Military camps were dangerous places to be – influenza epidemic 1918-19

Friday, November 16, 2018
People inside an inhalation chamber in Christchurch during the influenza epidemic of 1918

In the centenary year of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the history of military deaths reveals how chronic was the spread of the disease in military camps with the men in close quarters.

In New Zealand, the army camps at Narrow Neck in Auckland, Featherston and Trentham in Upper Hutt in particular were breeding grounds for the disease, at its most virulent in the months of late 1918 and early 1919. In the Featherston Camp, more than 3220 troops required hospitalisation during the second wave period November 1918, from a camp comprised of around 8000 men, according to the article in the New Zealand Medical Journal, “Severe impact of the 1918–19 pandemic influenza in a national military force,” by Jennifer A Summers, G Dennis Shanks, Michael G Baker and Nick Wilson.

Many war graves of that time recorded by the New Zealand War Graves Trust show the serving members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) were casualties of influenza.

Historian Dr Geoffrey Rice is emeritus professor of history at the University of Canterbury and author of Black November: The 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand, a definitive history and the first country-level study of the 1918 influenza pandemic based on individual death records. He records that “the only places where the mortality showed any uniformity were the military camps.” As noted on the official New Zealand government history website, he describes them as “by far the most dangerous places to be in 1918.” At the Featherston and Trentham camps the rates were 22.6 and 23.5 deaths per thousand people respectively.

In their more recent paper, Summers, Shanks, Baker and Wilson say that the final estimated pandemic influenza mortality over a period of 33 weeks among the NZEF was 930 deaths, a mortality rate of 8.8 per 1000 of the total estimated 105,520 NZEF personnel at the time. There were only 536 women in the NZEF, mainly nurses, and three died from pandemic influenza.

Influenza was no respecter of age. A young Tokomaru freezing worker, Ralph Brunton had enlisted late in April 1918, as reinforcements were still required by the army in what would be the last months of World War I, despite the mass slaughter of the previous four years.

Brunton passed the medical with “no complaints” his service record shows. His military service page is a mere five lines long: Posted to B Coy June 6, transferred to D/44 July 23, transferred to D Coy 45th July 24, admitted to Trentham Military Hospital November 6, deceased November 13. Cause, influenza, pneumonia. He never got out of the Training Unit and is buried in Karori Cemetery, Wellington. He was 20.

Influenza was no respecter of families. Private Edward Beagle served in the NZ Military Forces Home Service Section. He died of influenza in Lower Hutt’s temporary Lyceum hospital on November 11, 1918. He was 36 and left his wife Clara with four children: Irene (9), John (7), Joseph (4) and Mary (18 months). His war grave is in Taita cemetery, Wellington.

Also in the Home Service Section, Sergeant Albert Simpson, a former storeman, was passed fit for service in August 1915. He was promoted to corporal in December 1916 and to sergeant in July 1918. But his service record reveals he underwent a re-examination by the medical board in February 1918 and was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis and varicose veins, classified as having permanent disability and declared not fit for active service. It did not stop him being returned to Trentham for home service. He was admitted to Trentham Military Hospital on November 17, 1918 and died two days later of influenza and pneumonia. His brother Leonard died of influenza on the same day. Both brothers are buried in Taita Cemetery and commemorated on the same headstone.

Influenza was no respecter of rank, and researchers have shown that privileged officers and private soldiers alike were affected.  Born in Cornwall, England, Company Quartermaster Sergeant Charles James enlisted in Timaru and survived action with Canterbury Regiment in Gallipoli, Egypt and France. His service record shows he was evacuated from France in November 1916 suffering from influenza, and admitted to the New Zealand General Hospital in Brockenhurst in southern England. When he recovered he was repatriated to New Zealand and reported for duty at Trentham in April 1918. In October of that year in Featherston Military Camp, he was found to be suffering from neurasthenia, general anxiety and fatigue, noted as being from stress of service. Just over a fortnight later he was admitted to the camp hospital with broncho-pneumonia and died four days later on November 17. He is buried in Featherston Cemetery. His wife Lottie later took delivery of a memorial plaque at her home in Taunton, England.

A military camp has even been implicated in the outbreak of the pandemic. Eminent virologist Professor John Oxford and fellow researchers identified that, from late 1917, the major troop staging and hospital camp in Etaples, France, was the centre of the Spanish flu, known by that name from early reporting on disease outbreaks that was censored elsewhere but allowed in that country.

Professor Oxford and his team underlined their case for the influence of Etaples military camp and adjacent animals in the title of their paper published in the January 2005 issue of the journal Vaccine:  "A hypothesis: the conjunction of soldiers, gas, pigs, ducks, geese and horses in northern France during the Great War provided the conditions for the emergence of the ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic of 1918-1919."

Professor Oxford told the Independent newspaper in 2000: "At any one time there was 100,000 men minimum [in Etaples] and well over a million troops went through the camp. It turns out to be one of the biggest military bases ever built. It had 22 hospitals of every nationality."

Professor Oxford said, "Having focused on Etaples, it does look like the perfect breeding-ground for influenza viruses, because so many young men of different nationalities were mixing under fairly strenuous circumstances."

With the end of the war a year later, the mass movement of people - soldiers and refugees - caused the virus to spread well beyond Europe and to burst out as a global pandemic. "It looks as if it appeared a couple of years beforehand and smouldered for a while. Then suddenly something in 1918 turned the smouldering into a huge bonfire," Professor Oxford said.

"It could have been everyone going home after the war. It would tell us that it is not just the genetic structure of the virus, but the genetic structure plus something else and that could give us useful information for the epidemic to come."

In an article for the New Zealand Journal of History, Dr Rice wrote that in the space of two months, from mid-October to mid-December [1918], at least 49% of the [New Zealand] population was stricken with 'flu, in some few places over 80% of households being affected.

“Most people survived, but 6091 Europeans and at least 2160 Maoris succumbed to pneumonia or other complications of the 'flu. The overall death rate from a population of 1.15 million was 7.45 per thousand, but the Maori death rate was seven times worse than the European. At the height of the epidemic in Auckland special trains took scores of coffins twice daily for burial at Waikumete Cemetery. Unlike ordinary influenza, which kills the very young and the very old, the 1918 pandemic struck at adults in the prime of life, between 25 and 45 years, depriving thousands of children of a parent.

“Schools, shops, pubs, theatres and even banks were closed as public life came to a halt. Teams of volunteers set up emergency hospitals in schools and church halls. Doctors and nurses worked themselves to exhaustion. Soup kitchens were set up to feed hundreds of convalescents, with Red Cross and Boy Scout volunteers as couriers of soup and medicines.

“This remains New Zealand's worst recorded natural disaster in terms of mortality and the extent of disruption to everyday life.”

Story by Terry Snow
Photograph: People inside an inhalation chamber in Christchurch [influenza epidemic 1918]. Ref: 1/1-008545-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23252768