Sybil Irving, founder of the Australian Women's Army Service, was born at Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, on 25 February 1897. Her father was an Army officer; his many postings meant the family moved frequently and Sybil went to schools in most Australian states.
During the First World War, Irving served in a Voluntary Aid Detachment; in 1924 she became Secretary of the Girl Guides Association of Victoria. She was also involved in setting up the Victorian Society for Crippled Children, for which she worked as a volunteer for the rest of her life. In 1940 she left the Girl Guides Association to take up the post of Assistant-Secretary of the Victorian Red Cross Society. After just one year, however, Irving resigned, having accepted an invitation to establish and administer the Australian Women's Army Service. Her appointment began in October 1941 and she embarked on a round-Australia trip to recruit officers. The following January she was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Having then been promoted to colonel in February 1943, Irving oversaw an organisation that, at its peak in 1944, comprised more than 20,000 women. Working across a range of professions, the Australian Women's Army Service gave many women the chance to engage in work normally denied them. Irving remained in charge until after the war, resigning on 31 December 1946. Despite her many years of military service, Irving strongly believed that women should not bear arms. She was an adherent of the view that women would become the mothers of children who would create the postwar Australia and based her command of the Australian Women's Army Service in large measure on her experience with the Girl Guides.
The year after her resignation, Irving became General Secretary of the Victorian Division of the Red Cross and in 1951 was given the rank of honorary colonel in the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps, successor to the Australian Women's Army Corps. After resigning from the Red Cross in 1959, Irving became an honorary life member of the society. In 1961, while on a long holiday in Europe, she resigned from the Army. On her return to Australia she worked as a consultant to the Victorian Old Peoples' Welfare Organisation, retiring in 1971.
Irving died in South Yarra, Melbourne, on 28 March 1973. Her friends raised funds for memorials to Irving that were duly unveiled in every Australian capital city between 1977 and 1979.