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An unbroken connection? New Zealand families, duty, and the First World War

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posted on 2021-11-14, 11:13 authored by Patrick, Rachel

This thesis explores the topic of families during the First World War through a single New Zealand family and its social networks. The family at the core of the thesis, the Stewarts, were a well-to-do Dunedin family who moved in the most exclusive circles of colonial society. As members of the elite, and as prominent figures in the leadership of wartime patriotic organisations, they conceived of their wartime role as one of public benevolence and modelling patriotic virtue for others. Yet, like countless other families, their personal lives were shattered by the war. Drawing upon the extensive records left behind by the Stewart family, as well as associated archives, the thesis advances a number of larger arguments.  It is the overarching claim of this study that families – in their emotional, material and symbolic manifestations – formed an integral part of the war experience and provide a significant way of understanding this global event and its devastating human consequences. The Stewart family’s extensive surviving archive of personal correspondence provides a window into the innermost emotions, beliefs and values of the family’s individual members. Episodes in their wartime lives shape the wider thesis themes: the impact of family separations, grief and bereavement, religious faith, duty and patriotism, philanthropy, the lingering shadow of war disability – and the inflection of all of these by gender and class. Analysing the letters that the family exchanged with other correspondents demonstrates the embeddedness of family in larger networks of association, as well as identifying the aspects of their world view they shared with others in their predominantly middle- and upper-class circles. The records of patriotic organisations members of the family were associated with provide a means of examining how they translated their private beliefs into public influence.  The continual interplay between mobility and distance forms another of the study’s substantive themes. The distance created by the geographical separation between battlefronts and homefronts was a defining feature of the war for families in far-flung dominions such as New Zealand. But distance could be overcome by mobility: through the flow of things, money and people. Such movements, the thesis argues, blurred the boundaries between home and front. Thus, the correspondence members of the Stewart family exchanged during the war enabled them to sustain intimate ties across distance and helped them to mediate their own particular experience of wartime bereavement. The informal personal and kinship networks sustained by the female members of the family formed an important constituent of wartime benevolence, providing a conduit for the flow of information, goods and financial aid across national boundaries. During the war, the leadership of women’s patriotic organisations promoted an essentialised vision of feminine nature to justify their organisations’ separate existence and to stake a claim for women’s wider participation in the war effort. In doing so, they drew upon enlarged notions of kinship to argue that their female volunteers were uniquely qualified to bridge the distances of war, and to bring the emotional and practical comforts of home to frontline soldiers.  An alternative perspective to the Stewart family’s story of war is provided in this thesis through counterpoints from casefiles of the Otago Soldiers’ and Dependents’ Welfare Committee, with which the Stewarts were involved. Here, the economic interdependence and mutual reliance of working-class families is laid bare in ways that differ markedly from the experience of the Stewarts, but which nevertheless underscores the centrality of the family as an institution for people of all social backgrounds. For some families the geographical separation imposed by the exigencies of war proved insurmountable. The very different kinds of families in this thesis illustrate that whether through their successes, or the sometimes dire consequences of their failures, families are nonetheless indispensable to understanding the First World War.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Hunter, Kate; McAloon, Jim