Voices from the Past

Marquette: Nurses from the South, Sailing to the Front

The Stories of Nurses Grigor, Rae, Hildyard, Fox, Gorman, Brown and Clarke

Many of the New Zealand nurses who sailed on the Marquette for Salonika were from small South Island communities. Many had trained together and started their nursing careers in these tight-knit rural southern areas. These were not just nurses thrown together; many were friends and colleagues from before the war. When the Marquette was mortally struck by a torpedo and sinking fast, these nurses found themselves in a fight for their own lives and tending to their own wounds.

Disaster struck as lifeboats attempted to launch. One had a single rope break and the boat violently lurched into an upright position, throwing the already panicked passengers into the water. Another was seen falling straight down crashing directly on top of the fully laden lifeboat below, mortally wounding several of the occupants.

Of the lifeboats that did get away, some were damaged, and others overburdened with survivors. The lifeboat containing Sisters Grigor, Rae, and Hildyard capsized. Failing to right the upturned lifeboat, the survivors had no choice but to simply cling to it and hope they were rescued quickly. Sister Rae, having had a seat made for her on the lifeboat by Sister Grigor, clung for as long as she could, but overcome with exhaustion Sister Rae sank beneath the waves. In stories told by survivors, Sister Hildyard was heard singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Are We Downhearted?” to encourage those around her to stay alive, although she is believed to have succumbed to the water herself and died. 

Not only was it perilous for those in the lifeboats, but many were injured launching them, including Sisters Fox and Gorman. Sister Fox was last seen drifting in the waves, and Sister Gorman, on assessing her own injuries as unsurvivable, gave up her life belt to another and also quietly drifted away. They were both part of the nursing staff in the township of Waimate – a crushing blow for the small town.

Sisters Brown and Clarke, not having been able to board a lifeboat, waited on the deck for as long as they could, before being observed holding hands and jumping into the sea together, but sadly never to be seen again. Two other nurses who were sucked down with the ship did survive, but later recalled the forces of the sinking ship sucking the cuffs from their uniforms.

Some survived the sinking, and made it to shore, only to either die from their injuries or from exposure. A British minesweeper, searching the coast for survivors, spotted a lifeboat on a Greek beach. In it were found the bodies of two nurses and four soldiers that had been tied together by a rope connected to the boat. On the nurses was a watch engraved with the name Rogers and a NZANS badge for Registered Nurse 1366. They were later given a naval burial at the Mikra British Cemetery, Kalamaria, Greece.

Memorials to the nurses were built both overseas and in the small communities that these nurses served, including the Memorial Church in Christchurch, the many tributes in Waimate, and the Memorial Bed for Sister Isdell (her story yet untold) in Kumara. They are all reminders of those women who chose to serve to save the wounded, but that never came home.