Hospital Ship Kyarra

 

Hospital ship Kyarra leaving port in Brisbane 1916

 

 

 

 

The SS Kyarra was built in Dumbarton,  Scotland,  for the Australasian United Steam Navigation Company.  She was launched in 1903 as a luxurious passenger liner.  Following the outbreak of WWI the ship was requisitioned for use as a hospital ship. Preparations were made for her to transport 5 fully equipped medical units to Egypt, where the Australian troops  were encamped in the shadows of the great pyramids.

Australians in camp at Mena. The Pyramids

Enemy states had been  advised that the ship was on a mission of mercy.  Accordingly,  it was decided   she would  sail  without a military convoy, under the Geneva Red Cross flag.  Her funnel and her  white hull were also  painted with a  giant red cross.  To comply with the Geneva Convention,  care was to be taken to ensure  no ‘contraband’  goods were  carried. The ambulances being transported  even had the petrol drained from their fuel tanks.

However, when the ship arrived in  Melbourne from Brisbane (via Sydney) there was a shocking discovery. The holds were filled with  what were classified as  ‘stores of war’;   700 tons of coal,  100 tons  of wool, plus  hides and tallow. How on earth  could this have occurred?  The matter was raised in parliament,  but the Ministry of Defense failed to come up with an adequate explanation.  The ship was delayed for a  week  while the  banned stores were unloaded. Thankfully, there was now room  to load  Red Cross   comfort packages for the troops!  She finally  left port on December 5.

Australian Red Cross comfort parcels,

Australian Red Cross comfort parcels,

 

One of the doctors who had joined the ship in Sydney was Major  John Mitchell Young Stewart, a fifty year old veteran of the Boer War. The Scottish born Stewart had been practicing as a GP in country New South Wales.  More   medical personnel embarked in Melbourne and  in  Freemantle.

 

HospitalShipKyarra

Nurses about to embark on the H.S.  Kyarra in Melbourne.

The ship arrived in Alexandria on January 13 1915 , and military hospitals were quickly established in Cairo and at Mena.

On February 4,  several hundred  soldiers left the camp at Mena  and  embarked  on the H.S. Kyarra to be returned to Australia.  173 of the men had fallen ill in Egypt or had been injured during training. 131 were being returned due to serious breaches of discipline.  The invalids were to be attended on board  by a doctor and nine nurses.  Now a very odd thing occurred at this point.

It appears that  Major  Stewart was designated to be the Kyarra’s medical officer on the return trip, but on February  3rd,  Captain Victor Ratten mysteriously ‘exchanged’  with Stewart.  Captain Ratten had  sailed from Hobart  in October the previous year as Regimental Medical Officer to the 12th Battalion.  This position was now assumed by Major  Stewart.

And thus it was that the middle aged  Major Stewart participated in the dawn landing at Gallipoli.  He injured his knee  seriously when he plunged into the water  under heavy fire , carrying his rifle and pack.  It is amazing that he managed to scale the cliffs at ANZAC Cove. He went on to earn the respect of everyone  in the battalion  by continuing to tend the wounded for two days, before being  medically evacuated. He later served with distinction  in France and was awarded the D.S.O. He was  promoted to the rank of  Lieutenant Colonel, and in 1919 was awarded the C.B.E  in honour of  his  military service.

Meanwhile, the  H.S.  Kyarra   arrived in Melbourne  on  March 11, 1915.   Captain  Ratten  was granted  a short period of  leave,  which he  spent with his family  in  Tasmania.  He was expected to rejoin his battalion at the front within  a few weeks,   but this did not occur.  And thereby hangs a VERY strange tale.   You will have to wait until the publication of my work-in-progress to discover what happened.

Captain Victor Ratten, taken just prior to leaving for Egypt in  WWI

Captain Victor Ratten, taken just prior to leaving for Egypt in WWI

POSTSCRIPT

On May 30 1918 the Kyarra was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel while carrying general cargo and civilian passengers . There were six fatalities.

N.B.  For an inspiring story of two  WWI nurses from Tasmania, please click here.

12 Comments
  1. Sounds intriguing, Pauline. How close is the WIP to being finished?

    • Hi Diane. Yes, a very interesting story. Have written quite a bit, and have applied for a grant to complete my research. Still a long way until publication though.

  2. The caption to the Kyarra photograph is incorrect. The Kyarra was in Melbourne on the 4th Dec 1914 arriving there (from Brisbane via Sydney) on the 28th Nov 1914 before departing for the front on the 5th Dec 14. The boat never stopped in Adelaide at all. The Medical units and staff form Adelaide had to travel by train on the 27 Nov 14 to go to Melbourne. The place and date of the photo is 4th Dec 14 at Victoria Dock Melbourne. I am writing a book about one of the medical units. Kind regards Scott (0411325945)

  3. Hello Pauline
    In his book ‘Welcoming the Wounded Anzacs’ Terry Keenan records the Kyarra arriving at Town Pier on 17 July 1915.
    If you have more to tell about that arrival in Port Melbourne, we would love to hear from you for our project http://portmelbfirstworldwar100.org.au/
    All the best with your research

  4. Hello,
    My interest in the “Kyarra’ began this week when I was asked to do some family history research for a friend with whom I grew up in Koorda, W.A. I discovered that her grandfather (mother’s father) Garnet H W Morley, who was a crew member on Kyarra, died when the ship was torpedoed. There is a report in the “Daily News” (Tuesday 1 July 1919 p.4)of a compensation court case instigated by Garnet Morley’s wife, Allison and the two daughters.

    Perhaps you are already aware of the case, but I thought it could
    still get an airing.

    Regards, John

  5. A relation of mine, my great-aunt, was a nurse on the H S Kyarra. She was Georgina Phillips. How can I find out more about her and her service on the ship?

    Kind regards.

    Tim

  6. My grandfather who was a private in the RMLI was serving as Guns Crew and was a survivor of the Kyarra when it was torpedoed on Sunday 26th May 1918. He and the rest of those on board were rescued and returned to the Royal Naval Base at Poole in Dorset.

    • Pauline

      Hi Helen….wow, what an experience for your grandfather. They were all very lucky to survive.

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