War Memorials in NSW and Women’s Service

War memorials in NSW reflect the long and evolving history of Australian women’s defence service from the nurses of the Boer War to contemporary women veterans who serve in roles across the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

Since Federation, Australian women have served in many roles such as nurses and war workers, in the Women’s Auxiliary Services and the Land Army, and more recently with the regular services of the ADF including combat roles. The nature of women’s service has shifted with the circumstances of different conflicts, expanding opportunities for women in the defence force, and changing attitudes towards gender roles in society. With these changes, the commemoration of women’s service has also evolved to reflect the importance, complexity and diversity of women’s experiences.

In the Boer War and the First World War, women served at home and overseas as nurses. The 14 members of the New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve who served in the Boer War are recognised on the South African War Memorial in Sydney. In the First World War, approximately  2,300 women served in the Australian Army Nursing Service, and about 1 in 10 Australian First World War memorials record the names of women who served.[1] For example, the Adamstown War Memorial acknowledges the contribution of Sister Jean Douglas who served in the Australian Army Nursing Service during the conflict. Returned nurses are also listed on the Macarthur Park First World War Memorial Gateway, including Sister Minnie West who was awarded the Greek Medal for Military Merit. In these early conflicts, women also supported the soldiers who went away to fight through fundraisers, providing comfort packages, and through organisations such as the Red Cross. In 1937, returned servicemen of the 9th Brigade erected a plaque to express appreciation of the women war-workers during the First World War. The Women War Workers plaque is located in the Newcastle City Hall.

During the Second World War, more Australian women served than had done in the First World War. Around 13,000 women served as nurses and others joined the officially organised Women’s auxiliary services[2]. Places such as the Australian Women’s Army Service Memorial Tree and the New South Wales Second World War Women’s Services War Memorial have been established to specifically recognise the contribution of women who enlisted to these services during the war. Women also served in organisations aimed at supporting food production and farming including the Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) and the Women’s Agricultural Security Production Service (WASPS). In 1963, the Port Macquarie WAPS Memorial Clock was established to commemorate these women’s contribution to the war effort. Women also entered the workforce, to replace men recruited into the armed forces, often doing jobs traditionally viewed as 'men's' work.   

Around 43 Australian Army nurses served in Vietnam between 1966 and 1973.  A further 210 Australian women went to Vietnam as civilian nurses, as part of volunteer medical teams.[3] 521 Australian service personnel are listed as having died during the Vietnam War including Lieutenant Barbara Black who served in the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps. Lieutenant Black died from Leukaemia in 1971 and  is commemorated at the Clarence Valley Vietnam War Memorial, Grafton.

Women have served with the regular forces since the late 1970s (Army) and early 1980s (RAAF and RAN). For many years there were restrictions on the roles women could have in the ADF. In 2013, the ADF began to lift restrictions on employment opportunities for women and since 2018, all Australians can apply and be enlisted into any role within ADF if they can meet all of the demands of the role.[4] Today, war memorials recognise the breadth of women’s service. The Anzac Memorial’s Centenary Exhibition includes interviews with women veterans of recent conflicts and peacekeeping operations such as Lieutenant Colonel Philippa Weiland who was deployed in the Iraq War in 2005 to initiate the first mental health screenings for Australian service personnel and in Afghanistan as part of the Critical Incident Response Team.

We will remember them

#MyServiceMyWay #IDW2021 #ChooseToChallenge


[1] Ken Inglis, Sacred Places/ War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008), p. 177

[2] Ken Inglis, Sacred Places, p. 346

[3] Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Australian Women in War, March 2020, p. 25, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/resources/media/file/australian-women-war-service-courage-and-care

[4] Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, ‘Landmark moment for women in the ADF’, Wednesday 24 October 2018, https://pmc.gov.au/news-centre/office-women/landmark-moment-women-adf