Hospital ships

Page 4 – Civilians at Gallipoli

The hospital ships followed a standard route, coaling at an Australian port (usually Albany) and Colombo in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on their way to the Suez Canal. By the time they reached Western Australia, all but a handful had stopped ‘feeding the fishes’ (being sea sick) and gained their sea legs. A few nurses and orderlies never got the hang of the sea and had to be transferred to shore establishments. By the time the ship reached the Mediterranean, even the most land-lubberly nurse or orderly had settled into the daily routine and knew what to do when officers gave the signal for fire or lifeboat drill.

The Maheno goes to war

The Maheno arrived in the Mediterranean in time for the Allies’ bloody late-August 1915 offensives. Not much had improved since the April landings on the peninsula. The troops ashore were short of water, nutritious food, medical facilities and shelter. At times disease was as much a threat as bullets and shells. Even at the best of times, flies, lice, stress and an inadequate diet compromised a man’s health even before he copped a bullet or shell fragment.

That was just the beginning of fresh horrors because, unlike on the Western Front, there were no safe rear areas for casualty evacuation and initial treatment. The Ottoman (Turkish) troops commanded the high ground, able to fire on the landing beaches and offshore anchorages. Maheno crew and personnel compared the trenches and shelters dug into the lower cliffs to rabbit burrows, soon learning that most of these offered only limited protection.

Although Turkish gunners respected the Allied hospital ships, operating off Anzac Cove was fraught with difficulties. On the Western Front hospital ships docked far from the battle front alongside modern wharves. Under these safe, secure conditions it was easy to transfer patients from trains or ambulances. At Anzac, in contrast, the Maheno had to anchor in the open sea and load patients from launches, trawlers and even towed barges. Unless marked clearly with red crosses, these small craft were legitimate targets. Even when the shells were falling far away, it was slow, laborious work, easily disrupted by bad weather.

When the small craft came alongside the Maheno, the crew and personnel used the ship’s derricks to winch up patients and their caregivers (though the ship’s unusual side doors made this easier under the right sea conditions). Once aboard, medics quickly assessed the men. On those hectic, bloody days of late August 1915 ‘walkers’ (as they called the lightly injured), were likely to be sent to the other side of the Maheno to be transported by trawler or launch to a humble transport or freighter. On these ‘black boats’, medical care might be left to a veterinarian and a couple of orderlies, but there were too many seriously hurt men to provide full service care for everyone. On the Maheno’s first day, 400 ‘walkers’ were offloaded just to allow the overcrowded ship to dash to the nearby islands of Imbros and Lemnos to deposit the most seriously wounded in the makeshift hospitals there.

The Anzac shuttle

And so began an exhausting period of shuttling between the Greek islands and Anzac. Once off the beach, everyone on board 'turned to' whenever the bugler played the sick parade call, even the Union Company seafarers, technically not part of the medical establishment.

The Marquette tragedy

32 New Zealanders, including 10 nurses, died when the troopship Marquette was sunk by a German submarine in the Aegean Sea on 23 October 1915. If the medical staff had been on a marked hospital ship they would almost certainly not have been targeted.

Tired firemen and trimmers helped army orderlies and nurses comfort and move patients and serve food and tea. Third Officer John Duder bolted from his first stint in an operating theatre, but came back for more later. ‘Some of the operations are awful’, he confided in his diary.

The short shuttle journey to Imbros and Lemnos was no leisure cruise. At night the ships’ officers had to keep a sharp lookout for blacked-out warships and transports. In daylight they stopped for sea burials. Duder wrote emotionally about having to lower a boat to sink some shrouded bodies that had failed to disappear. ‘I came back & was ill at the thought of it’.

The return journey to Anzac was only marginally better. While there were no patients to worry about, the nurses and orderlies kept busy fumigating the wards and theatres, remaking the cots and rolling bandages while the seafarers scrubbed the decks. They had to scrub hard, because many patients had arrived in a filthy condition.

'A floating palace'

The Maheno took patients from several nations, but there is no doubt that its familiar profile gladdened many Kiwi hearts. ‘The Maheno is a floating palace’, Cecil Malthus wrote from the beaches. Looking out over the bay, Chaplain William Grant thought that the Union Company workhorse looked like poet Coleridge’s ‘painted ship upon a painted ocean.’ One soldier, a former Union Company officer, masqueraded as a walking wounded just to enjoy a bath, food, cigar and a chat with the captain for a few precious hours before returning to battle.

The food worked wonders. Although the ship’s meat and poultry were usually tinned or frozen, they were a delight to men accustomed to tinned bully beef, dried biscuits and a much-loathed jam usually enjoyed more by the summer flies than by the men. Even something as simple as fresh-baked bread and New Zealand butter worked wonders. ‘How they go for it’, a Union Company officer remarked as he helped the army personnel butter bread while they lay off Anzac Cove. ‘The first remark is always about the butter and how good it tastes.’