The Marquette Sinking Centenary

Saturday, October 17, 2015
Margaret Rogers

Among the World War One centenaries being marked between 2014 and 2018, few will be as poignant as the commemoration of the sinking on October 23, 1915 of the HT Marquette. The tragedy saw the loss of 167 lives including ten New Zealand nurses of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZANS) and 22 New Zealand Medical Corps staff.

The nurses lost were Marion Brown, Isabel Clark, Catherine Fox, Mary Gorman, Nora Hildyard, Helena Isdell, Mabel Jamieson, Mary Rae, Lorna Rattray and Margaret Rogers (pictured on her graduation).

The body of Margaret Rogers was found in a lifeboat, identified by Royal Navy crew from her name engraved on her wristwatch. She was given a naval funeral and is buried in Mikra British Cemetery in Kalamaria, in the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece.

The other nurses are commemorated on the Mikra Memorial, along with the medical staff, as having no known grave. In total, the names of 135 nurses, officers and men of the United Kingdom and New Zealand drowned in the Marquette transport are commemorated on the memorial.

Of the New Zealand nurses, a second body reportedly found in the lifeboat with Margaret Rogers has never been identified but may have been that of Helena Isdell. There is a grave in Mikra British Cemetery of  "A nursing sister of the Great War. Known unto God."

The Marquette sank within 15 minutes of being torpedoed. The 7000 ton transport was transferring the No 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital from Alexandria in Egypt to Salonika (modern-day Thessaloniki) in northern Greece and was torpedoed less than 50 kilometres from the safety of Salonika Bay and anti-submarine nets.

An irony reported at the time was that the 552-bed British hospital ship Grantully Castle sailed on the same day from Alexandria, taking the same course to Salonika and was empty. The tragedy caused a change of policy to require all medical staff in future to be transported by hospital ships where they might well be less likely to be attacked. On the day, the Grantully Castle picked up many Marquette survivors from the water.

While the Marquette sank quickly, the bungled launching of the lifeboats seemed an early cause of some deaths. "On the port side one boat descended heavily on top of one already in the water, and thereby so seriously injured several of the nurses as to kill them outright, or so seriously injure them as to make their subsequent existence in the water impossible," says the official account of the loss of the Marquette by a Major Wylie, published in the New Zealand Nurses Organisation journal Kai Tiaki in 1916.

On the starboard side, one lifeboat dropped vertically when inexperienced soldiers helping out failed to lower it from one davit, tipping the nurses into the water. "Only one boat with nurses left the vessel, and that boat was in a waterlogged submerged state. Most of the rescued nurses spent all their time in the water on rafts, or clinging to bits of wreckage."

Many of the survivors were in the water for seven hours before being rescued by French and British ships. The relatively warm water and daylight assisted in their survival.

Major Wylie's report says, "At no time did I see any signs of panic or any signs of fear on the part of anyone, and I cannot find words adequately to express my appreciation of the magnificent way in which the nurses behaved, not only on the vessel but afterwards in the water. Their behaviour had to be seen to be believed possible."

In "Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences" published in 1932, author Hester Maclean quotes from several survivors' letters written back to New Zealand with first-person accounts.

One nurse wrote, "I found myself and my friend and a 'Tommy' clinging to a bit of wreckage and perished with cold, and my little chum terrified. We were thrown with a lot of the others for a while, but bye and bye we all got separated. Another sister joined us and we four just managed to hang on by our hands to our life-saving board. It was all too awful and too harrowing to write about. My friend died some time in the afternoon, and the only thing that made me let her go even then, was the thought that we would be the next. The Tommy went off too, and then Sister and I climbed up on to the board and lay front down on it and let the waves do as they liked. Then we saw the smoke of a steamer."

The Medical Officer who was in charge of the 18 nurses on the starboard side, in a letter to the author of the history, describes how "All the nurses went to the alarm post without any panic or excitement and marched to the boats with the most admirable cheerfulness and discipline possible."

He describes several capsizes of the lifeboat he and some nurses were in. "I think possibly Sister Hildegard [Hildyard] was hurt by the boat, as the next time we got it righted she fell forward - dead. The next capsize, we lost Sister Rae, who floated away beyond reach, and was last seen in company with a soldier who had a lifebuoy. She was not picked up by the French destroyer. This left us with only three nurses, and I attached myself especially to Sister Wilkin who seemed most done up, and as we drifted nearer to the shore, we had not so much swell, and for the last three hours we managed to keep from capsizing any more."

Another sister wrote: "I really owe my life to the chief officer of the Marquette, he picked me up during the afternoon and put me in a boat. Perhaps on the starboard side the nurses may have all got into boats; but not on the port side. Sisters Brown and Clark got a few steps down the gangway, took each other's hands and jumped into the sea." Nurses Brown and Clark are commemorated on the Mikra memorial.

Hester Maclean concludes: "Reading over again the letters received from the surviving sisters, which were published in the January, 1916, number of Kai Tiaki, revives the deep feeling of sorrow and sympathy with which they were first read, and the admiration for the bravery of the girls who underwent the long ordeal of eight or nine hours before they were rescued. It was never known how some of the ten sisters met their end...It is amazing to think that after this sad experience, not one of the surviving sisters wished to give up their work and all continued to serve for the remainder of the War."

A little-known act of heroism was that of the 26-year-old Scottish second engineer Robert Rae. He gave his life in going below in the sinking ship to open the sea cocks to flood the rear of the hull, lowering under water the thrashing propellers which were threatening the lifeboats and survivors.

After the disaster, the No 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital was re-equipped in Alexandria and returned to Salonika, then joined the New Zealand Division in Egypt and subsequently at Amiens in France behind the Somme battlefield on the Western Front.

Most of the NZANS staff associated with the No 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital were from the South Island of New Zealand and the Nurses' Memorial Chapel at Christchurch Hospital specially commemorates New Zealand women in war. The Marquette Memorial Plaque says it serves to perpetuate the memory of those members of the Christchurch Hospital staff who were on the troopship Marquette when it was torpedoed off the Greek Coast on the 23rd October 1915 with heavy loss of life. Those who perished were Sisters N Hildyard, L Rattray, and M Rogers. The centenary of the sinking of the Marquette was to be marked with events around Christchurch and the memorial chapel during the month of October 2015.

References to the articles and historical information about the sinking of the Marquette can be found here