October 23 marks 100 years to the day that a Palmerston North Hospital nurse was among 31 New Zealanders to die when the British transport ship SS Marquette was torpedoed by a German submarine in the Aegean Sea, near its destination in Salonica, Greece.
Nurse Mabel Elizabeth Jamieson, originally from Kumara, was one of 10 members of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service among the 167 lives lost in the tragedy, which also included 19 male Medical Corps staff (part of the New Zealand No 1 Stationary Hospital), and three New Zealand soldiers.
However, the Kiwis among the 741 crew and military personnel on board the overcrowded former passenger-converted-troop transport during the war, need not have died. The same day, a marked hospital ship, which was considered safe from attack, had left the same port (Alexandra Harbour, Egypt), completely empty.
By putting the medical staff in an unmarked transport in a convoy carrying troops and ammunition, the authorities unnecessarily risked their lives.
The New Zealand Government at the time acknowledged as much in November 1915 – the month after the tragedy – when the Governor Lord Liverpool, told the British War Office that his New Zealand ministers wanted future transfers of medical units to be done by hospital ships, where possible.
The sinking caused great public outrage. The death of the nurses was felt particularly badly in the South Island, where the majority of them had lived or nursed.
Marquette’s departure from Egypt on 19 October was described as ‘not run of the mill’. Reports said it received a rousing send off with cheers and songs by British and French sailors manning warships in port, but soon after a fault in the steering gear caused the ship to swing round. A fire in a suitcase on deck caused a further diversion until it was thrown overboard. At dusk the Marquette was joined by its escort, the French destroyer ‘Tirailleur’ and its portholes blacked-out. Passengers and crew carried out lifeboat drills as there were rumours German U-boats were in the area.
On the evening of the fourth day at sea the escort ship left the convey. At 9.15am the next morning (23 October) the quartermaster, out strolling on deck with some nurses drew their attention to a ‘straight thin green line about 50 yards away streaking through the water toward the ship’. A periscope was seen cutting through the water, just before a terrific explosion on the forward starboard side as the ship was hit by a torpedo. The Marquette listed to port, righted herself, then began to sink by the bow. She sank in 13 minutes.
Other odd happenings occurred that day. News that the Marquette had been struck, reached Cairo and Salonica some hours before it happened. Had someone talked? No aeroplanes went to search, even though the Greeks, who were not fighting, had knowledge that the ship had been torpedoed south from the anti-submarine net at Salonica Bay, which would have meant safety for the Marquette.
Questions later asked, wondered why the escort ship left too early. Maybe, it was felt, because she was practically in the harbour.
Passengers had difficulty in getting into life rafts. On the starboard side a boat filled with nurses was lowered at one end, but not the other, leaving it hanging vertically sending the occupants into the sea.
The boat was abandoned as it had a huge hole on one side. Other life rafts had been damaged by the 541 animals (mainly horses and mules on board). Many of the deaths and injuries to nurses were due to inexperienced men (soldiers helping out as some crew had not turned up to their stations for various reasons) lowering the life rafts, and the angle of the sinking ship.
Only one life raft filled with nurses managed to get away and that was half-filled with water. The survivors floated for hours in intense cold clinging to rafts, debris etc before being picked up utterly exhausted by rescue ships.
One survivor later said: “When we were precipitated so suddenly into the sea we must have been drowned had we been without lifebelts. A large hole was driven into our boat. When we dragged ourselves into the lifeboat it soon filled and swamped. All were tipped into the water again. The sea was full of soldiers struggling for rafts and bits of wreckage. We were swamped again and again until exhausted. It was pitiful to see the nurses and soldiers tiring in their frantic struggles and finally releasing their grasp on the gunwale, floating for a few seconds and then slowly sinking without a murmur.”
Nurse Jamieson was among nine New Zealand Registered Staff Nurses missing, believed to have been drowned, who are commemorated on the Mikra Memorial, in Salonica. A tenth nurse Margaret Rogers whose body was found in a life raft by a Royal Navy minesweeper, and identified by her watch, was buried in the same cemetery.
There is a permanent New Zealand reminder of the disaster in the form of a stained glass window in the Nurses Memorial Chapel at Christchurch Hospital which has been closed since the earthquakes, and which is awaiting repair.
• The 7057 gross ton Marquette was built in 1897 originally named the Bodicea. She was renamed a year later and chartered by the Red Star line as a passenger vessel with accommodation for 120 second class passengers. During the war she was used for British war transport and was painted grey.
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