Today we gather to honour the memory of New Zealand nurses who have died in the service of their country and in humanitarian causes.
This year marks the centenary of nursing registration, the valuing of nursing as an essential profession in the health service of a country.
This centenary also reminds us that New Zealand nurses have served in overseas wars for 100 years.
And in three of these wars, New Zealand nurses have died.
The first ten died in World War I on 23 October 1915 when the troopship Marquette was torpedoed in the Aegean Sea.
It was taking nearly 200 staff members of the New Zealand No 1 Stationary Hospital (including the two nurses in the photograph
on the Order of Service) from Alexandria to Salonika. It was also carrying around 450 British soldiers and was therefore considered a
The torpedo struck at 9 am. Two nurses on deck see it – a straight, thin green line making directly for the ship.
They hear it swish through the water. Then, in rapid succession, the crash, the shuddering of the ship, the explosion.
No-one panics. They have had two lifeboat drills and know what to do. The nurses assemble at their posts, ready for the lifeboats.
And this is where the tragedy of the Marquette story lies.
The ship has enough lifeboats and rafts for all on board but, with the ship listing so badly, the lifeboats cannot be lowered effectively.
Some hit the side of the ship and tip over. One lowers unevenly, turning perpendicular to the water. Others capsize or sink.
One lifeboat drops directly on to another, crushing the nurses in the boat below.
Four nurses remain on board till the last moment, helping others. Then two of them go to the gangway, take each other’s hand and jump into the
sea. They are not seen again.
For eight hours, alone or in small groups, people cling to rafts, upturned boats, oars and debris but only 26 of the 36 nurses on board are alive
when the two rescue ships arrive.
The New Zealand nurses’ practicality, commonsense and steadfast facing of the truth, showed in all their work throughout the war.
They nursed in tents, huts, ships, trains, hospitals and converted hotels.
They developed techniques to nurse men with the new wounds and problems caused by changing warfare.
Men with badly fractured limbs set in the new Thomas splint, with body wounds from shrapnel, facial injuries, and burns,
all required innovative nursing and a steady gaze that showed no repulsion at disfigurement.
We know these experiences from nurses’ letters, but there was much that could not be told.
As one nurse wrote, “Nobody can possibly realise what war really means till they have seen it at close quarters. I do hope it will end soon.”
Wartime service took a great toll on nurses’ health and several died within a few years of their return to New Zealand.
Those lost on active service were commemorated by one of the great bells in the campanile above us.
This Nurses’ Bell will soon be tolled ten times, as a special marker of the ten who died with the Marquette.
In all, seventeen nurses were lost in the First World War, eleven in World War II and one in Vietnam.
One New Zealand nurse has died in humanitarian work with the Red Cross.
We know their names from official records but there may well be others who worked through different agencies in other countries,
or who served in war zones not associated with New Zealand forces.
Nurses have also lost colleagues - doctors, VADs, ambulance drivers, orderlies, volunteers. Today we remember them all.
Survivors of the Marquette disaster have been present at similar ceremonies held here in earlier years. Some are represented by family
members today. Others here remember aunts, great aunts and others from their family who died in these causes.
Those with personal connections have helped us as we organized this ceremony. We have been given the photograph on the Order of Service.
We have held the nursing medal of one who survived the Marquette. And our printing was provided in memory of an aunt who died in
World War II.
Those of us without these close personal connections to the nurses who have died, feel a professional connection with them, an
understanding of some of their experiences.
Nurses have always risen to the challenges of providing exceptional nursing care in extraordinary circumstances.
Their stories do not glorify war. Instead they tell of a determination to face the realities and truths of war and poverty,
trenches and refugee camps, disease and disaster.
This service honours the courage, resilience and sacrifice of all New Zealand nurses who have served and died in wartime and
What is our purpose in commemorating them?
They mark the willingness of our profession to use its skill in serving those in need,
whatever the circumstances.
They remind us of the realities of war. And they point to possibilities for change.
As the anthem we are about to hear calls us to remember,
“The world is sustained by three things: by truth, by justice and by peace.”