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3/79 Private John Burgess Gillett - New Zealand Medical Corp (Mentioned in Dispatches )
 
John Burgess Gillett was born in London on 16th April 1888, the youngest son of John and Bridget Lawrence.[i] In 1914 John’s father was listed as holding the rank of 1st class artificer in the Navy and his son also served time in the Royal
Navy. John  bought himself out of the service[ii] prior to relocating to New Zealand.
 
When war was declared in August 1914 John Burgess Gillett was working as a carpenter at Porirua Mental Hospital and played soccer (Association Football) for the Hospital team[iii].
 
John was one of a number of hospital staff who quickly enlisted and on 15th August 1914 and as 3/79 Private Gillett,  
sailed for Samoa as a member of the New Zealand Medical Corps (NZMC), Samoa Advance Party. The NZMC was under
the command of Captain McKillop who, prior to the war, was the Superintendant of Porirua Hospital. The expedition to Samoa meet no resistance and Private Gillett, like others in the Force settled into the routine and boredom of occupying Samoa until they were relieved in early 1915.
 
Private Gillett returned to New Zealand on 14th April 1915 and re-enlisted in the NZMC sailing with the No 1 Stationary Hospital on 21st May 1915 for Egypt. The No 1 Stationary Hospital was initially based in Port Said, Egypt but it was
decided to send the hospital to Salonika, Greece which was close to Gallipoli and could assist with the treatment of the heavy number of casualties from the Dardanelles Campaign.
 
On 19th October 1915 the transport ship Marquette sailed from Alexandria for Salonika with a total complement of 741: the No1 Stationary Hospital (36 nurses, 12 officers and 143 other ranks), the Ammunition Column of the British 29th Division (10 officers and 439 other ranks) and the crew.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
SS Marquette depicted in a pre-war postcard prior to her sale in 1914 to the Atlantic Transport Line.
 
On 23rd October 1915 the Marquette was torpedoed 35km off Salonika with the loss of 167 lives, thirty two of these from No1 Stationary Hospital, 10 of them nurses. Private Gillett survived the sinking but of the 11 men on board who also
served in the 1914 Samoa Advance Party, five were lost with the Marquette.[iv]
 
Private Gillett’s exploits as the Marquette Hero were the topic of an article in the Marlborough Times on 29th December 1915:[v]
‘How he saved nurses. Graphic story of the disaster.
New Zealand has sent many heroes to the European war, but no better or brave acts have been done
than those which were performed by Private J B Gillett, on the No 1 New Zealand hospital staff. Gillett,
who is modest, as most heroes are, joined the New Zealand expeditionary forces which went to Samoa
at the outbreak of the war and on his return was transferred from the New Zealand Field Ambulance to
the hospital staff which has meet with disaster. Prior to the war he was a member of the Porirua Mental
Hospital staff.From his companions I gathered the complete account of his gallant behaviour. He was
operated on aboard the transport three days prior to the momentous happings of which I write, and,
indeed, at the time of the disaster he had a tube inserted in his side through the wound caused by the
operation for internal tumor. This tube he lost during his exertions in the water, and when he was finally
brought aboard the rescuing vessel he fainted from loss of blood. After he had been swimming about
two hours helping drowning nurses and men on to wreckage, etc., he set off and swam a mile to an empty
boat. Sergeant-Major Baker[vi], who accompanied him, was drowned. Gillett brought the boat to where the
largest numbers of the survivors were struggling in the waves.
Time and again he dived into the rough seas to bring some exhausted nurse to the boat’s side, where she
could be assisted into the boat by two members of the crew who had been the first to be succord. Five
nurses and the matron were thus rescued, but unfortunately the matron[vii] had several ribs broken
through being dashed against the boat by a big wave. By the means of his boat Gillett rescued twenty-four
persons in all, including Private Saphir [viii], of the hospital staff. Gillett is now progressing well in the
New Zealand General Hospital, Cairo, and has I understand, been mentioned in dispatches, and will probably
get some recognitions of his bravery.’
 
Private Gillett’s boat was the first rescued and the survivors, many of them suffering exposure, were taken to Salonika where Private Gillett was admitted to hospital. On 1st November 1915 he was transferred to the Hospital Ship Grantully Castle and returned to Egypt where he was admitted to the NZ General Hospital still suffering the effects of the internal tumour and the trauma of the sinking. It was while Private Gillett was in hospital that he was mentioned, on 12th
December 1915 by Brigadier General Woodward, Adjutant General MEF (Mediterranean Expeditionary Force):
 
‘Special Order of the Day
Special mention for gallant behaviour in assisting and saving lives of others
at great personal risk on 23rd October 1915, on which date HM Transport
was sunk by a torpedo.’
 
Private Gillett was discharged on 5th January 1916 for service on the New Zealand Hospital Ship Marama but in May 1916 was assessed by a medical board on the HS Marama:
 
‘Gillett has been out of sorts since the sinking of the Marquette. Since posting on
the Marama, 23rd January 1916, he has been constantly off duty: first with pneumonia:
and latterly with Malaria.’[ix]
 
The board determined that Private Gillett was not fit for service and should be returned to New Zealand for treatment. Private Gillett left Egypt in June 1916 for New Zealand where after five months a NZ Medical Board assessed that he was
‘No longer fit for war service on account of illness contacted on active services’ and on 18th November 1916 he was discharged from the NZEF.
 
John Burgess Gillett was provided passage back to the United Kingdom in 1917 and he married Sarah Turner on 25th December 1917 in Millwall, London.
 
John Burgess Gillett died on 29th April 1963 aged 75.  
 
Notes
It is possible that Private Gillett was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress  - Ed
 
References
Archway Archives New Zealand, Military Files: 3/79 Private John Burgess Gillett
Papers Past Online
UK BDM online

Photos
Text and background SS Marquette (prior to 1914) – Wikipedia
 
 
 
[i] Free UK BDM
[ii] Archway Archives New Zealand, Military Files: 3/79 Private John Burgess Gillett
[iii] Members of Porirua Hospital Association team serving in 1916 – Dr McKillop, Dr Simpson, J Alexander, W Cobb, A Foley, H Foster, J B Gillett, H Heath, P S Roots, W Singleton, F Walsh, J Willis.
[iv] Ex Samoa Advanced Party members on the Marqette - (* killed):3/6 Baker G H *, 3/11 Colley F, 3/16 Edwards A R, 3/79 Gillett J B, 3/37 Martin R B, 3/58 Mirfin M, 3/31 Perrin C *, 3/59 Pole R A *, 3/63 Saphir C H, 3/38 Thompson P *, 3/39 Walter J B *, 3/41 Williams J W.
[v] The Defence Forces by Sentry - Otago Daily Times 27th April 1916
[vi] 3/6 Sergeant-Major Geoffery Hugh Baker.
[vii] 22/66 Acting Matron Marie McNaughton Cameron – would be paralysed as a result of the sinking.
[viii] 3/63 Private Cyril Howard Saphir, had served in the NZMC with the Samoa Advanced Party would also serve in France.  
[ix] Archway Archives New Zealand. Military Files: 3/79 Private John Burgess Gillett
SS Marquette c1913