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Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences

Chapter XXXVIII. — Arrival in New Zealand and News of Marquette Disaster

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Chapter XXXVIII.
Arrival in New Zealand and News of Marquette Disaster.

I received a hearty return welcome back by my chief, Dr. Valintine, and my assistant Miss Bicknell, and was quickly plunged again into my departmental work. First, I was taken by Dr. Valintine up to Defence Headquarters to be introduced to the Director-General of Medical Services, General Henderson, who had arrived to take that position while I was away. I found him a courteous, elderly gentleman, who was quite pleased to receive my report on our hospitals in Egypt, and who in all my later association with him, treated me with the utmost consideration and kindness.

I had on the voyage written out a report on the hospitals in Egypt, in which New Zealand nurses were on duty, and where New Zealand soldiers were being treated, so that this was ready. I had also written a general report on conditions in Egypt and this was published in the newspapers, and served to remove an impression that women other than nurses were required to work in our hospitals.

I found work in our department very busy indeed, already another hospital ship was being equipped, the Marama, and the staff to be selected as well as a contingent of 48 nurses and a masseuse. On this ship, Miss Broun, of Auckland, went as Matron.

Before this was fixed up, however, on the evening of October 24th, I received a telephone message from the page 187 Dominion paper saying a cable had come through saying that the transport taking the No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital to Salonika from Port Said, had been torpedoed in the Aegean Sea, and that ten of the sisters and twenty-one orderlies had been lost.

I was horrified by this terrible news. When leaving Egypt, I knew that the No. 1 Stationary Hospital was to be transferred to Salonika, but not that it had actually left.

It was not till some time later on, that we learnt details of the disaster and the names of those lost.

These were: Marion Brown, Margaret Rogers, Isabel Clark, Catherine Fox, Mary Gorman, Mabel Jamieson, Nora Hildegard, Helena Isdell, Mary Rae, Lorna Rattray.

Miss Cameron, who was in charge as matron, was very seriously injured (in fact she has never entirely recovered, and is still on pension and in a private hospital in Sydney).

In the papers at Home, allusion was made to the heroism of the sisters when they were being picked up by the rescuing boats, in wishing the soldiers, the “fighting men,” to be taken first; the sisters however, disclaimed this. An enquiry was held on H.M.S. Talbot, at which two of the sisters were called to give their evidence and I understand that some censure was expressed. The sisters and some of the medical officers were sent back to Alexandria on the hospital ship Grantully Castle.

It appeared a strange thing that the valuable hospital equipment, as well as the more valuable lives should have been risked on an ordinary transport, which was conveying soldiers and munitions of war, when constantly hospital ships were coming and going from Alexandria.

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The torpedoeing of the Marquette, being a transport was quite within the rights of the enemy, and at that time hospital ships were not being attacked. This loss of our sisters and hospital orderlies was the first and possibly the most disastrous of the many at sea, which afterwards occurred. My regret at not being in Egypt to meet my poor nurses on their return to Alexandria was very great, and I hoped that Miss Nurse had gone in my place; but afterwards learnt they were met by Miss Oram.

Of course, the various nurses stationed at Alexandria did visit them as soon as they could, and did all they could for them, and the New Zealand authorities gave them at once an allowance to replace their lost equipment, also many private donations were given them for extra comforts, but they could not replace all they had lost. Miss Cameron was very ill with pneumonia and also with some injury which caused paralysis, and was sent to the Deaconess Hospital at Alexandria, a German hospital taken over, where some of our sisters were, until later she was transferred to our own hospital at Cairo, and afterwards she was brought back to New Zealand. Later on she was sent to the Prince of Wales Military Hospital in Sydney to be near her relatives, and is now in a convalescent hospital at North Sydney.

Several other sisters were injured more or less, and one had typhoid and was a long time invalided, and all felt the shock of the loss of their friends.

In a few weeks letters arrived from several of the sisters, giving pathetic accounts of their sufferings and of the way some succumbed to the exhaustion caused by exposure and immersion in the water. Several of the boats were unseaworthy and constantly turned turtle, when the occupants bad to right them and clamber in again, while page 189 others had no boats, but clung to rafts and even spars. One boat crashed on top of another, killing outright some of the sisters.

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, but some time after, two of them were found dead in a boat which had drifted ashore.

In some of the letters I received, details were given of how they clung to rafts and saw the men drop off into the sea and die, while they, with greater endurance held on, even in one case a sister, supporting the body of her friend who had died of heart failure and exposure, until she thought her own end was coming. Some went just as the French destroyers which came to the rescue were approaching.

It is amazing to think that after this sad experience, not one of the sisters wished to give up their work and all continued to serve for the remainder of the War.

Soon letters commenced to arrive from some of the surviving sisters and made one feel even more vividly what the poor girls had suffered. I will transcribe one of these letters which gives a very graphic account of the disaster.

After relating the departure of the No. 1 Stationary Hospital contingent on the Marquette, a huge ship, and saying how proud they were to be travelling to Salonika with a big British ammunition column (little realising that that fact was most probably the reason for the enemy to torpedo the ship).

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“It was all very nice and very comfortable indeed, the Imperial officers were so good to us. No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital felt very much the honour that had been conferred on it, by being sent to so important a field. There were rumours of torpedoes of course, and we had life-belt drill for two days, but we hardly took it seriously I am afraid. On Friday we were picked up by a convey, a French torpedo destroyer, and I think we girls were only then aware that they were afraid for the Marquette, and even then took it for granted that it was only precautionary on account of our very valuable cargo of mules, etc., and the destroyer left us that night.

At breakfast next morning, they told us we would be in port by mid-day, so the danger seemed past, and we were mostly enjoying a brisk walk on deck, as it was very cold and we felt it after Egypt, when the crash came. It was simply awful, and no one had any doubts and several saw the periscope quite near. We all rushed for our life-belts. Everyone was calm, and although men and girls alike were as white as sheets, no one cried or spoke even, except to give orders. We had had our places at the boats detailed to us, but it was then the trouble arose. They were not managed properly and the ropes refused to act. We were, however, put into the boats, and the next minute we were floundering in the sea, and the Marquette seemed to be tipping right over on top of us.

Some of them struck out, but to me, and those quite near me, an absolute miracle happened. In what seemed barely a second, a wave had washed us right aft, past the very end of the boat; I'll never understand that part, as she was a huge boat, and we were at the other end. It was all pretty awful then for a while, and then the Marquette sank as if she had been a tiny cockleshell, and so quietly. There was no explosion and that also was a miracle. After a page 191 fearful experience of what seemed to me touching the bottom of the sea, 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. It seemed so far off though, and then another of those big and miraculous waves came and washed us, all in a half minute right up to the very side of the life-boat they sent out—or so it seemed to me. We were taken on board a British mine-sweeper, and never can I tell you how good those men were to us. It was almost four o'clock then, and we had been tossed and tossed since 9 a.m., so needn't tell you how we felt. Later, about midnight, we were taken to a hospital ship; more kindness and comfy beds in lovely two-berth cabins, but the suspense of waiting for the others to come was awful. By the morning, fifteen of the sisters were on board, and seven more came that afternoon. About the same time the others were picked up by the French ships. Some of them had managed to keep to the Marquette life-boats or be picked up by them, but it was a doubtful blessing for they were almost under water, and kept tipping over and over. One sister sat on an upturned boat with a couple of men all the time. The awfulness of being tipped out so often terrified and exhausted others. In all, we found that ten of our sisters had gone—nearly all we knew to have page 192 died of exhaustion. I think about a dozen of our New Zealand boys too, and the rest were the R.F.A. boys, in all about 160. So awful and yet, I think, so wonderful that so many were saved …

Our matron was very ill, and we did think for a few days she could not possibly recover, but she is better now. There is so much I have felt tempted to write but then I have not.

The censor would only score it out.

We were in Salonika till Friday evening; on Wednesday, all the survivors got orders to go ashore, we were billeted in two hotels.

To-day (Monday), we will be in Alexandria, and such a sad coming back. We are experienced soldiers now, and should, I daresay, feel proud, but I am only a tin soldier.

Strange that we should have had All Saints Day services yesterday. It helped to comfort us for those who have gone.”

A letter written to me by the Medical Officer who was in charge of the 18 nurses on the starboard side gives a graphic account of what happened.

“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. I was with the party of them on the starboard side, and all of them got into the boat safely, but as only some inexperienced soldiers were lowering it, one end fell more quickly than the other, and five of them fell out before it could be righted. All these, however, were got into boats or rafts and four of them ultimately were saved, but Sister Rogers, though picked up, was missing in the evening when we were rescued. A couple of days later, a boat was found on the beach with the bodies of two nurses (one having a gold watch with Margaret Rogers on it, and the other having a disc with her number, unknown by us now, as our page 193 records were lost) and four men; all were buried at Zafora. There was a report that all these had been shot, but I have no definite information on that point.

We pulled away from the Marquette, and got well behind her before she took the final plunge, but the boat proved very unseaworthy, and leaked all over, so that before very long she was full of water, and with the swell, was unwieldy and capsized. When we got round the boat and got her righted again, we had only got six of the nurses. Sisters Rae, Wilin, Young, McCosh-Smith, Christmas and Hildegard! The next capsize, Sister Christmas floated away, beyond reach, but got on to the rudder, and managed to hang on all day. I think possibly Sister Hildegard 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.

When a boat came alongside us about 5 p.m., we were able to transfer the sisters to the Lynn, and then wait till some French boats took us in tow to their vessel.

We were torpedoed at 9.3 a.m., and the Marquette sank in 13 minutes, so it was a long day in the water. Fortunately it was neither too bright, nor too cold; of the 18 sisters, we had on the starboard side, I think Sisters Rogers, Rae and Hildegard were the only ones lost, and of these I have given you an account.

Of their conduct as a whole, no words can express our admiration. They mustered quickly and quietly at their alarm post, and cheerfully and without the least confusion or panic, passed along the deck to their boat, and never page 194 once during the long day did I hear any of those who were able to stick it out make any complaint.

What happened to those (18) on the port side, I do not know, but understand that they were got into the boats and that the boats fouled each other and several were injured.

Miss Cameron and most of the nurses were taken by the French destroyers to the French Hospital ship Canada, and we shall never forget the kindness shown us on board. Miss Cameron was exceedingly ill, and collapsed and would have died, but for the unremitting attention given by the French Medical Officers. The great strain of their experience had naturally a considerable nervous reaction, and all the nurses were sent back to Alexandria. I expect some of your nurses will be writing you fuller particulars, but I thought you would like to have at least a semi-official statement.”

In relation to the nurses on the port side, although the medical officer responsible for them thought they had all left the ship, and got into boats, this was not the case. A sister wrote that “While standing on the deck, I saw a boat load of men in uniform getting away. I wondered why we nurses were left on deck, without a chance of getting into a boat. 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. Sister Coster and myself did not get off the deck, we both helped two sick orderlies on to the gangway, and in doing so lost our chance of going down.”

Many stories were told at the time, which caused great trouble and doubt, but I will not give more in this record.