Women and war

Topic: Australians at War: World Wars I and II
Learning Activity
Schools & Teachers
Stage 5

Students investigate a range of primary sources to better understand the changing lives and experiences of Australian women who served as close to the ‘action’ as their gender allowed in World War I.

Key inquiry question #1

What was the significance of WWI to the lives of women?

Learning intention

Students are learning to: 

  • Analyse, process and synthesise information from a range of primary sources in order to extract information to use as evidence in an historical argument 
  • Interpret the actions, values, attitudes and motives of people from the past in a way that reflects a consideration of their particular historical context 

Success criteria

Students will be successful when they can: 

  • Develop an historical text demonstrating an understanding of the changing circumstances in

Student Activities

Research project

Students research and write an article, profiling one woman and her service experience in World War I, as part of a series tracing the changing lives of women through history. 

Number of set tasks:

NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum History K-10

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

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

Significant events and the experiences of Australians at war (ACDSEH108)

  • using sources, students investigate the following features of each war: 
    • the role of women


Comprehension: chronology, terms and concepts

  • read and understand historical texts
  • use historical terms and concepts in appropriate contexts (ACHHS165, ACHHS183)

Analysis and use of sources

  • process and synthesise information from a range of sources as evidence in an historical argument (ACHHS170, ACHHS188)

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)

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

Learning across the curriculum

  • Information and communication technology capability
  • Personal and social capability
  • Literacy
  • Work and enterprise

Background notes for teachers and students

Historical context

The opportunities for Australian women to participate actively in World War I (WWI) were limited. Nursing provided the greatest avenue for women to serve, both overseas and in Australia. Over the course of the war, more than 3000 Australian women served with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), as Royal Australian Navy Nurses and with allied organisations including the Red Cross and Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. Working in medical facilities that included hospitals, hospital ships and trains, and casualty clearing stations near the front line, these women served in places that included France, Belgium, Egypt, England, Gallipoli, Italy, India and the Middle East. During WWI, twenty five Australian nurses died in service. 

Australian women are also recorded as having provided support on the front line as drivers and translators. 

Care for wounded soldiers

When soldiers were wounded, they were typically removed from the battlefield by stretcher bearers, with those with serious injuries moved to a nearby casualty clearing station. Soldiers could then be transported a further distance to a general hospital in the rear lines, which could care for around 1000 patients. Subsequently, the wounded were either evacuated to specialist hospitals in Britain, repatriated home to Australia, or returned to their units in the field. 

The Third Australian General Hospital at Gallipoli

The Third Australian General Hospital set sail on the S.S. Mooltan from Circular Quay, Sydney, just one month after its formation had been requested. Staffed by nurses from the AANS its first site during WWI was on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. It was to serve the casualties from nearby Gallipoli who would be ferried across on hospital ships. When the first nurses arrived at the site, there were no supplies, buildings or even tents due to delays with the supply ship; water was in short supply and there was no sanitation. The hospital’s male personnel and officers, who had already arrived, were sleeping in the open. Eventually a 1000 bed hospital was set up and by the time it closed, shortly after the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula, it had treated thousands of wounded soldiers. 

The Red Cross 

Whilst WWI presented an enormous challenge for medical services, fortunately the International Committee of the Red Cross had been established about 50 years prior. During the 1859 Battle of Solferino, Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant witnessed the suffering of tens of thousands of soldiers. Consequently, he advocated for the founding of national voluntary relief associations to treat wounded soldiers and for international treaties to protect those giving and receiving aid. His work 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 not formed until nine days after the outbreak of WWI. The initial home front activity of this branch consisted of sending ‘comfort’ packages to soldiers at the front. A Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was soon established, which provided a public face for the Australian Red Cross. The women who served as VADs provided domestic and nursing support services in both hospitals and convalescent homes. As initially VADs were prevented from serving overseas, a number chose to travel overseas at their own expense and join British services. In 1916, however, the policy banning overseas service changed and the first official group was deployed to Great Britain and France. Working as orderlies, the duties of these women varied from changing beds and sterilizing equipment to record keeping and working on canteens.

Another Red Cross service largely staffed by women, the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau, was established in 1915 in Cairo to provide Australian families with further information after they received a notification of death, or to assist families whose loved ones had been listed as ‘missing in action’. 

Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps

The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) (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. Members of the WAAC were primarily employed as clerks, telephonists, waitresses, cooks and instructors, as well as attending war graves.

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 for the war effort. 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. 

Additional resources

The State Library's Research Guide "Women at War" may be of interest and/or assistance.