Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Memoirs of First World War Nurses: Making Meaning of Traumatic Experiences: Connections (Critical Component)

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posted on 2021-11-13, 11:36 authored by Alterio, Maxine G

Note: The original hardbound and the original electronic copy of this thesis comprises a creative component in the form of a novel Lives We Leave Behind (LWLB), which Penguin Books (NZ) published in 2012 and Editions PRISMA (France) as Des Vies Derrière Soi in 2013, a connecting essay outlining the genesis for LWLB and clarifying my connections to nursing and to the First World War, and a critical component in the form of a research project that focuses on the memoirs of nurses who served in Egypt and/or France during the conflict. These original copies are deposited in the Permanent Restricted Archive. However, because this electronic version contains only the essay and the research project, and not the creative component, it is available through the Open Research Archive.  This version of the multi-genre and multi-voiced thesis comprises a reflective essay and a research project that examines the emotional legacies of the First World War for nurses and volunteers who attempted to make meaning of their experiences through the writing of memoirs. The essay situates me as author and researcher. The research project uses a narrative framework, as interpreted within the field of cultural history, to study the significance of physical, emotional and narrative proximity to trauma for the memoirists.   A Seven-stage Memoir Analysis Framework offers a visual representation of the findings which emerged in four areas: authorial intention and publishing trends, thematic content and cultural shifts, writing approaches and storytelling devices, and links between relationships and resilience. There were two main writing styles. Memoirists with publication as their main goal, and who released their memoirs during the war, adopted a dramatic, upbeat style that contained victorious tales which emulated the prevailing publishing trends and mirrored the preferences of the reading public. These memoirists ordered events, drew heavily on their imaginative abilities and rarely ruminated on their experiences. In contrast, the memoirists who published during the ‘war book boom’ of the late 20s through to the late 30s, and contributed to ‘literature of crisis’, adopted a more reflective writing approach and wrote of loss and disillusionment, key themes in a cultural shift that took place in post-war society. The primary aim of these memoirists was to honour the work of nursing.  Making meaning of experience occurred most successfully in the post-war memoirs. Memoirists used four strategies: ordering events, writing reflectively, forming connections, and drawing on storytelling devices. Memoirists from both groups ordered events and all but one drew on storytelling devices to entice readers into their narratives. However, apart from the aforementioned exception, only the post-war memoirists reflected on their physical, emotional and narrative proximity to trauma and considered the overall impact on their wellbeing. Each memoirist in this group kept her emotions under control in the workplace but in private spaces spoke with friends about fear, sorrow, anxiety and despair. Memoirists who lost a loved one or were separated from a close companion frequently developed painful physical ailments, which amplified their emotional distress. Those who formed meaningful relationships and empathetic emotional connections with patients, friends and colleagues enhanced their functional resilience and better managed the relentless rhythms of work, worry and weariness. Those who remained hopeful about the future were more likely to display markers of existential resilience after the war.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Creative Writing

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

International Institute of Modern Letters


Manhire, Bill; Wood, Pamela