Hospital ships

Page 5 – Life on board


What was life like aboard a First World War hospital ship? That largely depended on your job, your rank and your gender. In peacetime the ships had catered to three classes of passengers, their ticket prices set accordingly. No one bought tickets for a berth on a hospital ship, but the military’s ancient division between officers and ‘other ranks’ imposed its own set of rules and restrictions.

The medical establishment changed over time, but on the Maheno there were typically 7-8 doctors, 3 chaplains, 14 nurses and 60-70 orderlies. The doctors, chaplains and nurses had officer status and enjoyed better accommodation and first class passenger menus. Or they should have. Although the government had said that nurses would be treated as officers, Lieutenant-Colonel James Elliott, the senior military officer on the Maheno’s first voyage, withdrew many of their privileges, greatly souring relations. The ships were small and crowded, but some women felt short-changed in the amount of open deck areas allocated to them, mixing between men and women being restricted to certain times and places.

Even so, the other personnel would have envied the nurses’ treatment. Orderlies, masseurs and technicians made up the vast bulk of the ships’ musters, although their ranks also included food service workers and clerical staff. Although peacetime passengers were used to sharing four- or eight-berth cabins with strangers of the same sex at peak season, the army personnel were crowded together and dined according to peacetime third-class standards. The army never got the orderlies’ accommodation on the Maheno quite right, a problem for the men who performed some of the most physically taxing duties on the ship.

The crew occupied their peacetime quarters, Union Company cooks and stewards serving officers first-class food and everyone else a third-class menu. Crew numbers were down about 10% on peacetime, since army personnel catered for their own personnel and patients. The crew was divided into the deck department (officers and seamen), the engineering department (engineers, firemen and coal trimmers) and what would now be called the catering or hotel department (cooks, stewards, laundry workers etc). On the Maheno’s first voyage the men ranged in age from the 56-year-old master to a 16-year-old brass boy. Many had been born overseas, most in the UK, but some came from Australia, the United States, Scandinavia and even Russia. Since Dunedin was the ship’s home port, Otago men featured strongly on the crew lists of both ships.

Crew accommodation was adequate by the standard of the day, although in the hot Mediterranean the firemen’s unventilated area was considered bad, especially on the Maheno. On both ships, the hardworking 'black gang’ - the firemen and trimmers - were always the men most likely to delay the ships by being late or by coming back drunk.

Serving on a hospital ship was not always good for your health, even if you were a medic. During the Marama’s first commission over 60% of the orderlies fell sick, as did 40% of the nurses and all but one doctor. Crew fell victim to the usual accidents created by moving machinery and handling derricks and mooring ropes.

Patients also dined and were accommodated according to rank, with officers enjoying more spacious wards. While surgery was important during the Gallipoli and the Somme phases of the ships’ careers, on the long voyages back to New Zealand, rest, good food and rehabilitation worked most of the shipboard miracles. The water in the ships’ baths may have been salt, not fresh, but clean sheets, daily bathing and a balanced diet turned many cot cases into ‘walkers’ long before they re-entered New Zealand waters.

Entertainment varied. In fine weather, patients enjoyed a book or a smoke in their deck chairs (although smoking was banned in some areas, cigarettes were dished out in patient comfort packs). Quoits tournaments and boxing matches were popular with spectators and participants alike. The chaplains helped with lectures and library duties. Music and concerts were popular, as was sightseeing at ports of call. For many personnel and patients, this was their first 'OE' and Colombo their first taste of the exotic east. In Egypt people talked about going ‘Sphinxing’. Not everyone behaved well, with patients sometimes overstaying their leave. Comments about dark-skinned races were sometimes blunt.

Egos and mutineers

The Maheno’s voyage to Gallipoli was not as smooth as Governor Liverpool liked to portray. Lieutenant-Colonel Elliott, the officer commanding (as the senior army doctor was known), got off to a bad start by denying the nurses some of the privileges due to personnel with officer status. More disturbingly, he tried to boss the ship’s master, Captain McLean. The well-known maritime phrase ‘master under God’ seems to have been a mystery to him. In August 1915 Elliott stunned Defence Department officials in Wellington by telegramming ‘am I in supreme command and the ships master responsible to me for the safe navigation and discipline or is the master in supreme command?’ The issue made it into the press and briefly involved the attention of New Zealand’s high commissioner to London. Elliott was told firmly that while the ship’s master should consult him, the captain had the final say.

The rumours persist that the vessel did not carry a strikingly happy family. – Otago Daily Times

A more serious incident occurred off Malta in September 1915. The Maheno’s 1914 re-engineering had only slightly improved the working conditions of the ‘black gang’, the firemen and trimmers who fed the ship’s ravenous and awkwardly designed boilers. If it could get hot and hellish on the Tasman, imagine what it must have been like in the heat of the Mediterranean. The engine room was short-staffed, so the men went on strike – or mutinied in wartime terms. Captain McLean brought the ship back to port where he had 26 men arrested and replaced by Maltese workers.

Lord Liverpool also caused a few problems. He often interfered in the details of his pet project and right at the beginning he complicated staffing problems by announcing that the ships’ medics could serve no more than six months if they wished. Some doctors feared having their practices’ patients poached by others if they were away from home too long, so the high turnover at voyage-end increased the training needed for the next one.

How to cite this page

'Life on board', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 19-Aug-2014