At the 1907 Hague Convention, which preceded the First and Second Geneva Conventions by more than twenty and forty years respectively, the international community’s consensus on hospital ships was straightforward. In Article Four, it states that hospital ships should denote themselves clearly, never interfere in combat, and “give medical assistance to wounded personnel of all nationalities.” It is this last point that is most striking: before either of the World Wars, world leaders came together and agreed to help each other and to afford each other comfort and humanity even in the most brutal of circumstances. In the years since that convention, hospital ships have become an imperfect beacon of this friendly philosophy.
The two World Wars tested the optimism of the 1907 Hague Convention. On multiple occasions, the Germans and the Allies questioned each other’s use of hospital ships for transporting troops and intelligence. Although the terms of the Hague Convention also stated that enemy combatants could board each other’s hospital ships for inspection, this was often impossible in practice. The Canadian hospital ship HHMS Llandovery Castle, for example, sustained a German torpedo attack during the First World War, sinking and losing 234 of the 258 souls aboard. This incident became the basis for one of the Leipzig War Crime Trials, during which two of the German commanding officers were found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison.
There was also the case of the HMY Britannia, the last British royal yacht ever constructed. Designed for easy convertibility into a hospital ship, she was in reality a decoy. In the days after the Second World War, the British Navy had intended to use her as a hiding spot for Queen Elizabeth II.
More recently, the reputation of the hospital ship at large has become less dubious. In March 2020, the Indonesian Navy hospital ship KRI Dr Soeharso rescued and transported an international assortment of passengers from the cruise ships World Dream and Diamond Princess, which had been exposed to outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. At a time when it seemed that the only news stirring was bad news, it was a hospital ship that became a symbol of global unity and compassion.
Even more recently, the site of the Beirut explosion became a destination for multiple navies’ hospital ships. As the world watched in horror and sympathy at the chaos wreaked throughout Lebanon, the French Marine Nationale, the British Royal Navy, the German Deutsche Marine, and the Hellenic Navy all dispatched hospital ships to care for the injured. Domestically, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, a pair of US Navy hospital ships,
treated American non-coronavirus patients throughout the spring in New York City and Los Angeles respectively, alleviating some of the pressure their hospitals were under at the peak of the pandemic.
For the US, there is a tradition of prioritizing global healthcare during an emergency. In 1958, retired Navy hospital vessel The USS Consolation, for example, served as a peacetime hospital ship, the SS HOPE. President Dwight Eisenhower agreed to charter the vessel to the non- profit group Project HOPE at a single dollar a year, enabling the ship to provide crucial healthcare around the world. Today, Project HOPE continues to operate, as a land-based organization in 26 countries.
Amidst the chaos of war, it seems inevitable that rules get forgotten. People make bad choices, and as a result, bad things happen. Regrettably we can sometimes see this in the history of hospital ships over the century-plus since the 1907 Hague Convention. Yet, we see also the kindheartedness that Convention expressed. From coronavirus-stricken cruise ships to a battered city on the Mediterranean, hospital ships have become real-world examples of our most ideal form of compassion on the open sea and a bridge to international cooperation.
Second inset image: " The USNS Comfort hospital ship arriving in the New York Harbor to assist with the COVID-19 outbreak." by wikicommons user MusikAnimal, adjusted for use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License