Merchant marine

Page 4 – Hospital ships

Angels of mercy: the Maheno and Marama

Hospital ships date back to the end of the 18th century, and their use was codified under the Hague Convention of 1907. This required them to:

  • be clearly marked
  • help the injured regardless of nationality
  • not be used for any military purpose
  • not interfere with or hamper enemy combatants
  • be available for inspection and verification

In May 1915, as casualties mounted at Gallipoli, the government chartered a hospital ship, the Union Company’s 5282-ton trans-Tasman liner Maheno of 1905. A year earlier, this pioneer triple-screw turbine steamer had been re-engined as a twin-screw steamer with geared turbines.

Governor Lord Liverpool, head of the Order of St John in New Zealand, led the appeal for donations to outfit the ship. A few months later, he would repeat the effort with the Marama (6437 tons, 1907). New Zealanders responded generously, donating £66,000 (equivalent to $9.4 million in 2014). The Union Company’s Port Chalmers shipwrights quickly transformed the ship. Its state-of-the-art facilities included eight wards, two operating theatres, sterilising and X-ray rooms, a laboratory, a laundry and drying room, steam disinfector, dispensary, telephone exchange and two electric lifts, each capable of taking two stretchers at a time. The Maheno could carry 340 cot cases and the Marama 592, although on occasion the ships had many more than those numbers aboard.

‘Our ship … is beautiful. A great white monster …. An angel on a mercy mission.’

Lottie Le Gallais

Farewelled and welcomed by senior politicians and by the governor, the hospital ships became household names back home. Soon their doctors, nurses and Union Company crews were working around the clock to the sound of gunfire off the Gallipoli beaches, operating on the wounded and shuttling them to the nearby support base at Mudros. Other runs took them to Britain and France and back to New Zealand.

The only incident occurred aboard the Maheno, a heavy coal-user. In the heat of the Mediterranean, some of its firemen and trimmers, worked to breaking point, refused duty. They forced the ship to return to port, but got three months’ hard labour for their rebellion.

By the time the ships returned to peacetime duties in 1919, they had carried more than 47,000 soldiers and made 17 charter voyages. When they re-entered the Tasman passenger service their medical equipment was donated to hospitals, with one shipload of gear going to each island. The Maheno’s ship’s bell hangs in the primary school in the North Otago town of that name. Marama Hall at the University of Otago was built with profits from shipboard canteens, and originally used by the medical school. A large honours board just inside the entrance lists the names of the more than 1000 medical staff who served aboard the ships.