In October 1915 the then infant New Zealand Army Nursing Service suffered its greatest ever disaster, then or since. A torpedo struck the transport ship SS Marquette, leading to the death of 10 nurses and to great feats of bravery and tenacity by the 26 surviving nurses. FIONA CASSIE draws on nursing histories to recreate the tragic tale.
It was a cool morning as the troop carrier Marquette steamed into the Gulf of Salonika on 23 October 2015.
The ship had left Port Said, Egypt, a few days earlier with 600 British troops, more than 500 mules, tons of ammunition and the 130-plus members of the No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital on board. The Marquette was expected to dock in its destination, the city of Salonika on Greece’s Aegean coast, by midday after a sunny and calm crossing of the Mediterranean that not even rumours of lifeboat drills, German U-boats, or the Balkan war zone awaiting them could mar.
Around 9am that morning, nurses Mary Grigor and Jeannie Sinclair were walking briskly along the deck with hospital colleague Captain Isaacs. Most of the 36 nursing sisters were below deck – including Fanny Abbott with her stockings off, having a morning wash in her slippers – when the trio saw a “green line” whizzing through the sea.
They wondered aloud whether it was a torpedo just before it struck the Marquette’s starboard, close to the bow. The ship quickly dipped in the bow and started to list heavily to port.
What happened in the next few minutes (some say it took just seven and others up to 15 minutes for the Marquette to sink) is not without controversy. Some contemporary media reports were later criticised by surviving nurses for exaggerating their bravery and condemned by some army officers for calling into question their gallantry (see controversy box ).
”Bungled” boat lowerings By all accounts, at first the lifeboat drills held people in good stead, with the nurses donning their life belts and dividing into two groups with 18 stoically waiting at the port lifeboat station and 18 at the starboard for the boats to be lowered.
“Everyone was so calm and although men and girls alike were as white as sheets no-one cried or spoke even, except to give orders,” recalled survivor Edith (Poppy) Popplewell.
But then things started to go terribly awry, as reported by Major Wylie of the New Zealand Medical Corp in his official statement.
“Owing, however, to the unfortunate bungling of the lowering of these boats, a series of catastrophes occurred on each side of the vessel.”
On the port side, one boatload of nurses was successfully lowered but “bungling” and the list of the ship saw the second boat swing and fall on the first, killing some of the nurses outright and severely injuring others.
Jeannie Sinclair was on the damaged first boat and was pulled onto the “hopelessly overloaded” second boat, but with the Marquette listing ominously she decided – though a poor swimmer – to risk returning to the water and swimming for shore. She asked a swimming crew member to tow her, which he did. “It was awful going past the ship and seeing a large, gaping hole and all the mules there, and wondering if the vessel would fall on top of us and I would be killed.”
Fanny Abbott, in her slippers, was on the second boat that crashed onto the first and her response was to spring into the water. “I always thought I could not swim, but somehow or other I got away from the ship, although the suction of the ship was so great I thought the propeller would hit me.”
On the starboard side, the first lifeboat tipped during launching, spilling many into the sea. Those who clung on had to eventually abandon the boat because of the huge hole in its side.
One of those was Mary Grigor, whose right arm had been crushed between the boat and ship and who then joined others ducking for their lives as the ship sank “with a fearful noise”.
Just as the ship was on the brink of sinking, four nurses were still on the Marquette’s deck (see controversy story). One of those four, Mabel Wright, watched Marion Brown and Isabel Clark walk a few feet down the gangway, take hold of each other’s hands and jump into the water. Neither survived. Wright and Ina Coster had been helping two sick orderlies onto the gangway and missed their own chance of getting off the sinking Marquette. They were sucked down with the ship but surfaced and both were rescued – Wright was found later to have a fracture to the base of her skull.
Bravery and self-sacrifice By all accounts the scene was one of hellish chaos over several hours as the exhausted, injured and chilled nurses – along with hundreds of British soldiers, crew, orderlies and medics – swam and clung to makeshift rafts, boards, lifebuoys and the few waterlogged lifeboats that were already crammed and prone to ‘turning turtle’. There are tales of self-sacrifice by crew, soldiers, orderlies, officers and nurses alike to save nurses, who were hampered by their long skirts, alongside tough calls not to take any more survivors onto already overloaded rafts or boats.
Nona Hildyard, one of those injured by the falling boat, sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and other popular songs of the day to keep spirits up until she suffered heart failure and died. Another nurse, Mary Gorman, whose legs had been crushed during the bungled lifeboat lowering, gave away her lifebelt, knowing she had no chance of survival.
Mary Grigor says she swam “sick and sore”, nursing her crushed arm, until a crew member came alongside with a board, to which she clung for some time. She and her rescuer made their way to a submerged boat that continually ‘turned turtle’.
“My rescuer died soon after this from cramp or exhaustion,” she wrote later.
Mary Rae arrived soon after on the lifebuoy of “one of our New Zealand boys” and asked to come aboard the ‘turtle’.
“She held out for a while, but soon after showed signs of exhaustion and died. I wondered if I should be the next,” recalled Grigor.
“Men died on all sides. Some lost their reason and went away from us all.”
Jeannie Sinclair thanked a London lad called Joseph for saving her life as the pair floated clinging to a makeshift raft of boards and buoys and he supported her to rest as she got tired.
Poppy Popplewell described being sucked down as the boat sank as a “fearful experience”, feeling like she had touched the bottom of the sea.
After surfacing, she joined her “little chum” Lorna Rattray, a British soldier and later Mary Walker in clinging to a life-saving board. Her friend tragically died sometime in the afternoon – Poppy wrote that the thought that they would be next was the only reason she let her go. The soldier also “went off” and the exhausted remaining
pair climbed onto and lay astride the board. The rescue finally came around seven hours after the Marquette went down as finding the wreckage was delayed by a false SOS signal that gave a wrong location. In all, 170 men and women were lost – including the 10 New Zealand nurses, and 22 New Zealand men, nearly all members of the New Zealand Medical Corp. As news of the tragedy spread, a common question being asked was why New Zealand hospital staff – including women – were being carried on a troop ship and not ahospital ship under the protection of Red Cross markings, particularly as a British hospital ship, with spare capacity, had sailed from Alexandria to Salonika just a few days before.
While the New Zealand Government chose not to make a diplomatic issue of the disaster, the Governor, Sir Arthur Foljambe, did send a crisp letter to the British War Office requesting: “In view of the loss of Marquette, my Government would be glad if arrangements could be made whereby medical units, such as stationary hospitals etc. should when possible be transferred by sea in a hospital ship”.
Nearly all of the surviving 26 nurses went on to continue serving during the war – including, poignantly, on hospital ships passing over the very waters in which they had lost their companions.
- “New Zealand Army Nurses” by Hester Maclean, Chapter V of The War Effort of New Zealand by Lt H T B Drew. Whitcombe & Tombs (1923)
- While You’re Away: New Zealand Nurses at War 1899-1948 by Anna Rogers. Auckland University Press (2003)
- New Zealand Military Nursing: A history of the Royal New Zealand Nursing Corps Boer War to Present Day by Sherayl Kendall & David Corbett. Kendall & Corbett (1990)
- ANZAC Girls: The extraordinary story of our World War 1 nurses by Peter Rees. (NB First published as The Other Anzacs in 2008) Allen & Unwin (2014)
Nurses Memorial Chapel to be saved post-quakes
The Nurses Memorial Chapel, commemorating those lost on the Marquette, has been closed to the public since the Canterbury earthquakes. But restoration plans are being drawn up and a fundraising campaign is to be launched later this year for the estimated $1 million needed to reopen this unique memorial to nurses and women lost in war.
The 1915 Marquette tragedy hit South Island communities particularly hard – nine of the 10 nurses lost were from the south and three of those were from Christchurch.
A collection began for a chapel at a memorial service for the victims at St Michael and All Angels church in November 1915, but the idea lay dormant until revived by matron Rose Muir in 1924. The arts and crafts-style brick chapel, largely financed by public donations but on the Christchurch Hospital site, was opened in 1927.
The chapel is a memorial not only to the three Christchurch nurses lost on the Marquette but also to the two nurses who died while working during the 1918 influenza epidemic.
The interdenominational chapel became an integral part of hospital life for trainee nurses, patients and relatives. It was the first hospital chapel in the country and is believed to be the only chapel in the world specially built to
commemorate nurses lost in the ‘Great War’.
It is the only chapel in New Zealand dedicated to remembering women who died in any war. Ray Wootton, a former nurse and Friends of the Chapel president, says nurses dominate the committee and chapel volunteers who formerly
kept the chapel open to the public, regularly did the flowers and raised funds by using the chapel as a popular wedding venue.
But all this came to a halt after the earthquake of 22 February 2011 and the chapel has only been entered since under engineering supervision to retrieve special chapel furniture, artefacts and records now in storage at the Air Force Museum at Wigram.
David Morrell, the former Christchurch City Missioner, chairs the chapel trust and says the chapel is undoubtedly of national significance to the nursing profession in the first instance but also to the Royal New Zealand Nursing Corp which, like the Marquette disaster, is also having its centenary this year.
“I think it’s a very significant building and think it is very important to nursing that it’s restored, and restored to an excellent state. And the trust is certainly committed to that.”
Wootton says the Friends of the Chapel committee meanwhile continues to sell cards of the chapel’s beautiful, nurse-inspired stained glass windows, and is very involved in organising special events to mark the centenary of the Marquette tragedy in late October.
A special memorial church service is to be held at St Michael and All Angels – where the first memorial service was held one hundred years Nurses Memorial Chapel ago – and a special Marquette exhibition sharing the stories of the nurses lost and the survivors is also to be mounted.
“We are hoping to have descendants of the nurses who lost their lives and the survivors
attend the service,” says Wootton. Meanwhile in May 2009 a Greek dive team located and identified the wreck of the Marquette. She rests in 87 metres of water off the Thermaikos Gulf (formerly known as the Gulf of Salonika).
Friends of the Chapel committee member Nanette Ainge says several Christchurch nurses will join a commemorative cruise in September that will sail in the wake of the ANZAC nursing sisters of 1915–1916; they will lay a wreath on the chapel’s behalf above the wreck where the 10 nurses lost their lives.
More information on the chapel and about cards and donations can be found at Friends of Christchurch Nurses Memorial Chapel www.cnmc.org.nz