Angels of War: Remembering Australian Army Nurses

Australian Army Nurses in Conflicts

Header image: Nurses partaking in a sing-along with the piano while en route to their base of operations, World War II. Courtesy of State Library Victoria

1899-1902: The Boer War

Beginning with the New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve (NSWANSR), the Boer War was the first occasion in which Australian nurses served abroad for military purpose. As this was before Australia was united in 1901, each colony individually sent a reserve of nurses to South Africa where they worked with the British to aid wounded soldiers. New South Wales was the first to allow this, with other colonies following their lead shortly, despite some backlash against allowing women to go to war. After the war, the various reserves were brought together as one in the Australian Army Nursing Service, established in 1903.

Portrait of Bessie Pocock, one of the 14 nurses to serve with the NSWANSR during the Boer War.
Portrait of Bessie Pocock, one of the 14 nurses to serve with the NSWANSR during the Boer War. Courtesy of The Australian War Memorial
A nurse and soldier stand next to each other on a wooden deck, both in uniform.
An unnamed nurse and soldier in Egypt, away from the battlefront. Courtesy of State Library Victoria

1914-1918: World War I

Over 2861 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), now much larger than when it had been established, served overseas in the First World War. An additional 423 served as support in Australia. Nurses were spread across Europe and Asia, working at numerous military and mobile hospitals established to support soldiers on the battlefield. Their work did not end after the war finished, however- many of the soldiers who fought needed care and recovery assistance in the years following, which was aided greatly by the work of the AANS.

A nurse and soldier are standing next to each other, in uniform. The soldier’s left arm is in a sling.
A nurse and wounded soldier in Egypt. Courtesy of State Library Victoria
A soldier and nurse stand side by side, holding some purchased items in their hands, with a canopied street and urban buildings in the background behind them.
A soldier and nurse wandering down the side of a street in Egypt. Courtesy of State Library Victoria
A nurse stands doing a mock salute while wearing a soldier’s uniform, while in a room in a hospital.
Nurse dressed up as a soldier while off-duty, Egypt. Courtesy of State Library Victoria

1939-1945: World War II

3477 nurses joined the AANS to serve in World War II, an organisation which was recognised as part of the Australian Military Forces in 1943 in response to their significant efforts and contributions during wartimes. Soon, these nurses were joined by the newly established Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) in 1940, and the Royal Australian Navy Nursing Service (RANNS) in 1942. Despite this, the AANS remained as the largest sector of nurses working overseas throughout the war. After the war, in 1948, the AANS were recognised officially as the Royal Australian Army Nursing Service.

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1950-1953: Korean War

153 Australian nurses served in the Korean War, as members of the RAANS- which later became the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC)- and the RAAFNS. These nurses served at the British Commonwealth Medical Zone Mobile Surgical Hospital in Seoul, Korea, or in Japan; working as either part of a line of medical transport through Iwakuni taking soldiers from the war zone, or at the British Commonwealth General Hospital in Kure where these soldiers were transported to. The RAAFNS assisted in preparing the wounded for air travel on this route, and accompanied many of them on the flight- taking over 12,762 wounded individuals over three years from 1950-1953.

Two soldiers are lying down on canvas beds in an aircraft to the left of the image, with a nurse to their right writing down on a notepad and assessing them.
Air evacuation of wounded soldiers during the Korean War. In Picture: Sister M. A. Monger (Perth, WA), L/Cpl Spencer (Ballarat, VIC), and Pte Childlow (Wolverhampton, England). Courtesy of State Library Victoria
A soldier is lying in a canvas bed to the left of the image, with a nurse to his right adjusting the pillow beneath his head.
Sister Lou Marshall (RAAFNS) preparing a soldier for evacuation to Japan. Seoul, South Korea 1951. Courtesy of The Australian War Memorial
Two nurses sit next to each other by the end of a table with operating equipment upon it, and a cupboard in the background.
Sister Helen McIntyre, Royal Canadian Army Nursing Corps (left), and Sister Betty Crocker (RAANC), in the operating theatre at the British Commonwealth General Military Hospital, 1952. Courtesy of The Australian War Memorial
Two nurses are standing next to each other outside while next to a building, dressed in thick clothing to keep warm.
Sister Natalie Oldham (RAAFNS) (right) and Sister Betty Crocker (RAANC) (left) in their Winter outfits, Seoul, Korea 1953. Courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

1950-1960: Malayan Emergency

The involvement of Australian army personnel and medical personnel occurred at different times throughout the Malayan Emergency. In 1955, when an estimated 33 Australian nurses from the RAANC departed to work across various British Military Hospitals throughout the remainder of the conflict. Unfortunately, due to poor record-keeping of this event, much of the exact information, numbers and level of involvement of the Australian nurses remains unknown. It is believed that a number of the nurses continued their stay through the end of the conflict into the early 1960’s, supporting the remainder of the British and Australian forces there.

A line of nurses are docking a ship, waving to the crowded dock around them.
Australian nurses embark to Malaya (now Malaysia), 1955. Courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

1965-1973: Vietnam War

343 Australian nurses served throughout the Vietnam War; 200 civilian nurses, 100 nurses from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), and 43 nurses from the RAANC. The RAAFNS was involved as part of the RAAF, though would be later disbanded for the second time after the war in 1977. The RAAF nurses were involved with the transport of wounded soldiers back to Australia, taking them from Vũng Tàu, Biên Hòa or Saigon to the hospital at RAAF Butterworth in Penang. From there, they would be transported back home to a number of hospitals across Australia. The RAANC served at both the Eighth Field Ambulance and the First Australian Field Hospital in Vung Tau, South Vietnam. Conditions were rough, some nurses being based in tents and huts, and little to no access to luxuries like air conditioning. Australian nurses continued to serve in Vietnam, however, through to the end of the war.
A child is sat up on a bench, looking down while a nurse to the right of him tends to a wound on his knee.
Lt. Pamela Matthews, Australian Medical Nursing Service, tending to a child in South Vietnam, 1968. Courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

2001-2021: Afghanistan War

Australian nurses by the modern era have often been incorporated into the ranks of the forces they worked alongside, rather than being kept as separate branches. These nurses are now a medical division of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), working with doctors and other medical personnel. These medical forces served in Afghanistan until the evacuation of troops in 2021.