The Death Ship: A Fateful Voyage - reflections on a visit to the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

New Zealand forces have been engaged in international theatres of war since the South African War began in 1899 and as part of the British Empire we did our duty in the First World War (1914-1918). The Death Ship is an exhibition that looks at a moment from the First World War through the lens of tragedy partially mitigated by medicine.

The Death Ship: A Fateful Voyage - reflections on a visit to the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa
Photograph from The Death Ship exhibition at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa. Used with permission.

If, like me, you haven’t visited the National Army Museum in Waiouru in about a decade, the developments to the museum are immediately obvious. I was expecting to enter via the gift shop as I had on my last visit however the new entrance takes you right to the admissions desk. Visiting museums for work is always a perk and the Army Museum was no different.

As a curator with a lot of experience installing exhibitions, I can never spend enough time looking at the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the exhibitions in addition to the ‘what’; I was once told off at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles for getting too close to a painting when I was trying to see how it was mounted to the wall. Subsequently I visited the Army Museum across two days to give myself enough time to absorb everything. The staff on both days were incredibly friendly and helpful, and willing to suffer my presence in all the publicly available spaces. In fact, this blog was written in The Mess Tent, the onsite café at the museum.

New Zealand forces have been engaged in international theatres of war since the South African War began in 1899. The Musket Wars and New Zealand Wars appropriately feature in the museum as well, so the museum has a large remit to cover. The reason for my visit however was to examine the exhibition ‘The Death Ship: A Fateful Voyage’ before its closure in February2023. The exhibition captures a moment in our military history from 1918 that is entrenched in tragedy after the HMNZT Tahiti stopped in Sierra Leone on its way to England with 1217 military and support personnel on board. While in port, members aboard the ship picked up the flu that would so quickly become widespread and devastating on a global scale, killing more people than the First World War.


The Tahiti reached port in England with 90% of its occupants having contracted the flu. The cramped and overcrowded conditions of the ship made it perfect for the virus to spread amongst the personnel onboard. Three Medical Officers (MOs) and 10 members of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service (NZANS) were aboard the ship. Two of the MOs went down with flu early, leaving the care of the remaining 1200 people aboard to the third MO who himself had mild symptoms of flu, and the nurses. The presence of the nurses, it is worth noting, was protested by the ship’s Captain F.P. Evans, who thought they would undermine the discipline of the men. They were invaluable in the care of those onboard and only through their dedication and hard work did the ship arrive in Plymouth in September 1918 with only 78 dead. Those still sick were moved into hospitals and of the more than thousand reinforcements on the ship only 260 were fit for duty.

Given military history is often the history of men and battles it was refreshing to see in this moment of our history, the presence of women and the impact they had on the war effort.
Image Description
Tippett (short cape) worn by 22/499 Staff Nurse Isobel McLennan from the HMNZT Tahiti. Collection of National Army Museum Te Mata Toa, used with permission.

The women aboard the ship were by no means the only women involved in the First World War and indeed in global conflict in general. The women were named, their actions, their lives and their contributions so widely acknowledged in the exhibition in words as well as with their personal possessions.

Image Description
H.M.N.Z.T. S.S. Tahiti No 4, by David James Aldersley. Te Papa (PS.002972)

The exhibition features cramped spaces in an attempt to demonstrate the conditions those aboard the ship were subject to. Through porthole windows the viewer is given glimpses into displays of medical tools and equipment used during the First World War. A personal favourite was a Tippet (short cape) from a uniform worn by one of the nurses aboard Tahiti. A great addition to the exhibition is the digital presentation of the experiences of 13 of the passengers aboard the ship which is more than worth a watch.


The exhibition was installed during a COVID-19 lockdown according to registrar Glenn Martin. He said it was appropriate but unfortunate circumstances given the topic focuses on another global pandemic of which New Zealand was part. In fact, parallels with our current pandemic are tied into the exhibition through the role of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) in supporting the Managed Isolation and Quarantine System (MIQ). Those who worked in support of MIQ were given an Operation Protect patch for their uniform. The patch features a manuka flower and the outline of New Zealand. The flower is in a nod to the role of manuka in Rongoa Māori (Māori medicine) and the outline of New Zealand is made from honeycomb blocks to represent the structure and strength of bees and their hives.

Though the exhibition closed in February 2023,the Army Museum’s military medical collection continues to be seen throughout the more permanent exhibitions installed in the museum. If you are interested in health and medicine in the history of the New Zealand Army, it pays to visit the museum if you are ever passing through Waiouru.