By the time Daphne Commons reached Cairo in June 1915 with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZANS), her younger brother Sergeant Kenneth Commons had been dead a month. He had been killed in action at Gallipoli on 8 May 1915 during the second battle of Krithia.1
Kenneth Commons embarked in October 1914 with the Auckland Infantry Battalion, 3rd (Auckland) Company while Nurse Commons was one of the first 50 NZANS nurses who left on active service on 8 April 1915.2
Initially, the fate of 20-year-old Sergeant Commons was unknown. For months the family hoped he had been taken prisoner but by year’s end they knew he was among the fallen, although he was not officially declared `believed dead’ until January 1916.3
It was not unusual for multiple family members to serve and Daphne and Kenneth Commons were among 37 known sets of siblings in the Auckland University College Roll of Honour.4 She was a non-matriculated student at the College in 1909 while he attended in 1913 and 1914.5
Born in 1882, Daphne Rowena Commons was the eldest of seven children of William and Catherine Commons, nee Wrigley.6 When chosen for the NZANS in 1915 by its Matron-in-Chief Hester Maclean, Commons was aged 32 and a theatre sister at Auckland Hospital. She had passed the State examination in 1913, earning a Hospital medal for her efforts.7
Daphne Commons wrote home weekly during the more than four years she served overseas. Her wartime letters, held by the Alexander Turnbull Library, offer fascinating insights into her time in Egypt and England. They mix matter-of-fact reports of her work with accounts of her social activities and news about friends and colleagues she encountered while away. Among the Collegians she mentions were fellow Sisters Winifred Scott, Kathleen Cumming and Ruth Utting.8
In Cairo, Commons was based at the Citadel Military Hospital and then the NZ General Hospital at Pont de Koubbeh. She had long stints on ambulance duty and working in the isolation and infectious diseases wards and tents treating patients with typhoid and dysentery.9
Commons wrote, ‘These men from Gallipoli say the sickness there is worse than the bullets. So many die at Lemnos and on the hospital ships from dysentery. They say the smell over there and the flies are something dreadful; it’s most interesting when one has time to listen to them, which is not often...’.10
In June 1916, Commons’ unit was transferred from Egypt to Brockenhurst near Southampton, England to treat soldiers from the Western Front. Commons, who had been promoted to Sister, worked in the Balmer Lawn hotel section of the No. 1 General Hospital at Brockenhurst. The Hospital was spread across separate sites and eventually included specialist orthopaedics and neurological centres.11
Between periods of intense activity the Hospital’s staff enjoyed quieter periods, depending on the timing of campaigns and ship movements, which were sometimes delayed by enemy action.12 When off duty, Commons, like her colleagues, enjoyed every-day pleasures such as sight-seeing and taking leave in Brighton where there was a NZANS convalescent home.13
Hospital staff also ensured that, despite the war, traditions like Christmas continued to be celebrated. In 1917, Christmas was marked with concerts and special meals for staff and for patients well enough to take part. Commons recalled about 20 men in one ward at Balmer Lawn sitting at specially-installed tables to enjoy a meal of ‘… very nice cold turkey, potatoes and brussels, plum pudding, fruit salad, or jelly, and nuts; also a glass of stout or ale or lemonade’’.14
Further training and returning home
From 1917, the New Zealand Medical Corps started planning for the country’s post-war medical needs and some staff, including NZANS nurses, received specialist training in England.15 Commons took courses in spinal and infantile paralysis treatment and massage (physiotherapy), the latter at the NZ Convalescent Hospital at Hornchurch where she also worked for a time and where a School of Massage was opened in 1918.16
After arriving home in September 1919, Commons worked at the Trentham military hospital and then in the infantile paralysis ward at Rotorua Hospital, putting to good use her additional training.17 Discharged from military service on 1 February 1920, she was mentioned in despatches by Sir John Maxwell alongside other medical staff for the administration in Egypt and was `Brought to the notice of the Sec. of State for War for valuable services rend. to the U.S.A. in connection with the War'.18
By early 1921, she had returned to Auckland, prompted by her parents’ ill health.19 There, she was active in the New Zealand Trained Nurses Association but by the late 1920s she was once again nursing overseas, this time in the Solomon Islands.20
Daphne Commons died in Auckland on 7 December 1968, aged 87.21
Jo Birks, Special Collections
- ‘Commons, Daphne Rowna [sic] – WW1 22/20 – Army’, R21896476, Archives New Zealand, Wellington; ‘Commons, Kenneth Wrigley – WW1 12/63 – Army’, R21896477, Archives New Zealand, Wellington; The Kiwi: official organ of the Auckland University College, 11, 1916, p.20.
- ‘Commons, Kenneth Wrigley – WW1 12/63 – Army’; Hester Maclean, Nursing in New Zealand: history and reminiscences, Wellington, 1932, pp.143, 273.
- ‘Commons, Kenneth Wrigley – WW1 12/63 – Army’; Daphne Commons, 5 December 1915, MS-Papers-1582-10, Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL).
- Other known siblings in the AUC Roll of honour are: Albert and George Bagnall, both war casualties (WC); Frederick (WC) and Willis Airey; George and Trevor (WC) Alderton; Leslie and Walter Averill; Allan (WC) and Arthur Bailey; Arthur and Frederick Beasley; John (WC) and Thomas Bishop; Enoch and Erni (WC) Bond; Arthur and George Boswell; John and William Caradus; Nelson and Victor Clay; Frederick and Herbert (WC) Cox; James (WC) and Patrick Dromgool; David (WC) and Norman Duthie; Roy and Samuel Ellis; Arthur, Fritz and Tom Goulding; Charles and Walter (WC) Grierson; Colin (WC) and John Hally; Athol (WC) and Bryce Hart; Ernest and Reuben Hayter; Alban (WC), Ernest (WC) and Gainor Jackson; Alton, Victor and William (WC) Johns; Neil and Thomas (WC) Macky; Charles and Louis Mark; Alfred and Henry Marshall; Ivon and Murdoch (WC) McDonald; Clifford and Oliver Nicholson; Athol and Eric Ohlson; Cyril and Nesbit Snedden; John and Ralph Somers; Robert and Tristram Speedy; Harold and Norman Spencer; Acland and Norman Thomas; Alan and Bertram Wallace (both WC); Francis and William (WC) Willis; Clarence and Ralph Worley and Louis and Solomon Ziman.
- ‘Commons, Daphne R.’, A.U.C. roll of honour, 1914 - 1920. MSS & Archives E-2, Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services; ‘Commons, Kenneth Wrigley’, A.U.C. roll of honour, 1914 - 1920. MSS & Archives E-2, Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services.
- Births, deaths and marriages online, Department of Internal Affairs.
- Kai Tiaki: the journal of the nurses of New Zealand (KT), VI, 3, July 1913, p.96; KT, VII, 1, January 1914, p.18.
- Daphne Commons, MS-Papers-1582-09 - 1582-15, Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL); Daphne Commons, 5 August 1915 and 7 October 1915, MS-Papers-1582-10, ATL; 2 January 1917 and 2 July 1917, MS-Papers-1582-13, ATL.
- Daphne Commons, MS-Papers-1582-10, ATL; A.D. Carbery, The New Zealand medical service in the Great War, 1914-1918: based on official documents, Auckland, 1924, p.60.
- Daphne Commons, 7 August 1915, MS-Papers-1582-10, ATL.
- ‘Commons, Daphne Rowna [sic] – WW1 22/20 – Army’; Carbery, pp.266, 370-371.
- Carbery, pp.370-371.
- Daphne Commons, 12 January 1918, MS-Papers-1582-14, ATL; D.G. McGavin, The War Effort of New Zealand, Auckland, 1923, p.126; Daphne Commons, July 1916, MS-Papers-1582-12, ATL.
- Daphne Commons, 28 December 1917, MS-Papers-1582-13, ATL.
- Carbery, pp.485, 488.
- ‘Commons, Daphne Rowna [sic] – WW1 22/20 – Army’; Carbery, p.488.
- ‘Commons, Daphne Rowna [sic] – WW1 22/20 – Army’.
- Evening Post, 22 June 1916, p.7; ‘Commons, Daphne Rowna [sic] – WW1 22/20 – Army’.
- KT, XIII, 1, 1920, p.17; KT, XIV, 2, 1921, p.101.
- KT, XVII, 1, 1924, p.12; KT, XVI, 2, 1927, p.92.
- Headstone for Daphne Commons, Symonds Street Cemetery.