva Convention, focused on the sick and wounded in battle including prisoners of war as well as assisting civilians displaced by war. Red Cross work provided patriotic Australian women with a range of meaningful wartime activities, such as producing comforts and fundraising, which not only gave them a purpose but also importantly became an antidote against the rising anxieties brought on by war.4

Women excelled in organising themselves together to make comforts, knit socks and raise money for the boys away fighting and their dependants, and for allied civilians affected by war. Through organisations such as the Australian Red Cross and the myriad of other war charities (or patriotic funds as they were termed in Australia) such as the Babies’ Kit Society and Battalion Comforts Funds, women responded to the war through community engagement, fundraising and by volunteering their labour. Until 1917, and the creation of the Commonwealth Department of Repatriation, much of this type of work was considered the domain of private philanthropy funded by public subscription and donations, and administered by an army of patriotically minded civilians. There was little government accountability and regulation at either state or federal level.5

For other Australian women, however, this crucial home front war work was not enough. Following brothers, fathers, fiances and lovers who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force or British regiments, they chose to volunteer for overseas service with the Red Cross and other voluntary organisations and war auxiliaries. Here they worked largely unpaid in a variety of occupations related to the war effort. Although the geographical distance of the war presented numerous challenges, there were many hundreds of Australian women who, like the Murdoch sisters, found a way to actively participate in a war on the other side of the world. These women left Australia independently and served outside the formalised structures of the Australian military, with organisations such as the Young Women’s

Christian Association, the Scottish Women’s Hospital established by Elsie Inglis, and especially other national Red Cross Societies. Their wartime roles were generally not included in official histories and have been largely forgotten over time. This also applies to the scores of Australian nurses such as Narrelle Hobbes who secured wartime employment with the British Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. If the nurses who served with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) receive limited recognition in war historiography, with the exceptions of Jan Bassett’s classic study and, more recently, the work of Kirsty Harris, Ruth Rae, Janet Butler and Peter Rees, then women’s work outside the official framework of military war service has little chance.6

This chapter seeks to recover some of these stories, which reflect the fluidity of the boundaries of war as it affected a range of women’s experiences in the paid and voluntary labour domain. It extends beyond the “emotional labour” of Red Cross volunteer war work on the home front as described by Bruce Scates and the contested battlefields between professional and volunteer, the “veiled warriors” of Christine Hallett’s seminal study of allied nurses.7 Unlike Britain, New Zealand and later America, the Australian military was very conservative when it came to what were considered suitable tasks for women in war. Even though Australian women had won the battle for suffrage years earlier than most of their allied sisters, this significant political success appears to have had little influence when it came to war service. As Jan Bassett suggests, AANS nurses were “in but not of the army” and faced considerable prejudice largely due to their gender as well as being “non-combatants in a combatant organisation.”8 Through the use of case studies, this chapter explores the war experiences of Australian women that challenged the official orthodoxies of the wartime roles for women in Australia.

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