The unseen enemy
Richard Moxham never got to meet his baby daughter.
He died on the final day of the First World War after being struck down by a mysterious new form of influenza that began sweeping around the globe.
The pandemic that followed would be more deadly than “the war to end all wars”.
For Meghan Adams, a researcher at the Australian War Memorial, Moxham’s story is particularly tragic.
“It’s such a sad story,” Adams said.
“Especially in light of what we’ve all been through over the past couple of years with COVID.
“He’s just 20 years old, a young man, dying of an illness, and he’s leaving behind his young wife and his baby daughter.
“He’d married just before he left Australia, and so his wife would have given birth while he was away at the front.
“It’s another really sad element of the war.
“It’s just tragic.”
Known as “Rich”, Richard Robert Moxham was born on 16 October 1898 in Guildford, New South Wales, the youngest son of Richard Moxham Senior and his wife Louisa.
He grew up in the suburbs of Sydney and was educated at William Street Public School in Granville where he was an active member the local municipal band.
“Moxham’s story is an interesting one,” Adams said.
“He’s working as an apprentice blacksmith in Granville when the First World War breaks out and is a member of the local Militia.
“He’s fairly young at the time, but he enlists in 1917.
“Unsure what the future holds, his parents allow him to marry his sweetheart, Alma, before he leaves for the war.
“They get married in a small wedding in July 1917, and he embarks just a few months later.
“But he will never see his young wife or his family again.”
Moxham joined the Australian Army Service Corps and sailed from Sydney at the end of October 1917 on board the troopship Euripides.
“He heads over to the Western Front the following year, and he arrives in France in September 1918, just as the war is pretty much drawing to a close,” Adams said.
“It’s the final days of the war, and the German forces are being pushed all the way back to their final lines of defence.
“Moxham is transferred to the 4th Division Train, a logistical unit responsible for helping the infantry with ammunition and supplies, equipment, food, water, that kind of thing, moving between the front and the rear areas and the camps.
“He’s allocated the rank of driver, and is responsible for a variety of transport tasks, including ambulance driving, postal deliveries, and carting materials.
“He’s not actually in a combat role, but it’s still very dangerous nonetheless, because of the shelling and the general conditions at the front.”
Moxham’s unit would go on to support members of the 4th Division in its final assault against German forces.
During this period, however, a new enemy began to emerge.
“It’s during these later stages of 1918, that they start to see these cases of some kind of severe flu," Adams said.
“They don’t exactly know where it came from, but people started to get really sick.”
Unhygienic conditions at the front, coupled with overcrowding and mass troop movements, only exacerbated the problem.
“Moxham becomes ill in October 1918, and is hospitalised with what we now know is the Spanish Flu,” Adams said.
“It particularly attacked the young, rather than the old and vulnerable, which is the opposite to how a lot of these viruses normally work.
“It causes sore throats, coughing, headaches, dizziness, all the symptoms that we are familiar with, but it also causes problems with the lungs, causing some patients to cough up blood.
“It spreads quickly, and that’s exactly what we see happening at the front.
“There’s a lot of troop movements, a lot of people living in crowded and unhygienic conditions, and so it spreads really, really quickly among the troops, and the hospitals are soon flooded with patients.
“On 29 October 1918, Moxham is sent to hospital with the virus, which gets worse, and develops into pneumonia.
“Pneumonia’s pretty deadly in those days, and his condition rapidly declines.
“Then, on the 11th of November 1918, just as the Armistice is being declared, and the rest of the world is celebrating the declaration of peace, Moxham succumbs to the effects of the illness and passes away in hospital on the final day of the war.”
News of his death reached his family shortly after.
“It’s such a sad story,” Adams said.
“He was there so near the end of the war, and he wasn’t in a combat role, so his family would have been hoping that he wasn’t in too much danger.
“But to catch the flu and then die of pneumonia ... it’s just awful.
“He’s only 20 years old and he has a baby daughter, who he never got to meet.
“They would have been thinking the war is over, my son, my husband, my brother, is going to come home, he’s going to be safe, only to get the telegram saying he’s died of influenza.
“His actual death occurs on the final day of the war, but thousands and thousands and thousands of troops continue to die from the Spanish Flu, even after the Armistice is declared.
“The troops start bringing it home with them on the troopships and that’s where you see it spreading to different countries around the world.
“More than four years of warfare has finally ended, but then a pandemic starts, which is particularly deadly to the young.
“It’s just another tragic side to the war.”
Moxham died at the 9th General Hospital in Rouen, France, and was buried at the St Sever Cemetery.
Today, his name is listed on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial, among almost 62,000 Australians who died while serving during the First World War.
The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918–19 would become one of the most deadly pandemics in human history. In a little over a year, it infected up to a third of the world’s population, and killed up to 100 million people.
The Spanish Flu was not named ‘Spanish’ because it began in Spain, but because Spain was neutral at the time, and didn’t have the same level of press censorship as the rest of Europe, creating a false impression that Spain was the worst affected.
Rich Moxham’s family paid tribute to their son, husband and father in a few short lines in The Sydney Morning Herald: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
It was signed by his widow, Alma, and his baby daughter “Bobs”.