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 in 1914 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.