Voices from the Past

Marquette: The Hospital Packed on a Troopship


The Stories of Corporals Pettit and Mirfin, Private Nicholson, and Orderly Stone

No. 1 Stationary Hospital was the first New Zealand Expeditionary Force hospital deployed in World War I. Staffed by enthusiastic and selfless personnel adamant at being as close to the action as possible to tend to the wounded, it was bristling with the latest innovations, from electric dynamo driven lights to X-ray units. Sailing aboard the troopship Marquette when it was fatally struck with a torpedo, some of this vital equipment and cargo was lost at sea. Those aboard (including No. 1 Stationary Hospital nurses) now found themselves in a frantic struggle to get through the destruction to safety, and to tend to their own wounds.

Two men, Corporals Pettit and Mirfin (pictured), despite knowing the ship was going down fast, stayed below decks and lowered ropes to those who were cut off from safety by the explosion of the torpedo. These two men saved at least three lives before getting themselves to safety; three lives that would have surely perished without them. They were later formally commended and recognised for their actions by General Godley.

An object that survived the sinking of the Marquette is the wristwatch of Private Claude Nicholson of Invercargill, fatefully stopped at twenty past nine, and is on display at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa. Before the war, Nicholson was a hairdresser, a musician, and a noteworthy poet who had once been commended for his piece regarding the sinking of the Titanic. Little did he know that he himself would endure a similar terror. Nicholson was in the first lifeboat to be loaded and was fully laden with passengers when, tragically, a second lifeboat fell on top of it. Many were mortally wounded, including Nicholson who badly injured his arms and legs. The lifeboats that were able to get away from the sinking troopship faced the peril of being dashed to pieces by the still active propellers. One such lifeboat was destroyed, but many aboard the destroyed lifeboat miraculously appeared on the other side of the propellers, to be safely rescued.

During the last moments before the troopship sank, standing straight up on its end, some chose to jump. Orderly Wilfred Stone recalled the last moments of a sinking ship, and how he often thought about the nurses he had seen still aboard as he stepped off into the waiting, perilous sea. He used his remaining strength to swim not only for his own help but to direct a lifeboat to nurses floundering in the water. Once Stone was safely aboard one of the rescue ships, they returned to where the Marquette had gone down, looking for survivors. One of those survivors rescued with the help of Stone was Private Nicholson, who sadly died from complications of his injuries six days later.

After Solonika, the No. 1 Stationary Hospital served at the Somme and Flanders, forever vindicating and realising the ambitions of those lost on the fated troopship Marquette to tend to the wounded close to the action.