Commemorating lives lost in the 'Marquette' disaster

Thursday 27 September 2018

In October 1915 a German torpedo slammed into HMT Marquette. The ship, which had been bound for Serbia, sank within 10 minutes.

Mount Felix Tapestry panel depicting Edith Popplewell

A panel in the Mount Felix Tapestry depicts Edith Popplewell keeping a fellow nurse afloat during the sinking of the HMT Marquette.

Many of the 741 passengers aboard were left floundering in the Mediterranean Sea, including Kaikōura-born New Zealand nurse Edith Popplewell, known to her friends as "Poppy".

Poppy, along with fellow nurses Lorna Rattray and Mary Walker and a young English soldier, clung to a piece of wreckage as the swell tossed them around. Lorna died of exhaustion in Poppy's arms as she struggled to keep them both afloat. In a letter home, Poppy wrote: "My friend died sometime in the afternoon, and the only thing that made me let her go even then was the thought that we would be the next."

Ina Nellie Coster

Sister Ina Nellie Coster was one of the New Zealand nurses who survived the sinking of the Marquette. Nelson Provincial Museum Collection: A4380.2

Poppy was rescued after about 9 hours in the water. 10 New Zealand nurses, including Lorna Rattray, died. Among them was Lyttelton woman Nona Hildyard, whose portrait is displayed in the Museum's Canterbury and World War One: Lives Lost, Lives Changed exhibition. 22 members of the New Zealand Medical Corps were also killed.

Other Marquette survivors included Sister Ina Nellie Coster of Christchurch, who like Poppy survived nine hours in the cold sea, and Hugh Acland of the Medical Corps, a leading Christchurch surgeon. Ina Nellie Coster's nursing cape, complete with her badges and medals, is on display in Lives Lost, Lives Changed.

Back home, the New Zealanders' deaths were used in government propaganda to stoke public outrage and encourage men to enlist in the armed forces.

But for Poppy, life went on. She served on the hospital ship Braemar Castle, and then at a military hospital in London, before taking charge of a 24-bed ward at Mount Felix Hospital, also known as the No 2 New Zealand General Hospital, in the town of Walton-on-Thames.

Poppy's story – both the sinking of the Marquette and her work at Mount Felix – is depicted in panels of an embroidered tapestry recently created by the Walton-on-Thames community as a tribute to the ANZAC soldiers, nurses, doctors and people of Walton 100 years ago.

The tapestry, currently touring New Zealand, will be displayed at Canterbury Museum from 6 October to 3 November 2018.

While most of the tapestry's panels were stitched in the UK, some were made in New Zealand. The panel depicting Poppy's experience during the sinking of the Marquette was stitched by Christchurch nurse Kate Paterson.

Paterson was asked to take part in the project by the committee of the historic Christchurch Nurses Memorial Chapel because of her connection to both the chapel and the Canterbury Embroiderers' Guild. The chapel was built in 1928 to commemorate the New Zealand nurses who lost their lives in World War One – including in the Marquette sinking – and the subsequent influenza epidemic. 

Paterson was aided in the project by descendants of both Hugh Acland and Lorna Rattray.

Tram in Cathedral Sq with Marquette propaganda

Recruitment drives during World War One used the deaths of women at German hands to encourage enlistment. A tram in Cathedral Square featured the examples of Edith Cavell, a British nurse executed for helping 200 soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium, and the 10 HMT Marquette nurses. Alexander Turnbull Library 1/1-007697-G

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