The sinking of the transport ship Marquette in the Aegean Sea in late 1915 added to the grief of a nation still reeling from the heavy losses at Gallipoli. Among the fatalities were 32 New Zealanders, including 10 nurses – making 23 October the deadliest day in the history of this country’s military nursing.
The Marquette had been built as a cargo ship in 1898 under another name but had been converted into a troop transport during the war. It was not, as some allege, a hospital ship. Instead, it was a grey-painted transport, and as such was fair game for the German submarine U-35. Of the 741 people crowded on board, 167 were lost, including ten members of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, 19 male Medical Corps staff (part of the New Zealand No. 1 Stationary Hospital) and three New Zealand soldiers.
The Marquette sank as if she had been a tiny cockle shell, and so quietly. There was no explosion …
The Kiwis need not have died. A marked hospital ship, by definition safe from attack, had left the same port on the same day as the Marquette, 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 acknowledged as much in November 1915 when the Governor, Lord Liverpool, told the War Office that his 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. Several are commemorated there. The most elaborate tribute is the Nurses’ Memorial Chapel in front of Christchurch Women’s Hospital, which survived the earthquakes of 2010–11.
Image: The transport ship Marquette