The Salonika campaign

Page 5 – NZEF involvement

The sea was full of soldiers struggling for bits of raft and wreckage. We were swamped again and again until we were exhausted. It was pitiful to see nurses and soldiers tiring in frantic struggles, finally releasing their grasp on the gunwale, floating for a few seconds, and then slowly sinking without a murmur.

Unidentified NZ nurse, Marlborough Express, 24 November 1915

The New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) provided no combat units for the campaign in Salonika. The official contribution of New Zealanders was brief but marked by tragedy. 

On 19 October 1915, No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital left Egypt aboard the troopship Marquette along with British Army units. Medical units were often conveyed by hospital ships which displayed the international symbol of the Red Cross. Shortage of shipping meant the New Zealanders were sailing on a normal army transport ship, a valid target for enemy submarines, which were taking a toll of Allied shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Masseydonian Stretcher

The Masseydonian Stretcher was the monthly journal of the No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital. Published under the motto ‘always merry and bright’, the May 1916 issue provided details of the unit’s adventures in Salonika, including this 'musing' about the weather in north-east Greece:

First came the rain, then came the mud,
A deluge first, and then a flood;
Then came the snow with chilling breath
And stillness like the sleep of death.
A fog us then enveloped round;
For four long weeks no sun was found.
Our little creek was frozen o’er But worse than that was yet in store;
For a blizzard came from the Vardar,
Fast fell the snow, the ice froze harder;
And then we longed with all our might
For Egypt’s sun, and warmth, and light.

Changing course frequently to avoid the enemy, the Marquette appeared safe. Then, on the morning of 23 October, as it entered the Gulf of Salonika, it was torpedoed. The ship sank in just ten minutes and 167 souls out of 741 were lost. Thirty-two staff of the hospital died, including ten nurses, several when another lifeboat fell onto the one in which they were sitting. Others spent hours in the water clinging to wreckage in a horrific test of endurance. The survivors were taken to Salonika and began setting up the hospital despite having lost their equipment. Because of the fraught political situation in Greece, the surviving nurses were sent back to Egypt within a week on a Royal Navy ship.

The sinking of the Marquette caused outrage and some bitterness in New Zealand, particularly as a hospital ship had left Port Said the same day as the troopship. The British authorities later agreed to avoid any risk of a repeat of the tragedy. The loss of the nurses was felt most keenly, and was one of the reasons for the foundation and dedication of a Nurses Chapel at Christchurch hospital in 1927. Those who died or remained missing are also commemorated at Mikra British Cemetery, near Salonika and not far from where some of the bodies were washed ashore.

The survivors set up a tent hospital at Lembet Camp, the bleak and windswept main base for the British forces in Salonika. During November the first cases came in, mostly soldiers of the 10th (Irish) Division who were fresh from Gallipoli and lightly clothed. Frostbite and trench foot were the most common conditions treated, along with a few battle casualties from the fighting in Serbia. Diseases such as typhoid, dysentery and trench fever were also common. Salonika was also home to many refugees who had been displaced during the recent Balkan Wars and the New Zealanders treated many of these civilians. The camp was bombed by enemy aircraft in December 1915, causing alarm – and worse, a large quantity of gift material sent from New Zealand to raise morale was destroyed by a fire.

Despite these setbacks, the morale and reputation of the unit remained high. On 3 March 1916, the unit was relieved by No. 1 Canadian Stationary Hospital. The New Zealanders returned to Egypt having done much valuable work during their 3½ months in Greece at a difficult time for the British Salonika Force.    

A few individual members of the NZEF also served in Greece in specialised roles. These included Canterbury artist and teacher Colin Lovell-Smith, who was serving as a sapper in the Royal New Zealand Engineers. He was awarded the White Eagle of Serbia for his work on attachment to the British Army in early 1916 assisting with the surveying and mapping of the region.