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Hospital ships

Page 6 – Later service and legacies

After Gallipoli

New Zealand's second hopsital ship, the Marama, missed Gallipoli, reaching the Mediterranean a few weeks after the Allies abandoned the peninsula. The two ships’ service pattern would now be dominated by long voyages back to New Zealand to discharge incapacitated Kiwis and to refit at Port Chalmers.

At first some government ministers questioned why such expensively equipped ships should act as glorified troop transports, but it made sense to the hard-pressed British. By 1916 the war on the Western Front had become a numbers game as the Allies waged a war of attrition against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Before planning a new ‘push’, the army always cleared out the base hospitals and convalescent centres in Britain and Egypt, knowing that their beds would soon be in high demand. Lightly wounded men who might expect to serve again shortly stayed put, but those deemed too sick or injured to make a speedy return to full health were put on hospital ships and sent back to Australia and New Zealand. There they could recover and the more able-bodied among them could find other ways of contributing to the war effort.

Maheno at Lyttelton

The Maheno dropping patients off at Lyttelton

The Battle of the Somme

The main exception to the hospital ships' post-Gallipoli voyage pattern came in July 1916 when Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig launched the massive Somme offensive. On the first day alone, nearly 60,000 British officers and men were killed, captured or wounded.

Coincidentally, the Marama was lying at Southampton and the Maheno was due there in two days’ time. It was the hospital ships’ greatest challenge. Many Marama crew and personnel were ashore, on leave or were conducting ship’s business in places as far away as London when news broke. Telegrams flew forth to summon them back, but inevitably some could not be reached, so the Marama sailed short-handed, warned that it might soon have to squeeze in 1000 patients, 400 more than it was equipped to handle.

There are no soft jobs going about this boat now. Sometimes we don’t get any sleep for 48 hours … if this keeps up we will all be knocked out: it’s too much. - Corporal John Garland

It was hell. Doctors, nurses, orderlies and seafarers struggled to deal with the numbers. Not only were the injuries often horrific, the men had come straight from the trenches, instead of having passed through behind-the-lines treatment centres. That meant that they were muddy, bloody and often crawling with vermin, some of which transferred themselves to the ships’ personnel; ‘Dhobi itch’, the medics called it. ‘The stench arising from the various wounds in a crowded ward can be better imagined than described’, the official account of the Marama’s service noted. Everyone got a tetanus jab because the heavily manured Western Front fields were full of the deadly bacillus.

Mines lurked everywhere in the English Channel and the huge 8-metre tidal range at Le Havre sometimes made it very difficult to position gangways. Everyone not needed to navigate the ship helped with tending the wounded and with the catering. The Marama’s stewards stopped serving patients at mess tables and simply handed out cutlery and food, telling patients to eat ‘in much the same manner as children are served at a school picnic’.

The ships were crowded for the short cross-channel dash. On one memorable occasion the Marama struggled to find room for nearly 1600 patients. The Maheno, refitted to carry 600 patients, picked up 1141 on its first trip. Many badly wounded men had to made do with deck chairs rather than cots.

They could sleep in any position, given a blanket and a sitting room, and it was all many of them wanted. Some would sleep back to back. – Lord Liverpool

For weeks the ships criss-crossed the Channel, sometimes meeting up in the same port, sometimes passing each other at sea. When passing mid-channel the crews and patients would cheer each other loudly. During the battles for the Somme, the Maheno carried 14,631 patients on 14 voyages and the Marama conveyed 10,978 in 11 journeys. These tallies included 973 German prisoners of war, some of whom looked very scared, having been told by their own propaganda that U-boats and mines had made the English Channel impassable.

The ships resumed their trans-hemispheric voyages in September/October 1916 as the Somme battles fizzled out.  The long voyages took them away from the hazardous North Sea and Mediterranean zones for most of their journeys, but in early 1917 Germany, being strangled slowly by the Royal Navy’s blockade of its sea trade, hit back. In February it declared unrestricted submarine warfare, closing off all but a few narrow routes around the British Isles to all shipping.

Soon hospital ships were coming under attack in what the Allies referred to a ‘war on hospital ships’.  While some attacks may have been mistakes, others clearly were not. In May 1917 the War Office ordered all nursing sisters off imperial hospital ships, to the deep disappointment of the women. The ban was lifted a few months later when Germany allowed neutral Spanish commissioners to supervise hospital ships’ passage through narrow transit routes.

Post-war fates

The end of the war saw the Maheno and Marama working as troopships, helping other units of the Union Company fleet to carry New Zealanders back home. By the time they returned to peacetime duties in 1919, they had carried over 47,000 patients and prisoners of war.

The ships returned to Port Chalmers to offload their hospital fittings – (the Maheno’s went to South Island hospitals and the Marama’s to North Island ones). Re-equipped with their peacetime finery, they resumed their old runs, the Maheno principally on the Tasman and the Marama mainly on the trans-Pacific service.

Age and the Great Depression finally caught up with both ships in the early 1930s. The Maheno had been idle for almost four years when the Union Company sold it for scrap in 1935. The ship left Sydney towed by an even older steamer, also bound for the same Japanese breaker’s yard. The Maheno never got there. The towline parted in mountainous seas off the Queensland coast. Authorities feared the worst, but days later searchers found the ship and its small tow crew hard aground on Ocean Beach, Fraser Island.

The Japanese insisted that they could salvage the wreck. For months three owners’ representatives camped on the beach defending their so-called ‘asset’. A couple even got married aboard the listing hulk as the sands built up around it.

Eventually the Japanese saw sense and abandoned the wreck, which became a tourist attraction. More recently, a bunch of British sightseers liked it so much that they named their alternative rock band The Maheno Wreck.

The Marama had a brief respite but went for scrap in 1937.


So what is the hospital ships' legacy? Museums display some of their ships’ bells and Auckland's Voyager National Maritime Museum is restoring the Nautilus, one of the Marama’s launches.

Their biggest tribute sits four-square in the registry complex at the University of Otago. In 1919 authorities gave the medical school the surplus money to build a gymnasium and drill hall for its training corps. But the cadet unit had disbanded by the time the governor-general opened Edmund Anscombe’s handsome two-storey building in 1923. Maheno and Marama Hall (later shortened to Marama Hall) has been the campus’s centre for music for many years.

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Later service and legacies, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated