ANZAC Day is a time for tributes and throughout history war has produced countless heroes worthy of them. Many of these have been woman who quietly and staunchly served their country and supported their menfolk either at home or on the front lines. Yet for these women, war also opened up a world and new horizons that never would have been available to them in peacetime – even if it sometimes came at a heavy price. One of these woman was my great great Aunt Edith McLeod. Born in 1883, and seemingly doomed to spending her life as a spinster of the parish working as a domestic servant in rural Hawkes Bay. At age 28, she opted for the only other occupation apart from teaching open to single women at the time, and entered nursing at Masterton Hospital. She then joined the New Zealand Army Nursing reserve, presumably soon after the war started, as by May 1915 she was on a boat bound for Port Said in Egypt where she nursed wounded soldiers from Gallipoli at the Pont-De-Kubbah Hospital.
I wish I had some letter or diary to read of her feelings as she sailed through the bright blue water of the Mediterranean. It was literally a world away from her former life. What did it feel like to her to lean over the deck rail and watch as the boat berthed at the bustling hot dusty harbour that was Port Said in May 1915? In October, she left Egypt bound for Salonika on the troopship Marquette. Also aboard were soldiers from the British 29th division Royal Field Artillery, and in total 741 people, 50 horses and 491 mules. The Marquette was escorted by the a British destroyer but this left her alone four days out and on October 23 the ship was torpedoed by U-35, which became one of the most successful German submarines of the war, sinking altogether 195 vessels. The torpedo was spotted by people on the upper deck, including one of the nurses Jeannie Sinclair, who wrote in a letter home: “I said I wonder it it’s a torpedo. Thud! It was.” Edith survived the sinking and shortly after her rescue wrote to her sister about her experience. “I had just gone down to my cabin with one of the other Sisters, when the boat was stuck. There was just a dull thud. We got our life belts and rushed up on deck.” Even though the boat had sufficient life-boats, ten of her fellow nurses and many other medical staff and soldiers died because of the crew’s incompetence in launching the life boats. “Everyone might have been saved if the boats had been properly managed,” she wrote, “but no-one seemed to be in charge of them and ropes did not work.” Furthermore, the mules carried on the boat had damaged other life boats. “The sisters were quite cool and we all went to our places. The first boat on the port side was lowered, some of the Sisters got into it and some of the crew climbed down the ropes into it…I climbed down by a rope, missing the boat and hung head downwards. Some of the men hauled me into the boat. I had got in when the second boat was lowered on top of the first. Several in the boat were hurt. My back was hurt, I seemed to be bent double, and then our boat tipped over and I swam out. (No easy feat considering their uniform consisted of pantaloons, two petticoats, a starched grey dress with a long full skirt, long sleeves and a stiff collar and cuffs, a full length starched white apron, a red cape and a white veil.) I tried to swim away from the boat but found myself right under the stern and there was Jeyes fluid pouring down and my face was burned with it but not very badly, I look as though I had a black eye. I knew that I had to get away from the ship, so I swam a little way and saw two men clinging to a plank. I asked if I could get hold of it, and the man said there was not room, but the other man held out his had and pulled me up to them, and we got a good distance away from the ship before she sank. “We floated about for some time, and then got on to a larger piece of wreckage. Once it turned right over and I went right underneath and came up again. A sergeant of the RFA swam off to a boat to try and get them to pick me up, but they could not come. There were four of us floating about on the same piece of wreckage. Ono of the men I knew had been a patient at Port said and had been transferred to the Medical Corps…The poor fellow soon became quite exhausted and I held on to his hand for some time, but he became quite cyanosed and the one of the other men took his hand and held him for a while. He became cramped however, and had to let go, but the poor fellow was almost gone. It seemed dreadful to let him go. I begged the man to hold on to him but he could not. “Well we were floating about for a long time after that, and then a raft with a lot of men and one of the sisters clinging to it passed near us. I was so glad to one of the others. They called out to know if there was room on our piece of wreckage for her, but we could not get near them, as we had nothing to row with, but it was nice to see here. We sang out to each other. We got on top of the boards and sat on our legs. It took the numb feeling out of them. It was an awful experience. “We could see the land in the distance, and we saw the smoke from several vessels. The passed us. I can tell you our hearts sank when we saw them pass and not pick us up. It was 4 o clock in the afternoon when we were picked up. A British destroyer and a French ship picked us up. They got the wireless message but it was very faint and they did not get the locations. They were so good to us. I shall never forget how good the men were. They wrapped us in blankets and gave us hot coffee and brandy, and at 4 o’clock the next morning we were put on a British hospital ship where we still are.” All told, 135 people died in the sinking and tragically the loss of life seems to have been completely avoidable, especially in the cases of the medical staff. Many questions were raised at the inquiry after the sinking as to why the medical team was on board a troop ship, which was a legitimate target for the U-boat, and especially as the hospital ship HS Grantully Castle sailed with space for passengers for Salonica on the same day! Subsequently, medical staff were only carried on hospital ships, but other questions still remained. Why did the escort destroyer leave the Marquette 35 miles short of the anti-submarine nets and why was it sailing at only 9 knots at the same speed as the U-boat? The court of inquiry was convened only three days after the sinking and a promised report was apparently never sent by the British to the New Zealand government. After being treated on the HS Grantully Castle, Edith sailed for home on Christmas Day 1915 but returned to Egypt in February 1916. From there, she went on to Europe and joined a hospital at Amiens in 1916. She finally came home for for good in 1919 but was redeployed to care for soldiers and the many people ill during the post-war influenza epidemic. She was awarded a British War Medal, and the VictoryMedal as well as the Royal Red Cross medal “in recognition of her valuable nursing service in connection with the war.” In 1925, she applied for and was awarded for a 105-acre block of land near Opotiki and when she retired a decade later, she had established a profitable farm, finally passing away aged 90 where she was living in Papatoetoe. Four generations separate me from my aunt, but my admiration for her is immense. It is hard for women today to grasp what life must have been like for a spinster living in rural New Zealand back in the early 1900s, but it must have been a very small life. Yet she, and all the other nurses, sailed across the world and braved the same hardships as the soldiers to care for others. That Edith continued to do so after the most horrific experience shows that she was certainly a brave and adventuresome woman. I wish I could have met her. A memorial chapel to the nurses who died in the Marquette sinking was built at Christchurch Hospital. This post is based on research done by my mother – Marion Williamson, Edith’s great-niece.