New Zealand hospital ships in World War One

During World War One the New Zealand Government requisitioned two Union Steam Ship Company trans-Tasman liners the MAHENO and the MARAMA to be refitted as hospital ships.

In 1914 MAHENO was the first New Zealand ship to be drafted into service, and her first tour of duty took her to the battle at Gallipoli.

MARAMA became part of the ‘White Fleet’ in 1915 and arrived in Europe in time to join MAHENO in the ‘Channel run’ which involved transferring the sick and wounded from the battlefields of the Somme Offensive in France to hospitals in England.

Both ships were fitted out with wards, operating theatres, an anaesthetic room, medical and surgical storerooms, an x-ray room, electric lifts, rooms for sterilising and laundry, a dispensary and a dining room. As with all hospital ships, both were painted white with a green stripe and the Red Cross, clearly marking them as neutral aid ships.

Under the Hague Convention, all hospital ships were expected to help any injured regardless of nationality, they were not to be used for any military purpose, and were subject to inspection by enemy forces.

Traditional field hospitals and clearing stations were impossible on the Gallipoli Peninsular, so hospital ships became a symbol of safety for the Allied sick and wounded. MAHENO would anchor in the open sea, and receive the wounded that were ferried across by small launches in all weather conditions and often under gunfire. Although the Turkish military respected the hospital ships and never purposely aimed artillery toward them, there was always the constant danger of being hit by stray ammunition.

During the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme, the medical staff of the MAHENO and MARAMA found themselves even more overworked. Working without proper sleep for stretches between 40 and 60 hours, they faced caring for wounded soldiers in overwhelmingly crowed conditions. It was not uncommon to load up to 1000 patents, twice the normal capacity of the ships. Patients were put wherever there was room, lying on mattresses spread on the decks or cramped below in the narrow corridors.

The medical staff and crew suffered from exhaustion, physical injury, seasickness, illness and infection. Soldiers from Gallipoli brought with them diphtheria and those coming aboard from the trenches of France were infested with lice. As well as contending with overcrowding and overwork, those aboard hospital ships were also in constant danger not only from the perils of rough weather at sea but from sea-mines and German torpedoes. However, despite all the hardships, the MAHENO transported 14,361 sick and wounded soldiers between France and England, MARAMA carried 10,798.