Great War stories: NZ's worst WWI maritime disaster

  • 21/04/2016
Great War stories: NZ's worst WWI maritime disaster

By Keith Slater

War stories from WWI have traditionally been told by men about men. Not so well known are the women's stories -- at home and near the front lines.

Tonight's Great War story is about nurses and one of the greatest tragedies in our wartime nursing history. Ten nurses were drowned when the Marquette, a troop ship carrying soldiers and medics, was torpedoed.

Actor Antonia Prebble, who played the New Zealand nurse Hilda Steele in the TV series Anzac Girls, was in the Aegean recently for the memorial.

"When I researched Hilda Steele I already had huge admiration and respect, and coming here added another dimension to the respect I already had for her," says Prebble.

"She proved herself to be a remarkable woman of courage and endurance. [It] added an extra dimension of the pride I felt to be able to play her."

Ms Steele left Egypt for France to face the dangers of the front line: shelling and gas poisoning.

Fresh from the TV series Anzac Girls, Prebble was invited on a memorial cruise to Greece and Turkey for New Zealand and Australian nurses. On the trip she learnt about the sinking of the Marquette.

"[It's] such a sad and tragic story," Prebble says.

"The nurses shouldn't have been on that troop ship -- [it was] not a hospital ship, so technically it was allowed to be torpedoed."

The Marquette was heading for Greece, with 741 people aboard, including 36 New Zealand nurses, and hundreds of mules.

One of the New Zealand nurses, Edith Popperwell, wrote:

"There were rumours of torpedoes, of course, and we had life-belt drill for two days, which we really took hardly seriously, I am afraid."

On the morning of October 23, 1915, a German torpedo slammed into the side of the Marquette.

Several on board saw it coming, including a member of the Medical Corps, Bernard Bell, of Wellington.

"We were electrified into action by a terrific explosion, and the ship tremored like a first-class New Zealand earthquake," he said.

"She seemed poised for a moment, with about 100ft of her sticking out clear of the water. Then she was gone, and we were alone. The sea was covered in human beings and wreckage."

"Everyone was so calm, and although men and girls alike were white as sheets, no one cried or spoke even, except to give orders," Ms Popperwell wrote.

As reports of the mounting death toll at Gallipoli reached New Zealand there was grief and outrage about this loss of life on the unprotected troopship, the Marquette.

It was nine hours before the survivors were rescued.

Ten New Zealand nurses were among the 167 people who drowned -- our worst maritime disaster of World War I.