Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Beyond the Wards: Exploring the personal accounts of three New Zealand nurses during the Great War in Egypt

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posted on 2021-11-15, 17:50 authored by Hannah ClarkHannah Clark

Drawing upon the primary accounts of three Great War nurses – Mildred Salt, Louisa Higginson and Daphne Rowena Commons – who all served in the Mediterranean and Middle East, this thesis explores the theme of identity – gender identity, colonial identity and ‘tourist identity’. I argue that the nurses’ writing challenges the popular perception of nursing as a traumatic loss of innocence, which has been largely drawn from published works of volunteer nurses rather than professionals. The three nurses in this thesis spent very little time, if any, documenting what they witnessed in the wards. Their entries dispute the romantic notions presented in popular literature or propaganda posters used throughout the empire, which presented the nurses as young, innocent and beautiful and standing at the bedside of a wounded soldier.  The first chapter examines the nurses’ identity as tourists. Overseas travel was a new experience for these nurses, and their experiences of the ‘Home’ culture of London and the exoticism of Egypt feature frequently in their diary entries and letters. Their responses were diverse, but common themes emerge. Many of the tensions the nurses experienced stemmed from their unusual position in the empire as women voters with a pioneering heritage. The second chapter will examine the two perceptions of ‘colonial’ – the positive and negative perception. The former was used by the British as a means of putting New Zealand nurses in their place. The latter formed when the nurses were treating New Zealand patients in hospital, acting as a physical and mental connection to home. The third chapter asks how the greater autonomy women possessed, due to their colonial lifestyle, influenced the nurses’ campaign for their right to serve overseas. The fourth, and final, chapter will explore how the nurses negotiated the traditional notions of womanhood whilst in the masculine environment of war. Not only did they face opposition from some military officials who believed war was no place for women, they observed and critiqued the behaviour of other women.  Through exploring the diaries and letters of three New Zealand nurses, this thesis provides a more complex view of the experiences of almost 600 New Zealand professional nurses who were stationed overseas during the war.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Hunter, Kate; McAloon, Jim