As we commemorate Armistice Day, it is time to put a group of NZ women into our national story of World War I, writes historian and author Jane Tolerton.

Blanche Butler cut quite the fashionable figure in pre-World War I Auckland.

She was beautiful and fashionable, with her dark hair piled up and the white blouse and long dark skirt of the professional "new woman". As principal of Auckland Girls' Grammar, she was, according to the school's history, an inspiring young teacher who loved maths and covered the blackboard with calculations.

In 1914, when WWI broke out, she was appointed to the Auckland Mayor's Committee and led the girls' branch of the Victoria League, writing patriotic plays as wartime fundraisers for the empire-oriented organisation for women.

Then, two years later, Butler went to Britain and worked on shell trajectories at the Admiralty.

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Newspaper articles reported that when she landed in Britain in 1916 Butler worked there with her old London University professor.

They also said she worked at the Woolwich Arsenal, the huge munitions factory town, where women graduates took the role of scientific demonstrators, showing workers the functions of the parts of the shells they were making.

But neither the Auckland Girls' Grammar school magazine at the time nor the 1982 history of the college mentioned the nature of Butler's work. The 550 members of the NZ Army Nursing Service (NZANS) who served overseas are represented in our histories of the war. However, other New Zealand women who worked in the war effort overseas - and their number probably exceeded the NZANS total - rate few mentions. When remembered at all, they are often said to have gone to look after family members but many specifically went to Britain to work in the war effort.

Others, such as Auckland sisters Beatrix and Agatha Dobie, who were in the Northern Hemisphere before war broke out, were quick to join the war effort. In August 1914, they were in the Bay of Biscay in France. Beatrix Dobie was an artist - she and Kitty Mair, whose family came from Whangarei, and Esther Barker, from Geraldine, were on a painting holiday - while music student Agatha Dobie had accompanied them.

The Dobie sisters made shirts for French soldiers before returning to England but, the following year, Beatrix Dobie, Mair and Barker signed up as volunteer nurse aides (VADs) and sailed for Malta in August to look after sick and wounded soldiers from Gallipoli.

Mair wrote to her father that one of the first she saw was "a New Zealander, very, very ill, but he brightened up when I told him I am a New Zealander also. It was his last smile, for, after tending him a while, he passed away in my arms, poor lad, while I held him up to get breath. He was a hopeless case from the first, as the lower portion of his spine had been shot away. It made me very unhappy - my first case - yet so thankful at being here."

Alice Scott set up a hostel and convalescent home for Maori soldiers in London.
Alice Scott set up a hostel and convalescent home for Maori soldiers in London.

Dr Grace Russell, from Auckland, was one of at least 25 New Zealand women doctors who worked overseas during the war. Russell was a quarantine doctor at Port Said and had just been put in charge of maternity training in Egypt when war broke out. Her nurses and premises were commandeered after the Gallipoli landing and as the wounded arrived in Egypt, she cast around for a role. The British military medical chief sent her to the Egyptian Army Hospital, which had been lent to New Zealand.

She was joined by Dr Agnes Bennett, whom she had met in Wellington, and who was the first woman to be allowed into any military medical corps in the British Empire; Bennett did not receive a commission and was pushed out when the stationary hospital arrived in June, by which time Russell's civilian bosses had reclaimed her.

Alice Scott, who set up a hostel and convalescent home for Maori soldiers in London, settled in Auckland after the war. The daughter of a Ngapuhi woman, she was born on Norfolk Island, married Bill Scott, who had put telegraph wires on to the island, and moved to London with him. Already a mother of two, she had a third child during WWI but that didn't stop her looking after Maori soldiers in her home, supported by the New Zealand War Contingent Association (NZWCA) and the NZ Expeditionary Force.

When Scott died in 1961, a Ngati Porou elder wrote to her son: "We are sorry for the loss of a lovable mother not only for you but also for those of the Maori Battalion she knew in the 1914-18 War." Her name is in large capital letters under those of the men on the memorial board at St Mary's Church, Tikitiki.

When the NZ Division arrived in France from Egypt in April 1916, a number of NZ women were already there. Some were nurses who had joined British military nursing services; others were British Red Cross workers, such as Bessie Ernest, who attended St John Ambulance Association classes in Auckland pre-war.

Ernest received a Royal Red Cross nursing award in 1918 but NZANS head Hester Maclean was scathing: "This young lady, excellent as her services undoubtedly have been, is not a nurse, and it is not certain that she has been doing nursing at all". However, VADs had to take on nurses' duties because of shortages. While the British nursing heads were grateful, Maclean's attitude meant NZ helpers did not attract attention to their war work, which was under-reported then and is almost forgotten today.

Kitty Mair painting in Malta.
Kitty Mair painting in Malta.

Writer Jane Mander finished her best-known novel The Story of a New Zealand River while working for the American Red Cross in New York. Mander had a managerial job, supervising hundreds of workrooms on Manhattan Island. Her 1926 novel The Besieging City was based on her experiences with the Red Cross.

She noted those returning from war were expected to fit back into their "old hole"; one woman said no one had asked her about her two years in France, but they wanted to know what the latest perfume was. It was an experience shared by other returnees, including servicemen.

All had been told they had served in "a war to end all wars" but a number of the NZ women who played an active role in WWI found themselves back in Europe 21 years later as WWII broke out. Aucklander Dr Gladys Montgomery worked overseas in both world wars and the Spanish Civil War in-between.

We commemorate the 99th anniversary of Armistice Day today and it's time to put these NZ women into our national story of WWI - where they should have been all along.

Lowdown

Make Her Praises Heard Afar: New Zealand Women Overseas in World War One

by Jane Tolerton

(Booklovers Books and available from Potton & Burton, $60)