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September 24, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Daphne Commons

Meet Daphne Commons. She’s your typical student, bright and bubbly and excited to see the world. She’s studying abroad, trying to get her diploma in massage therapy, worrying about passing her exams and getting good grades, and which hot young doctor she could go out with. Oh, and also World War One’s going on.
No, this isn’t some shitty blurb for a YA novel. Daphne actually existed. She lived through World War One, volunteering and studying while also taking care of sick and wounded soldiers at the No. 1 New Zealand General Hospital, Brockenhurst, England. We know all of this because she wrote it down. She sent letters to her family every week of the war, sometimes more than once a week. And National Libraries has every single letter.
Now, unless you’re a major history nerd like me, you’re probably thinking “Oh, ok. So what?” which, like, fair. But it’s a pretty huge deal for us to have this wealth of archival goodness, especially from a period of time where losing a letter in the postal service was so common that people often repeated themselves in letters, just in case.
So picture it. Here’s this woman, she’s just turned 32, and she’s just graduated from nursing school with grades so good she gets a fancy medal. She was officially working as an entry level nurse at Auckland Hospital. To progress further, she would have to study while working full time. And on top of all this, I remind you, the world is at war for the first time ever. So what’s an unmarried patriotic lady to do? Sign up, obviously.
Daphne was sent to Cairo with a brigade of 50 other volunteer nurses, as part of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZAS). This service was only open to unmarried women, by the way. The reason? They didn’t want any mothers to die and abandon their kids at home. Yeah, I know this is a bit gruesome to read while you’re pretending to pay attention to your lecture, but you chose to read Salient during class time, my dude. You signed up for this.
The NZAS were deployed to Cairo in 1915, during which time Daphne was mentioned by name several times in newspapers in NZ. I like to think it’s because of her excellent gossiping skills, but likely it was due to her brilliant nursing abilities. It was also probably to encourage more single ladies to volunteer, because it wasn’t like they could do conscription for the nursing service. Between her daily tasks as a nurse and her (rather limited) social life, Daphne continued studying her specialisation in massage therapy. She was taught by her matron and senior medical staff at the hospital where she worked or at the nurses’ residence. Daphne was occasionally seconded to other hospitals while on deployment, to get experience with specialist cases such as infantile paralysis. Her hard work and busy life did not go unnoticed, and prior to her move in 1916 she was promoted from “nurse” to “sister”, an enviable rank for female medical staff.
Daphne moved to England in 1916, which is where she remained until 1919, when she finally returned home. She made a life in the small village of Brockenhurst, often wondering where she’d end up after the war. She wanted to return to Auckland, but there was a rumour her class would end up in Rotorua, which she was super less than pleased with.
Daphne wrote about the war, because, well, duh. She couldn’t escape from it. She also wrote about all the hot gossip. All of it. From the mildly interesting to the straight up Tea, Daphne knew it all, and wrote home about it. She even knew what was going on at home, thanks to her mum replying in kind. She wrote about news, and her friends, her classes, even her quick holiday she took with friends to “study” in peace at a spa resort. Which, same, Daphne. Same. She also wrote about worrying whether she passed the written part of her exam on musculature, but then mentioning that she did great on the practical so that probably pulled her grade up, right? Which honestly, have you ever been a student if you haven’t tried to work out the minimum grade you needed in the exam to pass the course?
Reading Daphne’s letters is really intimate. You’re peeking in on the day to day life of someone you’ve never even met, sort of like reading their diary. She wrote about pleasant gossip a lot, probably because all around her she was seeing the worst side of humanity. But it’s really refreshing to get this take on the war that isn’t *blood death gore horror* non-stop. It’s her talking about things like what she’s going to do for Christmas, in October of 1918, and wondering if the war will be over by the following Christmas. She didn’t know what was going to happen, at all.
Which makes finding her November 10th 1918 letter so excellent.
“When I wrote last week I knew things were going well, but still I did not think they would be quite so near the end today. It seems almost certain that Germany will sign the armistice by tomorrow – even if not she will have to do so very soon…
I can just imagine how grateful all of you at home are feeling, even though there is a difficult time ahead, and peace will bring with it any problems.”
And truly, the time was full of many problems for Daphne, as two paragraphs later, we see this gem of a topic shift:
“I am sorry I am trying for these two exams together, though of course if by any happy chance I get through I shall be very glad. I really have not time to work properly for both and when I am at my electricity feel I ought to be at the anatomy, and when I am at the anatomy, feel I am neglecting the electricity.”

Daphne Commons went on to receive her massage therapy diploma in 1921 back in Auckland. She continued working as a nurse after the war until her retirement and eventual death in 1968.
Daphne’s November 10 letter is on display at the Alexander Turnbull Gallery, Level One of National Library, in an exhibition entitled “Goodbye to All That: Armistice 1918” developed in conjunction with VUW postgraduate students from the Museum and Heritage Studies programme.
Lenette Breytenbach is a postgraduate student pursuing a masters degree in Museum and Heritage Practice in the school of Art History.


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