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Why every Australian woman should know the name "Maud Butler"

women in war
Maud Butler, aged 16, in a photo that appeared in the Farmer and Settler. (Photo: Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial; Image P04683.010)

Maud Butler was a 16-year-old girl living in NSW’s Blue Mountains when World War I broke out.

The teenaged waitress didn’t want to stay at home while the young men around her went to the front line– so she took radical action.

“I had a terrible desire to help in some way, but I was only a girl,” Maud later told reporters. “I decided to do something for myself.”

Maud’s crafty plan was so remarkable, it’s now being researched  by historian Professor Victoria Haskins, who has received a grant to research women and war.

Writing for the ABC along with an ABC journalist, Haskins recounts how the fiesty teenager visited the dock at Sydney’s Woolloomooloo Bay in December 1915 to see the troopships there, then resolved to return dressed the next day disguised as a male officer.

She then had her hair chopped off and set about obtaining an Australian Imperial Force uniform.

“I bought the tunic and breeches from a soldier and the puttees [cloth wound around the leg for protection] in George Street and the cap in Bathurst Street,” she said.

“I could get no regulation tan boots that I could wear. I tried everywhere, but it was of no use,” she said. “So I had to chance it.”

Dressed as a male soldier, Maud returned to the dock and stowed away on a troopship — hiding overnight before creeping out to mingle with the soldiers, as the ABC reports.

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Maud played cards with the real officers and subsisted on lollies she’d brought with her, hatching a plan to break into the ship’s kitchen.

women in war
Maud Butler aboard the troopship. (Photo: Australian War Memorial P02848.002)

But her game was up when a suspicious officer spotted her non-regulation boots and demanded identification.

“It was these wretched black boots,” Maud said. “I could kick these boots round the room for vexation.”

The officer hadn’t worked out she was female — but Maud confessed the whole story when he requested she undergo a doctor’s examination.

The captain said she would have to board the next passenger liner home.

“Then I cried for the first time. It was hard luck, wasn’t it, now?” Maud said. “The captain was a jolly fellow. He asked me why I didn’t get tan boots and that made me cry more.”

Speaking to reporters after she was returned to land, Maud said she aspired to work as a nurse at the front line.

She said she intended to return to Sydney and “find some way of learning the work and joining the Red Cross service”.

“It is a pity if they cannot find a way for me to be of some service to the poor wounded men,” she said. “I learned first aid and was reckoned very good at it,” she said.

“I shall be at the front yet, you’ll see.”

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