Great aunt’s wartime ordeal recalled

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As the region remembers those who died during World War 1 today, the stories of those who lived through tragedy are just as poignant.

Mary Beatrice Beswick, of Oamaru, is one such person, working as a nurse in the war and surviving the sinking of the Marquette on October 23, 1915, after it was shot by a German torpedo.

Ms Beswick was the great aunt of Jill Grenfell, who will be present at the ceremony today to mark the centenary of the declaration of World War 1.

Mrs Grenfell said she met her relation on only one occasion, in 1951 at a family gathering in the North Island when she was eight.

“Mary would have been nearly 70,” Mrs Grenfell said.

“Apparently as the ship was going down, Mary, who would have had several layers of petticoats and clothing on, was able to swim to a lifeboat.

“She spoke about how they helped others get into boats also.”

Controversy lingered over why nurses en route to Greece were transported on an unmarked grey ship on that fateful day, instead of a hospital ship, which would have been protected under the Hague Convention.

The New Zealand nurses who survived the attack were invited to Buckingham Palace by Lord Chamberlain on November 17, 1917, and received a medal for their bravery.

Sister Mary Beswick continued her nursing career in Christchurch on her return to New Zealand. She trained in orthopaedics and worked in the Chalmers Military Orthopaedia Hospital.

“My mother was sent there and was nursed by her aunt when she developed infantile paralysis,” Mrs Grenfell said.

“She thought very highly of Mary.”

Mrs Grenfell has in her possession a book which Ms Beswick received when she was a student at Waitaki Girls’ High School.

“She won a copy of Ethel Turner’s autobiographical novel Three Little Maids, published in 1900 for attaining a first class pass for arithmetic at Christmas in 1900.

“Perhaps because I have a copy of the book and all of Mary’s important documents, her story has always been a big part of my life.

“It’s important for the Waitaki Girls’ High School girls to know about her, as it might influence them in the future.”

Both Mrs Grenfell and her mother are also ex-students of WGHS.

By LINDA MCCARTHY

PHOTO: LINDA MCCARTHY

PROUD: Oamaru resident Jill Grenfell with a picture of her great aunt, Mary Beswick, just after she received a medal a Buckingham Palace.