By Allister Mills
“The flu went on and on like the war, thousands of life [sic] was soon ended. We that survived were still in action. … I was sent to the Embarkation Hospital at Sutton Veny, waiting for transport home. Along comes the dreaded killer again. Soon the Cemetery there was filled with the dead of the Civilians, Nurses, Soldiers. Again I came through that ordeal and fully aware of the symptoms and its vengeance.” Ernest R. Linklater, 3DRL/5098.
As the First World War was drawing to a close, and the monumental task of repatriating countless tired and homesick soldiers began, the world faced a pandemic that would be more deadly than “the war to end all wars”.
Virologists believe that the likely origin of the Spanish Flu pandemic was in areas along the Western Front. The pandemic then spread through large military camps, such as those at Étaples in France and Aldershot in Britain. Significant overcrowding at Étaples, in both the troop staging camp and the base hospitals, created the perfect environment for the virus to spread rapidly by means of military personnel.
With the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, the task of demobilisation began, and these personnel began their journeys home. Up to 170,000 Australian soldiers (and if they had wed in Britain, their families) required transport back to Australia. Major cities such as London filled with soldiers waiting to be returned to their homeland, increasing both their risk of exposure to the disease and the likelihood of carrying it across the sea.
Soldiers were quickly informed of the danger of the influenza pandemic. Gunner Alexander Mackay of the 8th Australian Field Artillery Brigade wrote in 1918: “This influenza & pneumonia is still playing havoc in France & Blighty [Britain]. Goodness knows if Fritz is responsible. A circular this week from HQ states several little lines concerning deadly infectious disease or virus had been found after his [the German’s] evacuation. All units are ordered to report immediately any others found.” (1DRL/0441).
By March 1919 soldiers were receiving inoculations against influenza before their repatriation, to stymie the spread of the disease. The image below shows an “inoculation parade” of Australian Army Medical Corps personnel in the Senior Medical Officer’s hut at the No. 4 Command Depot, Hurdcott.