Maud Butler was only 16 years old when she first tried to get to the front – and if it hadn’t been for her boots she might have made it too.
The girl from Kurri Kurri, in rural New South Wales, climbed on board a troopship waiting at the Woolloomooloo docks in Sydney at night, disguised as a soldier, and was discovered two days later out at sea.
Her story caused a sensation at the time.
Described as “a clear-skinned, rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed type of healthy country girl,” Maud gave a lively interview to reporters a few days after her return to Melbourne on Christmas Day, 1915.
She told them that she had “had a terrible desire to help in some way, but I was only a girl. … I decided to do something for myself.”
Maud explained how she had got hold of an AIF uniform in bits and pieces, and had her portrait taken in it.
On the day before she stowed away she went down to Woolloomooloo Bay to see a transport there, and met an officer, telling him she had friends on the ship. “I made up my mind to see him again, but as a soldier next time,” she told the reporters.
She went straight to the barber’s and had her hair cut short, then headed back the next evening through the Domain to where the ship was lying at the wharf, a sentry on guard.
“Well,” I said to myself, “here goes for up the line. It was a hand over hand job, and I didn’t think the boats were so tall. I got up after a struggle and crawled to a lifeboat,” she told reporters from the Farmer and Settler.
‘Wretched black boots’ gave Maud away
The ship left that night, heaving through the rollers between North and South Head, with Maud tucked up tightly inside the small lifeboat swinging at the davits.
The next day she crept out of her hiding place and mingled
with the soldiers playing cards, and no-one suspected a thing.
With no place for her at the mess, and nothing to eat but some lollies she had brought with her, she made up her mind to raid the kitchen the next night.
But the following day she was discovered, when a suspicious officer asked for her identification disk.
“It was these wretched black boots,” Maud said.
“That was the trouble all through. I bought the tunic and breeches from a soldier, and the putties in George-street, and the cap in Bathurst-street.”
“But I could get no regulation tan boots that I could wear. I tried everywhere, but it was of no use. So I had to chance it.”
“I could kick these boots round the room for vexation.”
The officer hadn’t actually realised she was female, though, and the captain was prepared to let the stowaway continue on to the front with them. But when Maud was told she would have to pass a doctor’s examination, she confessed.
The captain told her he would have her put on a passing passenger liner back home as soon as he could.
“Then I cried for the first time; it was hard luck, wasn’t it, now?” she said.
“The captain was a jolly fellow. He asked me why I didn’t get tan boots, and that made me cry more.”
According to Maud, the captain had told her that “if the secret could have been kept,” he would have let her stay on.
“But it was all over the ship in a minute, and there must have been 500 snapshots taken of me.”
Maud next had the rare experience of being “transshipped” at sea: going down the side of the troop ship on a ladder to get into a small rowboat under escort to take her up the other vessel.
“I had a great joke going up the ship’s side,” she told the reporters.
“We were nearly at the top when I said to the officer above me, ‘You don’t speak [like that] to the girl you took for a walk up George street!’ He nearly fell off with the shock.”
There weren’t a lot of opportunities for young women like Maud in those days.
The reporters had believed Maud wanted to join her older brother in Egypt, but in fact, he hadn’t enlisted at that point.
She told them that she had hoped to get to the front as a nurse, and had come down to Sydney from Kurri Kurri “because I would never learn to be a nurse there.”
In Sydney she had tried to join through the Red Cross, without success. No doubt she could have become involved in the organisation’s charitable activities at home, but they weren’t going to send her overseas.
There were already hundreds of young women, both trained nurses and Red Cross Voluntary Aids, waiting to get the front at that stage. Some even paid their own way.
That wasn’t an option for Maud, the daughter of a coal-miner raising his children alone, and who now supported herself by waitressing in a boarding-house.
Maud was not disheartened, however. She told the reporters that she intended to go to Sydney that night, 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. I learned first aid, and was reckoned very good at it. I shall be at the front yet, you’ll see.”
(A version of this story was also presented on the ABC News website, in collaboration with journalist Jennifer King, on 19 September 2014.)