Voices from the Past

Marquette: No Ordinary Troopship

The Story of the HMT Marquette and of Privates Victor John Nicholson and John Turnbull Ross

In the Aegean, on 23 October 1915, the troopship HMT Marquette, carrying over 700 hundred soldiers, including the Ammunition Column of the British 29th Division and the medical staff and equipment of No. 1 Stationary Hospital, as well as over 500 mules and horses, was torpedoed by a German submarine.

After the torpedo exploded through into the men’s accommodation on the starboard side of the ship, the first lifeboat was quickly loaded with nurses and the sick and wounded. It was in the water ready to cast off when the second lifeboat fell on top of it, mortally wounding many. Due to the ship keeling hard over to port rendering the portside lifeboats unable to be launched, hundreds found themselves in the water struggling to survive. Within 15 minutes of the torpedo striking the ship, the Marquette sank beneath the waves.

Although the Marquette sent out an SOS immediately after it was hit, a stronger SOS was sent from a ship further away 30 minutes later. It is believed that this signal was sent by the submarine to confuse the rescue effort. Rescuing ships went to the site of the stronger SOS first meaning the survivors were in the cold water for close to nine hours. Finally, they were rescued by the British destroyer HMS Lynn and the French destroyers Tirailleur and Mortier. Despite their best efforts, 167 people died, 32 of them New Zealanders including ten nurses.

The sinking of the Marquette coming so soon after the losses at Gallipoli sparked public outrage in New Zealand centred on medical staff being transported on a troopship and not a hospital ship. Marked with a red cross, hospital ships could sail with the protection of the Geneva Convention. Without it, the troopship was fair game for German submarines.

Boarding the Marquette with the nurses were New Zealand Medical Corps staff, including doctors and field ambulance staff. Among them was qualified chemist Private John Turnbull Ross (pictured), who was born in the small rural community of Warepa in South Otago. He was well-known in the Dunedin Christian community, where his selfless nature was reflected in his employment with the Friendly Societies Dispensary.

Before this fateful trip, Private Ross had been caring for the wounded from the Gallipoli campaign at Port Said. Recently learning that his cousin had been killed at Gallipoli would no doubt have been on his mind as the Marquette was taking him to a new front in Greece. Not much is known about what happened to him during the sinking, except that by the time the rescue ships had arrived Private Ross was missing, presumed drowned. His loss was felt profoundly by his small home community of Warepa.

Private Vic Nicholson, who was wounded at Gallipoli and sent to Zeitoun Camp in Egypt to recover, helped break down No. 1 Stationary Hospital in Port Said and travelled aboard the Marquette with other recently recovered soldiers to set it back up again in Lemnos. Amidst the chaos after the torpedo strike, Private Vic Nicholson found himself in the water waiting for rescue. After nine long hours, he was picked up by the French destroyer Tirailleur, which then went on to hunt for the German submarine.

He recalled in An Awfully Big Adventure by J Tolerton “the half-drowned survivors had their clothing cut off, a pannier of hot wine poured over them and were dried off with rough towels. They were then wrapped in blankets heated up on the engine-room vents and were then heaved into hammocks to recover.” He “was issued with a French Quartermaster’s uniform, all gold braid, but we had to hand all this stuff back again when we got aboard the Hospital Ship Grantually Castle. Two of the officers who were doctors went through the pockets of the damaged uniforms and got enough money to go ashore and buy us a pair of Greek civilian trousers and a shirt.”

It is easy to forget that for the survivors of the Marquette they would have survived with nothing but the clothes on their backs, losing all their kit and personal belongings with the sinking of the ship. A simple pair of trousers and shirt would have made the world of difference to them as they came to terms with the tragedy they had somehow survived.