Spanish Flu: The flu went on and on

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.

Innoculation parade against influenza in the Senior Medical Officer's hut at the No. 4 Command Depot AIF camp prior to repatriation.

Australia was proactive in its quarantining policies, implementing a maritime quarantine in October 1918 after the government was informed of outbreaks in New Zealand and South Africa. Many of the returning soldiers recorded their frustrations with the quarantine. In a letter to his sister, Private William Dunbabin writes,

“If all goes well I am leaving here [Melbourne] tomorrow on the ‘Wyandara’ for Hobart. When we get there we have to do seven days isolation on Bruny Island & perhaps I won’t be able to write to you from there. If they give me half a chance I will bolt and not do the quarantine. I expect they will land us on Bruny though and not give us a chance to escape.” (PR01249) Despite the precautions, cases of Spanish Flu began to appear in Australia in early 1919.

As could be expected, the pandemic caused more deaths when people were kept in close proximity without adequate medical care. This was often the case with ships, as they were ill-equipped to deal with a large number of simultaneous cases.

These dangers were exemplified on HMAT Kursk while returning German prisoners of war who had been interned in Australia. A week after departing Sydney Harbour on 30 May 1919, Corporal Edward Bourke records in his dairy. “Prisoner of War Bauenhaeur died at 6.30 am – buried at noon. Our first death at sea. Sickness aboard is becoming noticeable. About 1500 aboard all told and the Medical Staff of two Doctors and three Orderlies seems hardly enough. On one of the internees deck there appears to be scores of sick men. More hospital accommodation is being improvised. I have heard the term ‘Spanish Flu’ mentioned quite a lot.” (AWM2017.815.1). As the number of deaths on the ship increased, the names of those lost to the pandemic were written in the ship’s Orderly Room. The death of one German internee in particular seems to have stuck with the crew: “’A Hun’ you say? Yes, a Hun. But the same feeble breath that is in my nostrils, was in his, as is in yours. So much for one of the victims of Pneumonic Influenza.”

Funeral of German deportee Johanne Petersen on board Her Majesty's Transport Kursk.

Over its course, the pandemic killed an estimated 17 to 100 million people: as many as five times the number of people killed during the First World War. Despite this, Australia experienced one of the lowest recorded death rates of any country during the pandemic. Extensive quarantining procedures were successful in slowing the spread of the disease into Australia. By the time the pandemic arrived in the country it was in its “third wave”, which proved to be significantly less severe than the preceding wave. It is well to remember in our current pandemic that one hundred years ago the quarantine, while not perfect, was highly effective in saving lives.