And so, avenge the nurses!

By Paul Ashton
Professor of Public History at the University of Technology Sydney

Where it all began

For as long as humans have been going to war, nurses have
been too, caring for the sick and wounded in oft-abhorrent conditions.


Bob Whitmore’s depiction of hospital ship the ‘Centaur’ being attacked by the Japanese off the coast of Queensland, during the Second World War – c. 1943-1945

The journey of war for Australian nurses began in 1868, when
‘The Infirmary’ opened – the first Australian training school for nurses –
located in the Sydney Hospital.

In 1898, an Army Nursing Service was established in Sydney.
Thirty years later, 25 Australian nurses went to fight in the Boer War.

The Boer War

The Boer War broke out in South Africa in 1899.  The newly settled colonies of Australia took
the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to Britain by fighting against
the Dutch-Afrikaner, or Boer, settlers as a unified nation alongside the mother

Thus, 24 female nurses and a female Superintendent from the
Army Nursing Service served in the Boer War between 1899 and 1902.


Three nurses who accompanied the Second Contingent to the Boer War as members of the NSW Army Medical Corps – C. 1902

At the end of that war, an Army Nursing Service Reserve was
formed. Reservists had to be female, fully qualified nurses and willing to
volunteer for service in field hospitals and base hospitals during national

World War I

Just over a decade passed before World War One saw over 2100
Australian women nurses serve overseas in all main theatres of war and on
hospital ships.


Australian nurses depart in the troopship HMAT Euripides Melbourne – May 1916

This took them to places such as Abyssinia, Burma, Egypt,
England, France, India, Italy and Russia. Twenty-one were killed.

At home, 423 nurses did war service and a total of 388 women
received military decorations.

The Reserve was renamed the Australian Army Nursing Service.

World War II

Skip ahead to World War Two (1939-1945), which saw:

  • 3500 nurses in active duty overseas
  • 45 nurses killed
  • 38 nurses taken as Prisoners of War (POW’s) in Malaya
    and Rabaul
  • 8 POW nurses’ deaths

A group of nurses around the piano on board the Troop Transport Empress of Japan, en-route to Gaza Ridge – c. January 1940

The sole survivor

In February 1942, with Japanese forces approaching, nursing
sister Vivian Bullwinkel and 65 other nurses were evacuated from their post in
Singapore on the SS Vyner Brooke.

But the ship was sunk by Japanese aircraft and Vivian and
around 100 other nurses, soldiers and children came ashore at Radji Beach on
Banka Island.

Japanese soldiers machine-gunned the group and Vivian was
the only survivor. She eventually surrendered to the Japanese and spent the
rest of the war in a POW camp.


Staff Nurse Vivian Bullwinkel before being posted to Malaya – May 1941

During World War Two, women nurses were also attached to the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

Vivian Bullwinkel had initially volunteered to join the RAAF
but she was rejected on the grounds of having flat feet.

In all, around 5000 women nurses served during this war.


A company of nurses marching during the Australian Army Nursing Service Victory Parade – Melbourne, 1945

In 1950, the Royal Australian Army Nursing Service was

A year later, the Service became the Royal Australian Army Nursing
Corps, as it stands today.

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