The Stories of Nurses Popplewell, Walker and Rattray
Among the first group of enthusiastic New Zealand nurses to be deployed in World War I were Edith Popplewell, Mary Walker (who had trained and worked in Australia), and Dunedin identity Lorna Rattray (pictured). They sailed for Egypt on the Hospital Ship No. 1 Maheno in July of 1915.
Three months later they were ordered to board the Marquette. The nurses were deployed with their destination unknown aboard a troopship, not a hospital ship with the clear markings that may have protected it from what happened next. Just before 9:00am, 23 October 1915, a fellow nurse, Sister Sinclair, walking along the upper deck casually remarked on seeing a green streak heading towards them in the water: “That looks like a torpedo, does it not?” The observation was quickly confirmed by the sickening crash of a torpedo fatally striking the ship.
The nurses, having recently carried out emergency drills, quickly marched to the lifeboats in a calm and orderly manner without signs of panic or sounds of fear, although it was later noted some of their faces were (understandably) as white as bed sheets. Many recalled the awful noise of the cargo tumbling about inside the ship as it began to list and sink. However, Sister Popplewell remembered much more acutely that when the Marquette finally sank below the waves “she went as quiet as a cockle shell tossed in the water”.
Once in the water, groups of survivors eventually formed. One such group was Sisters Rattray, Popplewell and Walker. Holding onto floating wreckage with their bare hands, Sisters Popplewell and Walker took turns in trying to keep the older Sister Rattray afloat. When Sister Rattray asked Sister Popplewell to rest and simply let her go to drift amongst the waves, Sister Popplewell refused. She either could not or would not let go. Only when it became apparent that both Sisters Rattray and Walker had died, and with the fear of being dragged down beneath the water in exhaustion, did Sister Popplewell let her fellow nurses drift away amongst the waves and climbed onto the wreckage waiting for rescue.
Sister Popplewell was awarded the Royal Red Cross (2nd Class) and became a Ward Sister in the New Zealand Hospital at Mount Felix in the United Kingdom. She was ultimately retired from the front lines due to complications from injuries sustained during the sinking of the Marquette, and later continued to nurse in New Zealand.
This is a photo with the title “Ministering angels in time of suffering: The New Zealand nurses who will tend our wounded heroes on the hospital ship Maheno and at the Base Hospital.” Nurses Popplewell, Walker and Rattray may be in the picture.