Women to the Front
The Extraordinary Australian Women Doctors of the Great War
Heather Sheard and Ruth Lee
Ebury Press 2019
Paperback 305pp RRP $34.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, August 2019
At the outbreak of the Great War there were 129 Australian women qualified as medical practitioners. Many of these wished to serve in the conflict, but regulations prevented them enlisting in the Australian Army Medical Corps. The exact number who did find a way to serve will probably never be known because there were no records kept. The amazing devotion and involvement of 26 of these women (varying in age from 24 to 57 in 1914) has been recounted in detail by Sheard and Lee.
Some were already in England, whilst others left their Australian practices and travelled to England at their own expense. There were four major organisations that provided them with access to working toward the war effort: the Royal Army Medical Corps, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. They found their way to hospitals or casualty clearing stations in five main locations: the Western Front, the Eastern Front (Ostrovo, Macedonia), England and Scotland, and Malta and Egypt. Most were not involved in surgical roles, but in supplementary areas such as anesthesia, pathology, pharmacology and immunology, but this was to change somewhat as casualties mounted on the Western Front with the 1918 German offensive.
The text begins with two lists: medical and military abbreviations, and a tabular CV of those known to have served - listing their maiden (and married) names, year of birth and death, age in 1914, academic qualifications and institutes, years of military service and medals awarded. Events are described by each theatre of war year by year. No details have been omitted of the incredibly difficult conditions, inordinately long continuous duty and deprivations many of these women saw during their service. The War’s end saw many of them continue their work well into 1919 as they wrestled with the pandemic Spanish Flu racing through both servicemen and civilians.
On 29 May 18, at the tail end of the German offensive, the Abbeville Hospital on the River Somme was bombed, killing nine WAAC members in the camp attached to No. 2 Army Supply Depot. The bravery and actions of eight women doctors and nurses that night earned Military Crosses, but as none were commissioned officers, the awards were downgraded to Military Medals.
There are in excess of 50 pages of biographical notes on all 26 women ‘book-ending’ the narrative. Comprehensive Notes and References have been provided as has a Bibliography and Index. A series of photographs of the doctors appear as an insert.
Thoughts of World War I bring the exploits of Australian men at Gallipoli and the Western Front, with as a possible afterthought, the campaign in the Sinai. Women to the Front, in no small way, opens up its reader’s mind to the amazing contribution made by a very small and dedicated group of women who have been virtually overlooked for 100 years. It truly deserves its place in every collection of Australian military history.
The RUSI - Vic Library thanks the publisher for providing this book for review.