Thursday, 1 October 2020
The Virus and the Anzacs Fighting ‘the siege of fear’


It's a paradox that Anzac Day, an event created to honour the sacrifices of brave Australian soldiers in World War I, should itself be sacrificed this week to win a different type of war.

And yet the 2020 war against the Coronavirus pandemic matches one that was to become all too familiar to the Diggers who survived the 1915 battles of the Gallipoli Peninsula, and others that followed in the Middle East and Europe.

In 1919 their new battleground was Australia. Their invisible enemy was the Spanish Flu.

Every Anzac Day, stories are told of the dawn landings at Anzac Cove on April 25, 1916. Of the courage and bonding of men who won glory without victory. And created a spirit of mateship and valour that has become ingrained in the ranks of our military - and in our national spirit - for more than a hundred years.

It was a bonding of men from six relatively new, federated but fragmented states that, after 13 years of partisan division, was credited with helping to unify Australia as a nation.

Sadly, it was also a bonding of blood brothers.  

Anzac casualties were said to total 25,000 including 8,700 Australians who were killed or died of wounds or disease,

A further 2,779 New Zealanders - about one-in-sixth of the Kiwi contingent that was part of the Anzac force - also died.

That, of course, is just part of a familiar World War I story that will go untold at deserted memorials around the Fassifern on Saturday.

From an Australian population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted for the Great War. And more than 60,000 of these were killed while 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.

This was the crucible of an anniversary that, over the years, has become recognised as a proper place and time to commemorate the service and sacrifice of all Australian men and women who have served (or are still serving) in war or other conflicts, or on peacekeeping missions around the world.

This well-worn theme will not be mentioned at the mute memorial sites around the Fassifern on Saturday.

Instead, every man, woman and child, in Australia, has been asked to physically abandon their annual day of solemn prayer, pomp and ceremony.

On Saturday, there will be no Dawn services. No plaintive tones of the Last Post, or the more rousing notes of the Reveille. Not at any official Dawn service anyway.

But residents of Aratula have been told to listen for a local bugler playing the last post about 6am.

And it’s believed there may be others around the Kalbar and maybe Boonah districts eager to use their talents to mark what is seen as the iconic start to Anzac Day.  

This was one of the suggestions put forward by the Kalbar RSL to prevent the day from going unnoticed publicly. 

With the theme of, ‘Lest We Forget It’, the sub-branch has urged people to engage in public displays of Australian and even New Zealand flags - any size or make - on doors, verandahs, gates, walls, fences and flagpoles.

The use of other suitable memorabilia, such as photos or medals, has also been welcomed.

Wreaths and poppies are reportedly already being crocheted and knitted in preparation for the weekend - kindling a hope that Anzac Day will not go missing in action this year; that the public will live up to the annual commemoration of sacrifices that continue to win praise for the Anzac fighting spirit.

Yet, following the 1918 Armistice, that spirit was severely tested for war-weary Diggers and nurses - still bearing the physical and emotional scars of war - when they returned home to find themselves virtual pariahs in a national campaign against the Spanish Flu.

The pandemic, which was to claim between 40 million-100 million lives (then, as now, there were difficulties in gaining accurate statistics) had been running rampant in Europe for six months, and had spread into Africa, Asia and the Americas. 

The stats are more accurate for Britain. Between July 1918 and February 1919, Australian troops there recorded a 10 percent infection rate. And 209 of them died.

Australia remained free from the disease until January 1919. 

Commonwealth quarantine officials had heard of the threat earlier and were already quarantining ships that had berthed at South African and New Zealand ports.

In addition, the public health defence called for the same basic tactics as today: isolation, social distancing, face masks, closures of national borders, schools, churches, theatres, skating rinks, horse races, the Sydney Easter Show and other major events - though the nature of embargos and timing of many varied from state to state.

Where there was a Spanish Flu death in someone’s house or lodgings the household had to pay an extra five pounds ($10) to the undertakers as danger money.

The restrictions on the freedom our troops had fought for bothered and bewildered many. They triggered massive unemployment, ruined businesses, caused widescale social unrest, set up physical and emotional trauma on a domestic level, and gutted the nation’s economy. 

Hospitals were overwhelmed as the pandemic spread. There was a prolonged outcry when a priest was forbidden entry to the Sydney Quarantine Station to administer the last rites to a dying nurse.

Homeward bound troopships lost their charisma when they became pandemic hosts. Half the complement of the Barambah was infected during their voyage and 23 died. Another transport lost only one soldier - who became delirious and fell overboard at night. After it reached Fremantle, however, it was put into quarantine. And 24 soldiers and four nurses died.

One man who had served with the AIF from 1916-18, inadvertently swapped one form of confinement for another. He was sentenced to 60 days’ detention after being court-martialed on a charge of ‘inciting a mutiny’ to break out of Adelaide’s Semaphore quarantine station 

And in Sydney, 1,000 men were disembarked from the Argyllshire at night and moved to a North Head campsite. On finding it unprepared and snake-infested they promptly decamped.

Queensland applied for a restraining order to prevent troops landing at a mainland quarantine station and breached an earlier agreement by refusing free access to anyone living within 10 miles (16km) of its border.

Crossings were only permitted at Wallangara, subject to a fee for first staying seven days in a quarantine camp and receiving two injections, plus treatments in an inhalation chamber. 

The injections were probably inoculations of a plasma successfully used for treating diphtheria.

There were, of course, no ventilators. No drugs. None of the modern benefits of modern medicine or surgery. 

But there were plenty of quack treatments. Such as Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, mustard plasters, castor oil, or mixtures of menthol, eucalyptol, camphor, cinnamon oil, and spirits of chloroform. 

Some doctors might also have reverted to the old method of sweating out a fever. Others might have recommended taking Bovril.

And a Bovril advertisement of the time claimed that the wearing of anti-flu masks was like ‘using barbed wire fences to shut out flies’.

The cause, prevention and treatment of Spanish Flu led to newspaper quarrels between Medical experts.

Then sensationalist news treatment of the pandemic by those same papers - for instance, labelling it The Black Death (victims could reportedly turn a bluish-purple) - resulted in the Medical Journal accusing them of ‘fanning the flame of panic’ and ‘creating a ‘siege of fear’.

Which, when you think about it, is good psychology for public health campaigners: Fear the worst and applaud everybody’s efforts when it doesn’t happen.

Even so, government tactics, coupled with our natural isolation, helped to keep the nation’s 1899 death toll down to between 13,000-15,000.

Our death rate of 233 per 100,000 compared well alongside 430 in England and 500 for non-Maoris in New Zealand. Deaths were higher amongst non-Europeans and some Aboriginal tribes were almost wiped out.

In the current Coronavirus pandemic, there has been some reaction against Chinese people because the disease originated in the city of Wuhan. One recent example was the video of a man outside the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, wearing a bush hat and cracking a stock whip as he urged the staff and all Chinese to go back where they came from.

So, it’s worth recalling that records show 213 Australian Chinese managed to overcome red tape hurdles to recruitment in World War I and served in a variety of war zones ranging through Gallipoli, the Middle East and the Western Front.

Nineteen of them received gallantry awards, some more than once.

Four brothers served with the 4th Australian Light Horse through the Sinai and Palestine campaigns and took part in what has been described as ‘the last great Australian cavalry charge’ in the Battle of Beersheba.

One of them received a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for single-handedly capturing a Turkish gun and, while under heavy fire, forcing its crew to move it to the Australian lines.

Another, Richard Wong, from Victoria, was a machine gunner with the 17th Battalion. After just seven months on the Western Front he was killed in action during an assault on enemy positions near Warlencourt.

And - remembering Saturday - Queenslander, Billy Sing, was one of a number of Chinese Anzacs. Sent to Gallipoli a month after the landings as a sniper with the 5th Light Horse, he earned the title ‘Crackshot of the Anzacs’ by killing more than 200 enemy soldiers.

He was Mentioned In Dispatches and won a DCM for his ‘conspicuous gallantry…courage and skill’

Lest we forget …