Marquette Great War Story

Around 9.15 a.m. on 23 October 1915, a German torpedo slammed into the transport ship Marquette as it entered the Gulf of Salonika in the Aegean Sea. The ship sank within 10 minutes, leaving hundreds struggling in the water. By the time rescue craft arrived several hours later, 167 people had drowned, including 32 New Zealanders (10 women and 22 men).

Marquette disaster

Most of the New Zealand victims were nurses and medical orderlies of the 1st New Zealand Stationary Hospital. They were en route from Egypt to the northern Greek port of Salonika (Thessaloniki) as New Zealand’s contribution to the Allied campaign in the Balkans. 

Among those who died was Mary Gorman, whose body was never recovered. Born in Ōamaru in 1880, Gorman trained in nursing at Waimate hospital before moving to Wellington hospital in 1911. She enlisted on 19 May 1915, just two days before leaving Wellington on a troopship. 

Gorman and her fellow nurses travelled via Sydney to Port Said in Egypt, and joined the No. 1 Stationary Field Hospital. Many of the wounded soldiers from Gallipoli were sent there.

There are 65 tents, and each tent takes eight patients … Twenty-nine New Zealand nurses have arrived, and their help was invaluable. During six weeks 700 patients had been admitted.[1]

In early October the staff were notified that they would be moving to a new location. On 18 October they packed up their equipment and departed by train for Alexandria. At about 3 a.m. the next day they boarded the Marquette, a 7057-ton steamer. A cargo ship in peacetime, the Marquette had been converted into a transport for wartime service.

On the evening of 19 October 1915, exactly five months after Gorman enlisted, the Marquette sailed from Alexandria for the Greek port of Salonika. On board were officers and men of the New Zealand Hospital Corps, 36 New Zealand army nursing staff, 610 British officers and men of the 29th Divisional Ammunition Column, 541 mules, and large supplies of ammunition. One of Gorman’s fellow nurses, Edith Popplewell, described the early days of the journey as:

the happiest and most peaceful … I have ever known at sea. It was calm and sunny and everyone was so well … No. 1 New Zealand Hospital very much felt the honour that had been conferred upon it by being sent to so important a field. There were rumours of torpedoes, of course, and we had lifebelt drills for two days, but we really hardly took it seriously I am afraid.[2]

The Marquette was escorted by the French torpedo destroyer Tirailleur, but this left the transport on the evening of the 22nd for reasons which are unclear – possibly to aid a disabled transport ship. This did not cause much concern as the Marquette was expected to reach Salonika by midday on the 23rd.

The next morning, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-35. One of the survivors who recalled seeing the torpedo was nurse Mary Grigor from Christchurch:

At 9 a.m. on 23rd October … I was on the top deck of the Marquette walking with Captain Isaacs and Sister Sinclair. The morning was cold, and we had our coats on. He exclaimed: ‘I wonder what that is coming toward us.’ I said: ‘It looks like a torpedo, does it not?’ Surely enough the crash came then, and we realised what it was (it was just a straight, thin line in the water and the swish could be heard distinctly). I should think it was only about fifty yards away when we saw it.[3]

The torpedo hit the starboard (right) side of the ship, causing it to list badly to port. Most of those aboard quickly realised what had happened, and Edith Popplewell recalled that ‘everyone was so calm, and although men and girls alike were as white as sheets, no one cried or spoke even, except to give orders.'[4]

For reasons unknown, the crew did not man their stations. Inexperienced soldiers struggled to lower the lifeboats, an exercise which was further complicated by the angle of the ship and the speed at which it was sinking. Lives were lost unnecessarily. In Mary Grigor’s words:

The launching of the boats was a decided failure … On the starboard side (I was there) the first boat launched tipped, and those who were not shot out into the sea … had to get out as soon as it touched the water, as there was a huge hole in it. People clambered around her from all sides until she finally submerged…[5]

Private J.B. Gillett of No. 1 New Zealand Hospital was certain that Mary Gorman lost her life as a result of the botched lowering of the lifeboats:

At that time, although only about three minutes from the time she was struck, the ship had a tremendous list to port, which made it very difficult to launch the boats … the [No. 1 boat] had somewhere about eighteen firemen, sailors, and stewards in before the nurses were taken on board, but I could not understand why more nurses were not allowed aboard that boat, as it could easily have accommodated another sixteen or so. As soon as the nurses were aboard, some soldiers began lowering the boat, and not keeping her on an even keel, left her swinging on the davits about three feet from the water, and went to the next boat, No. 3, and somehow or other managed to let her come down with a rush about a foot or so higher than No. 1 … then someone unknown let the falls of No. 3 run out and she came crash, fair across the gunwales and about midships on top of No. 1 boat. Nurses Gorman and [Mary] Rae were crushed for certain…[6]

It is not known exactly how Gorman died. Another account had it that only her legs were crushed, and she gave away her lifejacket because she knew she would not survive.

Jeannie Sinclair jumped into the ocean because her lifeboat was still attached to the ship and full of water:

It was awful going past the ship and seeing a large, gaping hole, and all the mules there, and wondering if the vessel would fall on top of us and I would be killed. At last we got past her propeller, to which some men were clinging.[7]

Sinclair, who was not a confident swimmer, was helped by a British soldier named Joseph. They were later both rescued:

We floated with boards, lifebuoys and anything we could catch hold of, for seven, long hours … When I was getting tired, [he] sat on a board and rested me across his knees. Then he would put his arm across a board and let me rest my chin on his arms. He helped others in this way as well. It was dreadful to see some of the other men going whitey-yellow and then blue around the nose, mouth and eyes and, a little later, passing out. One man, who died early in the morning, floated with us all day. I only saw one sister in the water the whole day.[8]

Mary Grigor’s arm was crushed between the ship and a lifeboat, but she too survived:

I swam about for hours … feeling very sick and sore … I saw some men hanging on to wreckage, and called to them to ask if I might also hang on, and they said it was no good, there were already too many there. Then one of the crew saw me and came along to me with a piece of board, to which I clung for some time. Then he said to me, ‘Look out, Sister, there is a shark right behind you; paddle for your life.’ I did so, though I’d rather drown than be eaten by a shark … My rescuer died soon after this from cramp or exhaustion. I was sorry I could do nothing for him … I wondered if I should be the next. Men died on all sides. Some lost their reason and went away from us all. We could see ships pass and repass in the distance, but they took no notice of us. They could neither see nor hear us, but we thought that because they were neutral they would let us die!

… Luckily for us our own English patrol boat … caught sight of one of our boats in the distance … Many died even after the boats were in sight; it seemed too much for them.[9]

One of the four nurses still on board when the Marquette sank was Mabel Wright from Southland. Wright saw Isabel Clark and Marion Brown turn and speak to each other before holding hands and jumping into the sea. They did not survive.

Sister [Ina] Coster and myself did not get off the deck – we both helped two sick orderlies on to the gangway, and in doing so lost our chance of going down. One of our own N.Z. doctors came up to me … and asked me if I could swim. I told him, ‘No.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Not much hope for you.’[10]

The Marquette sent out a faint SOS immediately after it was hit. It took no more than 15 minutes to sink, but survivors spent up to nine hours in the cold water. They were rescued by the British destroyer HMS Lynn and the French destroyers Tirailleur and Mortier.

Of the 741 people on board, 167 lost their lives, including 10 New Zealand nurses and 22 men from the New Zealand Medical Corps and No.1 Stationary Field Hospital. Of the nurses, only the bodies of Margaret Rogers and Helena Isdell were recovered. They were found together with the bodies of four soldiers in a boat which washed up near the Greek town of Zagorá.

The loss of the nurses and medical staff could have been avoided had they travelled on the British hospital ship Grantully Castle, which sailed empty to Salonika on the same day. Hospital ships were clearly marked with red crosses and protected under the Geneva Convention, whereas the Marquette was a transport conveying troops and ammunition, making it an attractive target for the submarine crew. The Governor of New Zealand, Lord Liverpool, wrote to the War Office to express his concern over the incident:

In view of loss of ‘Marquette’ my Government would be glad if arrangements could made whereby medical units, such as stationary hospitals etc. should when possible be transferred by sea in a hospital ship.[11]

The sinking of the Marquette was widely reported, but accounts conflicted. One popular story was that the nurses had refused to leave until most of the fighting men were off the ship – they had 'stayed on the decks cheering the Tommies'.[12] Lieutenant-Colonel McGavin, commanding No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital, wrote to the Defence Minister to refute this notion: ‘I myself saw that all the nurses were clear of the ship.’[13] Nurses wrote to the nursing journal Kai Tiaki to deny both versions: they had not cheered and deliberately stayed behind, nor were they all off the ship before it sank.

Shortly after the disaster, one of the Medical Officers wrote to the Matron-in-Chief to praise the nurses:

Of their conduct as a whole no words can express our admiration. They mustered quickly and quietly at their alarm post and cheerfully and without the least confusion or panic passed along the deck to their boat, and never once during the long day did I hear any of those who were able to stick it out make any complaint.[14]

Primary Sources

  • Mary Gorman's military personnel file (Archives NZ)
  • ‘Port Said Hospital: Colonel McGavin’s Report’, Feilding Star, 11 October 1915 (Papers Past)
  • ‘Loss of the Marquette’, Poverty Bay Herald, 14 January 1916 (Papers Past)
  • ‘Story of Aegean Tragedy’, Marlborough Express, 18 December 1915 (Papers Past)
  • ‘Scarlet and Grey’, Evening Post, 22 October 1932 (Papers Past)
  • ‘Marquette Hero’, Marlborough Express, 29 December 1915 (Papers Past)
  • ‘Heroines of the Marquette’, Dominion, 24 November 1915 (Papers Past)
  • ‘The “Marquette” Disaster’, Kai Tiaki, April 1916 (Papers Past)

Further information

  • Mary Gorman's record on the Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph Database
  • Sherayl McNabb, 100 Years New Zealand Military Nursing: New Zealand Army Nursing Service - Royal New Zealand Nursing Corps, 2015
  • Anna Rogers, While you’re away: New Zealand nurses at war 1899-1948, Auckland University Press, 2003
  • Anna Rogers, ‘In Loving Memory: The Nurses’ Memorial Chapel, Christchurch, New Zealand’, New Zealand Medical Journal, vol. 119, no. 1244, 2006
  • John Meredith Smith, Cloud over Marquette, Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1990
  • World War One Roll of Honour (New Zealand Military Nursing)


[1] ‘Port Said Hospital: Colonel McGavin’s Report’, Feilding Star, 11 October 1915

[2] E. Popplewell, Kai Tiaki, January 1916, p. 11, cited in Anna Rogers, While you’re away: New Zealand nurses at war 1899-1948, p. 96

[3] ‘Scarlet and Grey’, Evening Post, 22 October 1932

[4] Popplewell, cited in Rogers, While you’re away, p. 97

[5] ‘Scarlet and Grey’

[6] ‘Marquette Hero’, Marlborough Express, 29 December 1915

[7] J. Sinclair, letter to relatives in Helensville, cited in While you’re away, p. 97

[8] Sinclair letter, cited in While you’re away, p. 99

[9] ‘Scarlet and Grey’

[10] AD I 49/88/I, cited in While you’re away, p. 109

[11] AD I 49/88/I, cited in While you’re away, p. 111

[12] ‘Heroines of the Marquette’, Dominion, 24 November 1915

[13] ‘Marquette Disaster’, Dominion, 17 April 1916

[14] ‘The “Marquette” Disaster’, Kai Tiaki, April 1916

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