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HMHS Ebani



1st August 1914 Hospital ship  

HS Ebani

HMHS Ebani during World War 1. The HMHS Ebani was used as a hospital ship for troops of World War I from the 13th August 1915 to the 12th October 1919. The ship was manned by the Natal Medical Corps (NMC) of South Africa but also carried a British crew (see below).

It was equipped for 300 or 400 patients but could carry 500 patients in an emergency. A table of hospital ships during World War 1 gives the following statistics: 6 British Officers, 13 Nurses and Sisters, 36 RAMC & St Johns Ambulance etc., 508 cots. A plaque at the Merseyside Maritime Museum records that over 5 years it steamed over 200,000 miles and carried 50,000 sick and wounded.

At the outbreak of World War I voluntary workers provided a lot of assistance to the medical authorities. A committee was formed, in Cape Town (South Africa), under Sir Thomas Smartt, to raise funds for the provision of certain auxiliary convalescent hospitals in the South African peninsular for both men and officers. A search was undertaken for a vessel that could be used for hospital purposes only (as opposed to a transport of ambulances). The S.S. Ebani, a cargo vessel, was selected by the Senior Naval Transport Officer, Captain R.C.K. Lambert R.N. and by Colonel Stock to fulfill this purpose.

The Smartt committee chartered the Ebani and converted it into a hospital ship for service in German South-West Africa. It provided the funds and undertook the alterations and fitting out of the Ebani as a hospital ship in accordance with the general specifications prepared by the director of medical services. The ship was equipped as an hospital ship in Cape Town. A staff was selected for the ship, the belligerent Governments were notified, and Lieutenant-Colonel D. Macaulay took over the duties of officer commanding. As the " Ebani " had been a cargo vessel for the West African trade, the decks were not unduly divided, and large airy wards with single-tier swing cots were prepared.

In addition to the fitted accommodation, a reserve of naval swing cots was carried.

The Natal Medical Corps.

The Natal Medical Corps was mobilized in 1914 and served in the South West African Campaign. During the campaign they formed the 6th Stationary Hospital at Swakupmond and manned the Ebani.

The Natal Volunteer Medical Corps (NVMC) was formed on the merger of the Durban Light Infantry, the Natal Mounted Rifles and the Natal Carbineers in 1895. It is now known as the 1 Medical Battalion Group (1 Med).

British crew.

The HMHS Ebani was intended to be a South African hospital ship to serve during the campaign in Africa. However, there is evidence to suggest that there were insufficient South African volunteers to man the ship and British (and possibly other nationals) were required to man the ship.

A protest was lodged in the South African Medical Record on 28 July 1917. It was lodged by Medical Officers serving in German East Africa including Lt Col. D. Macaulay of the HMHS Ebani. The protest was against the number of able bodied and military aged South African men who were stay-at-homers. This meant that the South African units had to be supplemented by men from the R.A.M.C (Royal Army Medical Corp) to make up the numbers.

Where was the HMHS Ebani during World War I?

Drawing together various sources, including diary entries by those aboard the HMHS Ebani, it is believed that the ship was at the following locations on the following dates:

Date Location

  • 1914 Cape Town - South Africa
  • 1 December 1914 Inaugurations of S.S. Ebani by Vicountess, Buxton Cape Town
  • 24 December 1914 Walfish Bay (also written Walvish), Namibia.
  • 30 October 1915 Alexandria (Egypt) to UK via Gibraltar.
  • 31 October 1915 As above.
  • 28 August 1917 Kisiwani Harbour, Tanzania. 29 August 1917 Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. 16 May 1918 Lindi to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

People known to have been aboard the HMHS Ebani[edit]

Sources have shown that the following people were aboard the HMHS Ebani during its sail as an hospital ship as either crew or patients:

  • Private John Thomas of the South Wales Borderers - wounded at Gallipoli in September 1915.
  • Dr Donald Macaulay M.B C.M. (In medical charge of the Ebani until 1917). (Ross-shire).
  • Nurse A. Hills Hospital in Alexandria and Ebani between November 1915 and February 1916 mentioned in dispatches December 1915 and March 1916 and recipient of the Royal Red Cross for which her attendance was requested at Buckingham Palace.
  • Nurse Dorah Bernstein from Johannesburg, nursed GSWA, Salonika, Gallipoli, Egypt, France and UK and served on hospital ship Ebani.
  • Nurse Margaret Blackmore (see anecdotes below) of Tilt Cove, enlisted not long after the outbreak of war and served on the Ebani in the East African Campaign and in the Mediterranean with the ship making one trip to England to refit and repair.
  • Mr. Alex Stephens treated aboard the HMHS Ebani for wounds suffered whilst serving in the South Africa Army against the Germans in East Africa (see anecdotes below).
  • Private Hurbett Everett Treated aboard the HMHS Ebani in 1915 (see anecdotes below).
  • Mr. William Hickman Smith of Dunston, Gateshead, England, served aboard the HMHS Ebani as a nurse (see anecdotes below).
  • Owen Jones Soldier of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Owen landed at Gallipoli on 9 August 1915 but succumbed to dysentery. He was admitted into the 2 Welsh Field Ambulance on 29 September 1915. On 4 October 1915 he was transferred to the 21st General Hospital at Alexandria until 30 October when he was invalided back to the UK on HMHS Ebani.
  • Dan Fewster A First World War British Army Battery Sergeant whose journals about his experiences in German East Africa give us some dates and locations for the HMHS Ebani.
  • Arthur Beagle - of Hull, Yorkshire Mechanical Transport and South African Horse 1st Mounted Brigade. From the diary of Mr. Beagle we know about the whereabouts of the HMHS Ebani in May 1918 and about a small pox outbreak upon the ship.
  • E. L. De Reeder - was residing in South Africa in 1916. Volunteered for active service in German East Africa as a motor dispatch rider; was rejected, being only sixteen years old. In Sept., 1917, enlisted in the South African Medical Corps, and was transferred for duty to No. 1 General Hospital, Wynberg, Cape Town, where, after one year's service as secretary to the officer commanding, was promoted to corporal. After nearly two and a half year's service ¦was discharged on request and sailed for England as wardmaster on the H. M. Hospital Ship Ebani and transferred for U. S. A.

    The following crew members of the HMHS Ebani are mentioned in the London Gazette of Tuesday 3 June 1915 (presumably in despatches):

    • Downs, Chief Offr. A., H.M.H:S. " Ebani."
    • Faill, Master Mariner A., Master of H.M.H.S, "Ebani."
    • Lumsden, 'Chief Engr. W., H.M.H.S," Ebani.".

    Anecdotes mentioning the HMHS Ebani[edit]

    The following sources have been discovered mentioning the HMHS Ebani:

    Love on the HMHS Ebani.

    On 11 May 1918 Nurse Margaret Blackmore married Mr. Alex Stephens (a mining engineer) whom she had met whilst serving on the Ebani where he was treated for wounds he had suffered whilst serving in the South African Army against the Germans in East Africa. They were married in South Africa on 11 May 1918.

    Encounter with a submarine off Gibraltar.

    On 31 October 1915 Private Hurbett Everett described in his diary how they saw a submarine (demon of the deep) sink a cargo boat just a few miles from them. The submarine allowed them to take on the sunken ships crew. It also spared them. Private Everett believes that it was the red cross on the Ebani that saved them.

    Dr. Donald Macaulay erroneously awarded the O.B.E.

    A record was discovered for a Dr Donald Macaulay (captain) stating that his medals were withheld because he would not return the insignia of the O.B.E (Order of the British Empire) that was erroneously awarded to him it may have been meant for Lt Col. D. Macaulay.

    A Stamp of defiance?

    Mr. William Hickman Smith served aboard the HMHS Ebani as a nurse during World War I. After the war he kept a coin with the insignia of the R.A.M.C. (Royal Army Medical Corp) and the HMHS Ebani on one side. On the other side is the picture of Kaiser Wilhem II (Guilelmus II Imperator). It is believed that the original coin was most likely to be a German East Africa (DOA -Deutsch Ostafrika) 1 Rupee featuring German (DR) emperor Wilhelm II (1888-1918) which should weigh 11.6638 grams and would contain .3437 of an ounce of silver. There were 300,000 of these coins minted in Hamburg in 1913. What was German East Africa during World War I was a German colonial territory covering the modern-day countries of Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

    We know from the records that the Ebani spent time in Tanzania (see above). This is probably where and when the coin originated. How it came to be stamped with the Ebani stamp we can only guess but apparently it is not uncommon for coins of the opposition to be defaced during war.

    Journal Extracts of Dan Fewster.

    The Journal extracts of Dan Fewster, a World War I British Army Battery Sergeant give us the following extracts mentioning the HMHS Ebani.

    August 28. 1917 - The MO will not keep me here, so I am transferred to the HS Ebani for Dar-es-Salaam. During the five weeks that I was in dock at Kilwa, my appetite was very poor and during the four days that I have been on this ship, I have hardly tasted food, although it looked very nice.

    August 29. 1917 - We arrived at Dar-es-Salaam this morning, and I am removed to No.2 South African General Hospital, formerly the Kaiseroff Hotel. I am now a stretcher case, so I dont improve much. After being examined by the MO, I am marked for the south.

    Extracts from the Diary of Arthur Beagle Small Pox on the HMHS Ebani.

    Extracts from the Diary of Arthur Beagle from Hull, Yorkshire, of the South African Horse 1st Mounted Brigade we know a little about the whereabouts of the HMHS Ebani in May 1918 and about an outbreak of small pox on the ship. His diary states:

    3 May [1918] - I am still in hospital although removed to Lindi by river boat. I am feeling pleased today as the M. O. is evacuating me. It is now a matter of waiting for the hospital ship.

    May 16 [1918] - Arrived at Dares salaam on the hospital ship Ebani and admitted to hospital. Small pox broke out on the ship and all of us were vaccinated. (450 miles).

    After World War I.

    The HMHS Ebani served as an hospital ship until October 1919.

    Following the end of the German South-West African campaign the H.M.H.S. Ebani was transferred to Imperial authorities. It continued to be used in various locations. Any staff of the South African Medical Corps who remained on board following the transfer were themselves transferred to the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.). It was sold in 1938 to Italy and renamed the Maristella. A third boat by the name of Ebani was built in 1952.

    John Doran


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