At 9.15 a.m. on 23 October 1915, a German torpedo slammed into the transport ship Marquette as she entered the Gulf of Salonika in the Aegean Sea. The ship sank within ten minutes, leaving hundreds of survivors struggling in the water. By the time rescue craft arrived several hours later, 167 people had drowned, including 32 New Zealanders (ten women and 22 men).
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.
The Salonika campaign (also known as the Balkan or Macedonian campaign) began in October 1915, when the Allies sent an expeditionary force to Salonika to support Serbia against an invasion by Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. Over the next three years, the Allies held a front line stretching from the Albanian coast to the River Struma in north-east Greece. Fighting along this front mirrored the stalemate on the Western Front until Bulgaria’s surrender in September 1918.
Committed to Gallipoli, then France and the Middle East, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force did not send combat units to Salonika. New Zealand’s presence in the Balkans was confined to the hospital at Salonika and the Greek island of Lemnos, where New Zealand troops fighting on Gallipoli were sent for rest and reorganisation. A few New Zealanders served in Greece with the British imperial forces.