By Connie Levett, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 April 2004

Time to salute our unsung heroines

These were women ahead of their time. Now their bravery and resourcefulness is finally being brought to the nation’s attention.

WE WANT you. When the recruitment cry went out for young Australians to defend the Empire in 1914, a corps of remarkable young women answered the call, only to be told “go home and knit”. Undaunted, they paid their own way to battlefronts across Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East, bought their own ambulances and offered their sorely needed medical skills to those so desperate they could no longer refuse their help.

The historian and author Susanna De Vries has spent the past three years researching 11 heroic women from their letters, diaries and radio interviews, for her book, Heroic Australian Women in War. She says it is long overdue that we recognise the work of these women.

Growing up in England, De Vries had figures like the Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell, who harboured Allied soldiers behind German lines in World War I, to look up to: “I wanted to find figures of that stature here in Australia.”

Visiting England when the war broke out, Sydney heiress Olive King volunteered as an ambulance driver. The only catch was that Olive had to provide her own ambulance. So she bought a second‑hand truck, christened it Ella the Elephant, and had it professionally converted to seat 16 patients or four stretcher beds. She, Ella and her fur coat would see service in Belgium, France and, most significantly, in the mountains of northern Greece with the rump of the Serb army, where she had a “fizzing affair” with a Serbian officer and aristocrat and won the Order of St Sava, the highest award for humanitarian service in Serbia.

Dr Agnes Bennett was another who was moved to help the wounded. In the heat of the Egyptian summer of 1915, she stood at a ship’s railing as it docked at Alexandria’s teeming port. Looking down she saw wounded soldiers, recently carted off British hospital ships and now dumped dockside in the broiling sun. Many had gaping gangrenous wounds that needed attention. As she moved among them, she discovered many were countrymen, the first Anzacs, casualties from the Gallipoli campaign. Uninvited, she went to work, quietly making history.

Bennett was always a pioneer. In 1894 she became the first woman at Sydney University to gain a science degree, passing with first‑class honours. Unable to find scientific work in Australia, she took a bank loan and enrolled in Edinburgh University’s school of medicine. On her return, job opportunities as a woman were limited to psychiatric hospitals so she accepted an offer to practise paediatrics and surgery in New Zealand.

When England, in response to calls from Belgium, declared war on Germany in 1914, three of Bennett’s brothers enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force. She also returned to Sydney to volunteer. The recruiting officer was blunt: the best way this experienced surgeon could help the war effort was to “go home and knit”.

Seething at the AIFs rebuff, she contacted her Edinburgh friends and volunteered for the newly formed Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service, paying her own fare to Europe.

In Alexandria, however, the journey took a strange turn. Confronted by the suffering of the Anzacs, she left the boat to offer her skills to the medical officer in charge, and was gratefully received. In doing so she became the first woman surgeon to be (briefly) commissioned into the British army. When the crisis eased, she moved on to work with Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia.

Aboard the hospital ship Gascon at Gallipoli, Sister Alice Kitchen was confronted daily with the cost of the Anzac campaign. On August 12, 1915, she wrote: “To leave injured soldiers in the blazing sun for days without dressing their wounds or giving them water is mass murder our poor boys. If only the world knew how badly they are treated.”

Day after day, in three leather-bound volumes, Kitchen secretly recorded her thoughts. Unlike Olive King, her war would not be leavened by stays in French chateaus and fine dining on the Adriatic. Her days were long and the heat in Egypt was exacerbated by the floor‑length serge uniform, designed for an English winter, she was forced to wear.

De Vries says Kitchen’s was “the most fascinating diary of wartime experience”. It spins from a surreal description of dolphins gambolling around the ship on her first morning in Anzac Cove, on June 14, 1915, to the grinding existence of life below decks on a hospital ship: “The work gets heavier daily, the flies are a continual pest and the atmosphere oppressive down below on the ward.” Working above decks at Anzac Cove was no safer. She was hit by shrapnel that killed a fellow nurse and patient. In all, 13 members of the Australian Army Nursing Service died in the war.

C.E.W. Bean made only generic mention of the role of women in his official history of World War I. I look at what is offered to my grandchildren, the role models, super-models... I think our times are changing; perhaps they’ll be more dangerous times. And it is not going to be important whether you have had liposuction or Botox, but how you will perform, when the chips are down.”