One of the greatest scandals of World War I, the sinking of the Marquette was a poignant moment in New Zealand history. In her new book Stand For All Time, Christchurch author Anna Rogers tells the stories of the 32 Kiwis killed and the Nurses’ Memorial Chapel that was built to honour three local nurses who lost their lives in the sinking. Sophie Cornish reports
Nona Hildyard was the first nurse from Lyttelton to enlist for overseas service.
A few years later, she died in the Mediterranean Sea. She was one of three Christchurch Hospital nurses killed when a German torpedo sunk the British transport ship, the Marquette, in October 1915.
The tragedy shocked the nation, with 32 New Zealand men and women killed in a disaster that should have never happened.
Medical personnel were never supposed to be aboard the ship, which was not marked as a hospital ship and therefore sailed with no protection from the Geneva Convention, making it vulnerable to a German attack.
The question of why the New Zealanders were not put on the hospital ship, Grantully Castle, was never answered in the post-sinking inquiry. Grantully Castle was sailing from Alexandria, Egypt, to Salonika, Greece, at the same time and to the same destination as the Marquette, and had room on board.
Said Rogers: “Medical personnel and equipment should never have been on a transport carrying ammunition . . . no one will ever know why (No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital) was sent to Salonika on the Marquette. Maritime historian Gavin Maclean has described it as a ‘a stupid error’.”
Miss Hildyard was born in 1888 and attended West Lyttelton School and Lyttelton District High School before training as a nurse at Christchurch Hospital.
Like Miss Hildyard, Lorna Rattray began her nurses training at Christchurch Hospital, two days before her 36th birthday.
Miss Rattray was born in Dunedin, but moved to Christchurch to attend a private school, now known as St Margaret’s College.
She left New Zealand on the hospital ship Maheno, along with Miss Hildyard and Margaret Rogers, a nurse also trained at Christchurch Hospital.
Another nurse on the ship, Lottie Le Gallais, said Miss Hildyard and Margaret were “the life of the Maheno coming over.”
Margaret wrote a song called The Nurses of New Zealand, which was performed as part of the on-board entertainment.
When Miss Hildyard was injured in the bombing, she began singing, before suffering heart failure and dying in the water.
On the day the Marquette set out from Egypt to Greece, a trip which it never completed, Margaret posted her last ever letter home.
In it, she wrote about the war and its hunger, filth and suffering.
“There is no romance about war . . . how thankful I am every day that I came to do what I could to help and relieve our brave boys,” said the letter.
Only two nurses’ bodies were ever recovered, one of them was Margaret.
In 1927, The Nurses’ Memorial Chapel on Riccarton Ave was opened to honour the three Christchurch women who died. However, Rogers says the chapel is so much more than that.
“It also has wider significance. It is the country’s first hospital chapel and it’s the only memorial chapel to women who perished in all wars and the 1918 influenza epidemic. It is thought to be the only purpose-built hospital chapel in the world that commemorates nurses who died in the Great War,” Rogers said.
In spite of being threatened with demolition and being earthquake-damaged, the 90-year-old chapel was restored and officially reopened in October by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy.
When the Marquette sunk, three Christchurch men also died. One was Sergeant Major Geoffrey Baker who was a Canterbury representative in hockey.
He was known as a prominent swimmer but drowned while swimming away from the Marquette.
Private Bassell Fricker also died, along with Private John Ross, who died on his 25th birthday.
•741 people were aboard the Marquette when it was sunk by a German Torpedo in October 1915.
•167 were killed, including 32 New Zealanders, who were members of the No 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital.
•The ship was sailing from Egypt to Salonika, Greece.
•It was positioned between Greece and Turkey when it was sunk in the Aegean Sea, part of the Mediterranean Sea.
•The ship was also carrying 500 men from the ammunition column of the British 29th Division, 500 mules, some
horses and several ammunition wagons.
•The first mention of New Zealand personnel being involved in the sinking was in The Star, when it was an evening newspaper.