Sister Edith Popplewell

Marquette Disaster Survivor

Sister Edith Popplewell
Sister Edith Popplewell

As a war nurse Sister Edith Popplewell had distinguished service. She was aboard the troopship “Marquette” when it was torpedoed on the way to Salonica, and with others was in the sea until rescued by a submarine nine hours later. During the greater part of that period Sister Popplewell supported another nurse, who unfortunately died of exhaustion in her arms. For this act of gallantry Sister Popplewell was mentioned in despatches. The Royal Red Cross award is a further recognition of her bravery.

Sister Popplewell was attached to a military hospital in London. Prior to that appointment she served for six months on the hospital ship “Braemar Castle”, which was torpedoed on the voyage that immediately followed Sister Popplewell’s last trip thereon.

Sister Popplewell’s brother, Cecil, was killed on Gallipoli on May 19th, 1915.

Sister Edith Popplewell on ward

“Sister Edith Popplewell, looking a bit tired, on Ward VII at the Walton-on-Thames Hospital, the No. 2 New Zealand General Hospital. Edith would have been in charge of the 24 bed ward staffed by New Zealand staff nurses and male orderlies reporting to her.”


Letter 1

“Grantully Castle” Hospital Ship, 31st. Oct., 1915

I know you want to hear about everything, so I am going to tell you all I may write about.

We left Port Said by special train on the evening of the 18th. I was rather disappointed to miss the journey in daylight. It was bright, moonlight, however, and bright moonlight in Egypt is a wonderful thing, and it was very fascinating. We arrived at the port of Alexandria at about 3 a.m., and were told our bunks were made and tea was ready for us; so in the moonlight we climbed the steep, steep gangway to our new abode, the “Marquette.” It was such a big ship, and when we got up next morning we found ourselves very important indeed – travelling to Salonika with a big British Ammunition Column! We were proud. We had not known before this what we were going to do, or where we were going to be.

About 5 p.m. of that day we left, and had three of the happiest and most peaceful days I have ever known at sea. It was so calm and sunny, and everyone was so well! No one even tried to be sea-sick. The Imperial officers were so good to us, it was all very nice and very comfortable indeed, and No. 1 New Zealand Hospital very much felt the honour that had been conferred it by being sent to so important a field. There were rumours of torpedoes of course, and we had life-belt drill for two days, which we really hardly took seriously I am afraid. On Friday we were picked up by a convoy, a French torpedo destroyer, and I think the girls were only then aware that they were really afraid of the “Marquette”, and even then took it for granted that it was only precautionary on account of our very valuable cargo, and mules, etc., especially as it left us that night; and at breakfast on Saturday morning they told us that we would be on Port by midday.

So the danger seemed past, and we were mostly enjoying a brisk walk on deck, as it was very cold, and we felt it after Egypt, when the crash came. It was simply awful. No one had any doubts of course as to what had happened, and several saw the periscope quite near. We all rushed for our own life-belts. Everyone was so calm; and although men and girls alike were as white as sheets, no one cried or spoke even, except to give orders. We had had our places at the boats detailed to us of course, but it was there the trouble arose; they were not managed properly, and the ropes refused to act. We were however put into the boats, and the next minute we were floundering in the sea, and the “Marquette” appeared to be tipping right over on top of us. Some of them struck out; but to me and those quite near me an absolute miracle happened. In what seemed barely a second a huge wave had washed us right aft past the very end of the boat. I’ll never understand that part, for she was a huge boat, and we were away at the end.

It was pretty awful then for a while; and the “Marquette” sank as if she had been a tiny cockle-shell, and so quietly – no explosion, that also was a miracle, and after a fearful experience of what seem to me touching the very bottom of the sea, etc. etc., and I found myself and my friend a Tommy clinging to a bit of wreckage and perished with cold, and my little chum terrified. We were thrown in with a lot of the others for a while, but by and by all got separated. Another sister joined us, and we four just managed to hang on by our hands to our life-saving board. It was all too awful and too harrowing to write about.

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. The Tommy went off too, and then Sister and I climbed right up on to the board and lay flat down on it and let the waves do as they liked. Then we saw smoke of a steamer, it seemed so far off though; and then another of those big and miraculous waves came and washed us all in half-minute right up to the very side of a life boat they had sent out; or so it seemed to me. We were taken on board a British mine-sweeper, and never can I tell how good those men were to us.

It was almost five o’clock then, and we had been tossed and tossed for miles since 9 a.m., so I needn’t tell you how we felt. Later, about midnight, we were taken to a Hospital Ship – more kindness and comfy beds in lovely big two-berth cabins; but the suspense waiting for the others to come was awful. By morning fifteen of the Sisters were on board, and eleven more came that afternoon. We had all been rescued much about the same time – the other picked up by two French ships. Some of the had managed to keep to the “Marquette” life boat, or to be picked up by them; but it was a doubtful blessing, for they were almost under water, and kept tipping over and over. — sat on an upturned boat with a couple of men all the time. The awfulness of being tipped out so often terrified and exhausted and hurt others.

In all we found no less than ten of our Sisters had gone – nearly all we had known to have died from exhaustion. I think about a dozen of our N.Z. men too and the rest were the R.F.A. boys in all I think about 160. So awful, and yet I think so wonderful that so many were saved, and all except two or three quite well, except for shock and bruises, and a very troublesome lachrymose condition; and even those minor complaints almost quite gone now.

We were in Salonica till Friday evening. On Wednesday all the survivors got orders to go ashore. We were billeted in two hotels, the boys and men in a cotton mill; but when we left they were beginning to form a camp – about 50-bed Hospital to start with, I think which was all the equipment they could get from Headquarters; and a couple of the Officers are returning to Alexandria to see about the rest of the equipment. It is very sad losing such a grand Hospital. It had been wonderfully equipped on leaving Egypt – X-Ray plant and our own dynamo for electric-lighting the whole camp and 100 European pattern tented, etc. Had we landed as we expected we were to have proceeded right to the front at once. Instead they had to send a clearing Hospital forward. Our Medical Officers were fearfully sad at that – they wanted the N.Z. Hospital; to be in the thick of it.

I think they left us on shore those two days hoping we would volunteer to be left also. About half a dozen did, but none of the rest were fit in any way; and much to everyone’s relief we were ordered back on Friday to our friend this Hospital Ship bound for Headquarters at Alexandria, for equipment, and with a very urgent demand from our Officers that we should be sent back again as soon as possible – and so we shall see.

We were at Lemons all day yesterday; it is so wonderfully interesting; and today we were out on the ocean again, and it is sad and sorry feeling to be going back. Nothing would matter if only we were all here. That is the awful part, and yet surely that also must be right, and all for the best. This is the most beautiful Hospital Ship. How little we knew and how little N.Z. people know when they fondly imagine the “Maheno” the best ship afloat. I believe its operating theatre is more elaborate than any other, but that is certainly all. This is beautiful; but they say is not nearly as good as some of the other English ones. We heard the “Muretania” was to be in Lemnos yesterday; but she did not turn up. She must be wonderful.

The town of Salonica is in such a state of political upheaval that we were not allowed out in the streets at all. Some of the Doctors took one or two of the girls to a couple of shops, and they got such necessities as hair-pins and handkerchiefs, etc; but that is all. You have no idea what a plight it is to be in. Talk about the destitute! However we laugh and joke over that part, for it matters least after all, and one feels ashamed for sometimes grieving over sunken treasures, but it is a bit difficult not to – even ones photos. You keep forgetting that everything is gone, and get many shocks when you realise what it means. We were all so shocked too, as we were told to prepare for hardships and possible months without shopping and we bought Port Said quite out of woollens and such sensible things. We signed in Salonica for a grant of 20 each; but they could not get it cashed or something; so we did not get it, but will in Alexandria. Also our equipment will I expect be replaced; so pleased don’t waste any sympathy on my destitute condition, will you. As I have said before, that matters least.

There was an inquiry on the H.M.S. “Talbot”; another Sister and I had to go. It was very trying; but when over the Commander insisted on us staying for lunch. The Commander of the battleship H.M.S. “Albion” was also present. Never have I met two such charming English gentlemen. They were so good and kind, and made us laugh, and petted and flattered us as though we were queens instead of two very draggled looking nurses in shrunken dresses and no hats, and black eyes. And when they couldn’t show their sympathy any more, and we were leaving, the Commander called for three cheers for the New Zealand Nurses from his blue-jackets; and I wish you could have heard those three British cheers – it made one thrill.

To-day, Monday, we shall be in Alexandria. Such a sad coming back. We are experienced soldiers quite, aren’t we, and should I daresay feel proud. I believe some do; but I’m only a tin soldier. Strange that we should have had All Saints Day services yesterday. It helped to comfort so for those who have gone, and of course it is all right.

Poppy’s letter was published in: Kai Tiaki, January 1916; Otago Daily Times, 18 December 1915; Dominion, 21 December 1915

Dec. 16th 1915

Letter 2

My dear Macksie & Rose [nurses based at no. 1 NZ General Hospital]

It was so lovely to get your letters this morning & it is quite exciting to know you are near – or at least in the same country! – for of course it is not near for Luxor the Beautiful is no less than 400 miles from Cairo. However this is only a depot for the winter months & if I do not come through before will anyway be along in Feb. or March as it then gets unbearably hot up here. At present the weather is perfect & Luxor surely one of the most beautiful places in the world. As you have just arrived for duty I see no chance of you coming up here yet – a good many Australian Sisters have been up lately for a few days, I met several but I do not know their names but told them to look out for you & to tell you I was here & blooming.

You dears please don’t be worrying your kind hearts about me I am alright. It was an appalling experience & the saddest day of my life too & I did feel awful for a time, that is why I am here, they booked 4 of us for Luxor as needing a complete change & light duties – Certainly we have had the change but I do not know where the light duties come in! Nearly 3000 men & 20 Sisters means very long hours & often jolly heavy work too, personally I am as fit as possible & work was what I needed. I am beginning to bust all me buttings! but the others are not too well. In fact it was a mad idea to send all Sisters in rather indifferent health up here thinking it would be light & pleasant – it is jolly hard work & all the English Sisters are rather sick things – I’m the best of the crowd! – as far as health goes of course! but you know Poppy’s modesty!

Another 36 N.Z. Sisters were to go to Salonika to our unit which we left there to “carry on” as best they could till we sent them the equipment from Alex & then joined them we thought – however they have advanced & are, I heard today, now only 7 miles from the firing line so needless to say do not need or want Sisters there!

So our girls are left high & dry – kicking their heels in idleness & envying us for being at work. We were nearly a month at an hotel in Alex after our return. We got a grant of £60 from the Govt & it was such hard work buying our equipment. You have no idea how awful it was – didn’t I long for a D.I.C.! However in good time we got some clothing & uniforms made & some new boxes to keep it in etc. etc. It was hard work though. I do not know Cairo at all. Spent a few hours there on our way up here, it seems to have lots of good shops & might be easier shopping there – we motored out to the pyramids and so on.

I wonder where you two will be stationed. I do hope you will be together – no doubt you will as they are very kind the way they arrange to let friends keep together, & it means so much to have a chum in this country.

A New Zea. girl & I made friends coming over on the “Maheno” – she was such a dear & in such a short time we were such friends – just seemed to “fit in” in quite a curious manner & were both sent to Pt Said – shared a room there & one never moved & scarcely thought without the other – & we were so happy – we kept together the day of our disaster & hung on to the same piece of wreckage but Lorna was not as strong as I am & simply couldn’t do it. I held her on for a long long time & then she died of utter exhaustion not long before we were picked up – it was so dreadful – I was just able to hold up her face while she died & then so soon I had to let her go I couldn’t hold her any longer but it was the most awful thing having to let her go & seeing her little grey body float right away from me – another Sister & I then climbed up on the boards we had & lay front down & didn’t care a bit what the sea did to us – however it carried us up to a lifeboat sent off from a British mine sweeper – & so we were alright – had been in the water from 9 a.m. till nearly 5 p.m. so you may imagine how we felt or rather didn’t feel —

Well dears I didn’t mean to go over it – it is all over now. I just feel a bit different somehow – will go the softlier and sadlier all my days I think – but these are sad & serious times are they not?
I wonder how you left all the Ballarat folk – Rose, I got your letter just before I got Mack’s telegram – saying you expected to leave on the 10th & telling me about your entertainment at the B. Camp! How funny it must be – Macksie I didn’t have a single line from you until the day we sailed for Salonika & then I got 2 letters from you, the first 2 you wrote after you got home – dearie, I did want to be with you so then. I wrote a long letter to you on the troopship but alas it is with all my belongings at the bottom of the Aegean Sea! I know one’s possessions don’t matter a scrap of course but you know one cannot help regretting the loss of one’s treasures sometimes & please remember I haven’t a photo to my name – now I know you must have both had yours taken before you left so please have pity on me & send me one at once will you? It is one’s little treasures that one misses. I had a long letter from Midge yesterday. I wonder did you see her, Macksie? She sent me some sweet hankies and such a pretty book cover – it is quite nice to have some pretties again!

Our “affair” happened on the 23rd October & I had letters from N.Z. written on the 27th & they knew absolutely nothing of it – aren’t the powers-that-be bounders the way they hold things back? & 10 of our Sisters & about 40 of our men gone! I think it is awful, and 5 out of the 10 were the girls I knew and liked best in the whole unit! –

Fancy Christmas so near – so much has happened this year & to me it seems so long. Thank you so much both of you for your kind letters – & I don’t want anything not even your nice underclothing, Rosebud! There is quite a fair assortment of cotton stuff to be had in Egypt – & so far I have only equipped for this country – time enough to buy woollens when I know I am going to freeze, don’t you think so – Do tell me where you are & about your work – we even got some of the recent frostbites from Gallipoli and Serbia up here last week! I do wish they would send you girls up here – we need some help badly – Well – till we meet! I haven’t seen Reeves at all – she is on Transport duty now – the [Gallipoli] Peninsula, Lemnos, Malta & England! She has had lots of experience.

Well this is a long screed & I’ve got a beast of a cold & must go to bed – Much much love to you both from Poppy.