“Not hard once a fellow gets over the stiffness ...”

By Brenton Clifford

While the Australian War Memorial has had to close its galleries and exhibitions for a time, our curatorial teams are still hard at work. Our Digitised Collections team has been busily cataloguing and uploading material all throughout this period.

Recently, we were cataloguing collection 2DRL/0144, “Extracts from the letters of Private Robert Mactier VC”. Private Mactier fought on the Western Front in the First World War. A company runner in the 23rd Australian Infantry Battalion, Mactier was awarded the only Victoria Cross for the battalion during the battle for Mont St Quentin, when he charged four German machine-gun posts, eliminating the threat from three of them. You can read more in his profile on the Memorial website.

In reading Private Mactier's letters, we found mention that his unit had been held in quarantine for the mumps. This obviously resonated with us in the current circumstances!

Troops on board HMAT Ascanius, about to depart.

Mactier left Australia aboard the troopship Ascanius in May 1917, arriving in England in July. His unit was immediately quarantined, as there had been an outbreak of mumps aboard ship – Mactier reports there had been 83 cases.

Mumps was a ‘serious cause of trouble’ for the Australian forces during the First World War. Butler’s Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services, 1914–1918, which is available on the Memorial website, describes the spread of mumps epidemics as ‘inexorable’ throughout military communities. The following graph shows such a spread. You can see the bump in June 1917, around the time when the Ascanius arrived in England.


Graph No. 10 - The Course of a Mumps Epidemic in the II ANZAC Corps, December 1916 to August 1917.
From Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services, 1914-1918, Vol II, p. 55

Each troopship would bring disease with it. Initially, isolation of cases would do little to hinder the spread of illness, but by the end of March 1917 the camps were reorganised and isolation was substantially improved. However, not until the isolation of all soldiers arriving from Australia in separate camps was there a reduction in cases. This resulted in:

The (average) number of mumps patients in hospital decreased from 800 to 200, (and for) the first half of 1918 to 62. The total number of contacts lessened from 8,500 to 2,500 and during the first half of 1918 the average number was 1,763. [D]uring August to November, 1917 ... 92 per cent of mumps cases occurred in the isolation area and only 8 percent outside. [Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services, 1914-1918, Vol II, p. 565]

Isolation of arriving soldiers was done in combination with regular reports from medical staff on troopships, with similar reporting being completed for the troops returning home after the war.


Form Quarantine 315, titled "Quarantine Service: Health Report for Transports other than Hospital Ships", issued 1919.

Private Mactier seems to have been lucky enough to avoid a case of the mumps, in spite of 83 of his fellows falling victim to the illness. Other soldiers were not so lucky. Also in the Memorial's digitised collections are the papers of Lieutenant Gerard Henderson Cowan of the Australian Flying Corps. In February 1917 – months before the Ascianus arrived in England – Lieutenant Cowan was unlucky enough to come down with the disease.

On Tuesday 13 February, Cowan wrote in his diary that men from his hut had fallen ill, one with mumps. By Thursday  that week, Cowan's jaws had become “swollen and painful,” so he reported sick. In the meantime, he had gone to a concert!


Diary of Gerard Henderson Cowan, January – April, 1917.

Cowan remained in hospital until 8 March 1917. At one point, so many men were coming in “every day” with mumps that he was concerned that he would have to give up his bed. He wrote on 2 March that “a couple of fellows have already had to bunk on the floor and give up their beds to newcomers.” One wonders if any of those men had also gone to the concert on 14 February.

Returning to Private Robert Mactier, it is worth noting that he seems to have taken isolation quite well. The extracts from his letters focus more on his appreciation of simple food, and his complaints are more about the price of fruit in England than the rigours of quarantine.


Extracts from letters of Private Robert Mactier VC, 1917-1918.

If only we could all be so sanguine about weeks of quarantine! Maintaining some social distancing is far less stressful, all considered.