Ocean liners at war

 In August 1914, the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia) declared war on the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Every one had assumed that the war would be over by Christmas but soon it was obvious that this was not the case. Immediately, all shipyards with Admiralty contracts were given top priority to use available raw materials. All civil contracts (including the Britannic) were slowed down. The military authorities requisitioned a large number of ships as armed merchant cruisers or for troop transport. The Admiralty was paying the companies for the use of their vessels but the risk of losing a ship during  military operations was high. However, the big ocean liners were not taken for military use as smaller vessels were much easier to operate. The White Star decided to withdraw the Olympic from service until the danger had passed.The Olympic returned to Belfast on November 3rd, 1914. Next to her, work on the Britannic continued slowly.

 Things changed in 1915. The need for increased tonnage became crucial as military operations extended to the eastern Mediterranean, where a new German ally entered the war, the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey). In May,the Britannic completed the mooring trials of her engines. In case of an emergency she could be ready to sail after four weeks. That same month came the first major loss. The Lusitania was torpedoed near the Irish coast by a German submarine while returning from New York. No warning was given before the torpedo's launch, as declared by war conventions. The ship sank in only eighteen minutes  because of a secondary explosion of coal dust present in the empty holds. 1200 civilians (mainly Americans) lost their lives in the cold Atlantic waters. Cunard and White Star remained with two giant liners each. In June, the Admiralty finally decided to use the large ocean liners for the Gallipoli campaign (also called the "Dardanelles service"). The first to go were the Mauretania and the Aquitania. Soon everyone realised that the Gallipoli landings would be a failure. The number of casualties reached appalling numbers and  now the need was for larger  hospital ships. So the Aquitania was diverted to hospital ship duties in August (her place as a trooper transport was taken by the Olympic in September). The casualties continued to mount and it was clear that Britannic couldn't lie useless in Belfast anymore. On November 13th, 1915 the Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship.


Defender of the crown

 TheBritannic had to be modified for the second time. The few fittings already installed were placed in storage. The public rooms on the upper decks were transformed in wards for the wounded. Lower on the ship, the large first class dining room and the reception rooms became operating theatres and main wards. The medical personnel would occupy the B-deck cabins, while the rest medical orderlies and the less wounded patients would be accommodated on the lower decks. Surviving photos show that the partially covered first class promenade was used as a ward. With all these modifications the ship's tonnage arrived at 48.158 tons and she could carry 3.309 casualties (the second largest capacity for a hospital ship after the Aquitania).


Many nurses on the Britannic were members of the V.A.D (Voluntary Aid Detachment) which was formed in 1909.

click on image to enlarge

 Externally, the main problem was that only five of eight sets of the giant lifeboat davits had been installed (two on either side of funnel #4 and one on the right side of  funnel #1). In order to reach the required lifeboat capacity, six Wellin type davits (like those used on Titanic) were installed on either side of the boat deck and two further astern on the poop deck. Each could handle two lifeboats, one open and one collapsible. This was a temporary solution for the war period. With this arrangement, the Britannic had 58 lifeboats on board. The hull was painted in white with a green band from stem to sternpost broken in three places by large red crosses. This color scheme was the international identification of hospital ships. Protection at night was crucial and the ship needed to be clearly identified. So two more large red crosses were placed on the boat deck. Each one was lit at night along with a line of green electric bulbs running across the promenade decks. This way it was impossible for enemy vessels to be mistaken about the nature of Britannic.


Digital plans of the Britannic as a hospital ship (by Cyril Codus).

 The White Star line selected Captain Charles Bartlett as the ship's first commander. Bartlett was also known as "Iceberg Charly" for his capacity to "smell" ice. He had joined the White star line in 1894 and in 1903 he had received his first command. Since 1912 he had worked as Marine Superintendent at Belfast and had watched the Britannic being built from the first day her keel was laid. He had a good reputation and he was much concerned about safety.

 On December 6th, 1915 the Admiralty unofficially informed the Germans about the status of the Britannic and on December 8th the ship successfully completed her trials and returned to Belfast where she was handed over to the White Star Line for registration. On the evening of December 11th,the Britannic (commanded by Captain J. Ranson)left Belfast for Liverpool, where two days later she was commissioned as His Majesty's Hospital Ship (HMHS) G618. On 14th December Bartlett officially took command of the ship while medical equipment was still being installed. Finally, on December 23th, 1915 "the most wonderful hospital ship that ever sailed the seas"was ready for her maiden voyage at a final cost of £1,947,797. The White Star was once again operating the largest ship in the world!


Britannic's voyages



Departure Liverpool (Dec. 23, 1915)
Arrival Southampton (Jan. 9, 1916)
Events  The departure for the maiden voyage was a quiet one. No celebrations, no orchestras, no joyful passengers. The medical personnel took their assigned posts on and as the ship sailed for Moudros (the Allied base for the Gallipoli campaign) everyone followed the classic routine work of a hospital ship: The hospital areas of the ship had to be disinfected and 3309 beds had to be prepared in order to receive the patients. Regulations were very strict and any action should be executed "by the book". The ship arrived to Naples on December 28th in order to take enough coal and water for the non-stop return to Southampton because a loaded hospital ship should make the return voyage as quickly as possible. On the contrary, troop transport ships, like the Olympic,were making the refueling stop on the homeward leg of their journey because they had to arrive fast at their destination and deliver the troops.

 On New Year's Eve the Britannic arrived at Moudros and started loading patients from smaller hospital ships. During the return trip Bartlett had to signal (as the ship was passing Gibraltar) the classification of the wounded on board in base of their capacity to walk and the presence of dysentery and enteric cases. This way the hospital trains that would transport the patients from Southampton could be prepared better for the ship's arrival.

Casualties Jan. 2, 1916: Private A. Howe died of a tubercular disease. His body was landed on Lemnos for burial.

Jan. 5, 1916: S. Jones fell (or jumped?) overboard under unknown circumstances. According wartime regulations the ship couldn't stop and search for him. It was assumed he was dead.

Jan. 9, 1916: Private C. Vincent (aged 21) died of tuberculosis near the English coast.




Departure Southampton (Jan. 20, 1916)
Arrival Southampton (Feb. 9, 1916)
Events  When the ship arrived at Naples and took coal and water a signal from Cairo instructed Bartlett to remain in port and take on wounded from the hospital ships Grantully Castle, Formosa, Essequibo and Nevasa.During that stop the Britannic was inspected by the American Ambassador after an invitation by Captain Bartlett. The medical stuff of the American ship Desmiones were also invited  and took a visit on board. Another inspection was made by the Neapolitan Sanitary Authorities who complained about dangers of infection and suggested that the ship should use the porting facilities of Augusta in Sicily (Simon Mills in his book Britannic: The Last Titan suggests that maybe this decision was taken by the Italians after German protests for the use of Naples for the transfer of Allied wounded). Despite the different opinions of Bartlett and the British authorities of Malta, the Admiralty decided to accept the Italian suggestion.
Casualties No casualties.




Departure Southampton (March. 20, 1916)
Arrival Southampton (Apr. 4, 1916)
Events At Augusta wounded were loaded from smaller hospital ships.
Casualties Private R. Pask died of diabetes shortly before arriving Southampton.



  By that time the Gallipoli campaign had failed and there was no need anymore for the giant liners in the eastern Mediterranean.The Mauretania,  the Aquitania and the Britannic were paid off by the Admiralty. On June 6th, 1916 the Britannic was officially released from war service. White Star started the reconditioning of the ship as a passenger liner.

  In September 1916 the Allied troops sent in Salonica since 1915 (almost 500.000 men by now), started a new offensive in the northern Balcans combined with two new British attacks against Turkey in Mesopotamia and Palestine. Moudros became important again and soon the island's hospitals were full of wounded. Suddenly large hospital ships were badly needed. The first to be recalled for service was the Aquitania followed on August 28th by the Britannic. Harland & Wolff had already converted the liner to a hospital ship once more.




Departure Southampton (Sep. 9, 1916)
Arrival Southampton (Oct. 11, 1916)
Events At Moudros wounded were loaded from smaller hospital ships.
Casualties Corporal J. Seddon died during the return voyage to England.




Departure Southampton (Oct 20, 1916)
Arrival Southampton (Nov 6, 1916)
Events  The RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) had requested from the Admiralty permission to use the Britannic for transport of medical personnel and supplies. The Admiralty agreed and the Britannic departed with some 483 of extra medical personnel and many tons of extra medical supplies for Egypt, Malta, Salonica, India and Mesopotamia.One of the new "passengers" was famous writer Vera Brittain (then serving as a VAD nurse), who later mentioned this trip in her best-seller book Testament Of Youth. Of course these people were not soldiers but it's not clear if their transportation was a violation of the Geneva Convention. At Moudros about 3.000 wounded were loaded from smaller hospital ships.
Casualties Corporal G. Hunt died of dysentery and heart failure during the return voyage to England.




Departure Southampton (Nov 12, 1916)
Arrival -
Events Sank on November 21st, 1916 off the Greek island of Kea (Tzia).
Casualties 21 crew + 9 RAMC.


The evacuation of the wounded

 According to British military manuals the evacuation of the wounded soldiers from the battlefield had to follow certain procedures. Three distinct "zones" had to be established:

bulletThe collecting zone

Stretcher bearers were carrying  or guiding the wounded to the regimental aid post. Ambulance wagons were taking the wounded to a dressing station at a safe distance behind the front line.

bulletEvacuating zone

From the dressing stations the wounded were moving to a clearing hospital in order to get prepared for transportation to a base hospital for specialist treatment (at Gallipoli the clearing hospitals had to be out of the range of the Turkish artillery). Then the wounded were transported by small boats to the hospital ships. Many soldiers lost their lives on these small boats due to exposure and delays caused by bad weather. Unlike the Britannic,most hospital ships were small and often the wounded had to be transferred again to other hospital ships or to transport ships with limited medical facilities.

bulletDistributing zone

This is where the base hospital was. During the Gallipoli campaign the allied forces selected Moudros. However, there were many problems with the island's water supplies and later the base was moved to Alexandria, Egypt. The larger hospital ships like the Britannic and the Aquitania  were mainly used for the final stage of the evacuation from Moudros to England.


The diseases

 The hygienic standards in the trenches of Gallipoli were very low. The plague of the allied soldiers was lice which could carry typhus or trench fever. Poor diet was also responsible for the poor health of the men. The diet of the soldiers consisted of fat bacon, tinned corn beef, tinned  preserves and biscuits. To make matters worse, food rations were often covered by flies which had bred upon the corpses of the battlefield. It's no surprise that there were many fatal cases of dysentery (one death on the Britannic).

 Tuberculosis (TB) was among the deadliest diseases. Despite the efforts  to maintain a safe environment on the  Britannic, there is evidence that the members of the medical personnel were facing a serious risk. As we've seen above, during the coaling stop of the second voyage the Sanitary Authorities of Naples complained about dangers of infection after visiting Britannic and suggested that the ship should use the port of Augusta. Notice also that that one patient died of TB during the ship's maiden voyage.

Rebecca McMurray Munro was a  QAIMNS (Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service) reserve from Montrose, Scotland. On November 21st, 1916 she survived the sinking of the Britannic and  returned back home on a leave. There she was found to suffer the early stages of TB. The Army Medical Board met on 14th March, 1917 at Dundee and after studying the available evidence decided that Mrs. Munro contracted TB as a direct result of nursing patents during more than one voyage on the Britannic, in circumstances beyond her control. She was recommended for admission to Noranside Sanatorium  where she died on April 30th, 1920 at age 32. She was buried at Montrose (Rosehill cemetery). 

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Simon Mills-"Britannic, The Last Titan"

Encyclopedia Eleftheroudakis (1936 edition)

 Ian Edwards (information regarding Nurse Munro)