Topic: The Sinking of the Marquette

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In October 1915, the Marquette, an Allied transport ship, was hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine, and sank in the Aegean Sea, with great loss of life, including ten New Zealand nurses.

The Marquette, a large steamer, was built in Glasgow in 1898. Designed as a cargo vessel, she was converted to a transport ship at the beginning of the First World War. It wasn’t a hospital ship, but a grey-painted transport ship, and as such, was ‘fair game’ for attacks by the Germans.

On 19th October, 1915, at 7pm, the Marquette sailed from Alexandria bound for Salonika. On board was the No.1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital which included 36 nurses of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service (most of whom were from the South Island) and staff from the New Zealand Medical Corps. Also on board were at least 500 officers and troops of the British 29th Divisional Ammunition Column with their equipment, 491 mules and 50 horses. Altogether there were 741 people on board. A destroyer escort joined her, and they zigzagged through the area as it was infested with mines.

Poppy Popplewell, an Australian nurse on board, who had worked in New Zealand for some years, said 

“the next three days were among the happiest and most peaceful…I have ever known at sea. It was calm and sunny, and everyone was so well….There were rumours of torpedoes, of course, and we had lifebelt drills for two days, but we hardly took it seriously, I am afraid.”

On the evening of the 22nd October, their escort, the French destroyer Tirailleur, left the convoy, following false orders. The Marquette was within a few hours’ steam of Salonica at 9.15am the next morning, when a submarine periscope was sighted, and an explosion followed almost immediately. The German submarine U-35 had hit the Marquette with a torpedo. The ship rapidly began to list to port, then to sink by the bow. The survivors of the explosion moved quietly to put on lifebelts and abandon ship. Poppy said: “We all rushed for our own lifebelts. 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”

The ship sank within ten minutes. The listing of the ship caused problems. One lifeboat was dropped onto another one already in the water, killing several nurses instantly. Many being lowered in boats on the starboard side were tipped out into the sea.

“Our boat was not lowered properly, and we were suspended from one davit for some time, hanging on for dear life. Then the rope was cut and we all fell into the sea.”

Many people jumped into the sea. Four nurses were left on the ship to die, but two of them survived, despite being sucked under the water by the sinking ship. Of those people who made it off the ship, many died from exposure and exhaustion in the cold water.

“The sea was full of soldiers struggling for bits of rafts and wreckage. We were swamped again and again until we were exhausted. It was pitiful to see nurses and soldiers tiring in their frantic struggles, and finally releasing their grasp on the gunwale of a boat, floating for a few seconds, and then slowly sinking without murmur”

Numerous people gave their lives helping others.

The survivors were taken to Salonika, where the medical staff began setting up the hospital, despite having lost their equipment. A week later, the surviving nurses were sent back to Egypt to recuperate. The Kiwis need not have died. A hospital ship had left Alexandra a bit later on the same day as the Marquette, completely empty. If they had travelled on that ship, instead of on a troop transport ship, they would probably have been safe.

167 of those on board died. Ten of the 36 nurses aboard died in the disaster, as well as 19 male Medical Corps staff, and three New Zealand soldiers.

Image of Nurses from New Zealand Herald, Volume LII, Issue 16080, 20 November 1915, Page 5

The New Zealand nurses were:

A memorial service for the NZ nurses was held on 9th November, 1915 at St. Michael’s Church, Christchurch.

The New Zealand nurses are remembered on the Mikra Memorial in the Mikra British Cemetery at Salonika, not far away from where some of the bodies were washed ashore. The three Christchurch nurses, Nona Hildyard of Lyttelton, Lorna Rattray, and Margaret Rogers from Banks Peninsula are also remembered on a plaque in the Nurses Memorial Chapel, Christchurch Hospital, which is the only purpose-built hospital chapel in the world which commemorates nurses who died in the First World War. The New Zealand Nurses’ Memorial Fund, to aid nurses in need, was raised as a national memorial to the 16 NZ nurses who died on, or as a result of, active service in the First World War

In May, 2009, a Greek dive team located and identified the Marquette which is on the bottom of the North Aegean Sea.

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