Anzac Day 1919 and the influenza pandemic

Ashburtonians celebrating Anzac Day in 1919 must have felt very strange – they were still feeling the aftereffects of a deadly disease outbreak.

It would have been surreal for two reasons, being that the outbreak of H1N1 influenza had affected Ashburton quite severely, and that the tragedies of the Great War were still fresh in the minds and hearts of New Zealanders. This dangerous virus made its way into New Zealand on board ships, and our army camps proved to be the most prolific breeding grounds for the virus.

Ashburton saw its fair share of grief during the influenza pandemic, which made its way south and hit us hardest between October and December 1918.

In order to understand how it would have felt to celebrate Anzac Day in 1919, let’s have a look at how Ashburton fared during the height of the H1N1 influenza outbreak in New Zealand.

Borough becomes Bureau

The Ashburton Guardian reported on the 10th of October 1918 that there was no serious outbreak of influenza in Ashburton, but by the 15th of November the fight against influenza in our town was being called “the new war.”

When it comes to our approach to battling infection 100 years ago, some things seem familiar while others are quite different. Denial of a serious outbreak in Ashburton soon turned to caution, as cases began to rise in number and severity in early November. Public buildings in Ashburton were being sprayed with disinfectant at least once a day and other measures were in place, but unfortunately things still took a turn for the worse.

Due to the “serious extent to which influenza is prevalent throughout New Zealand”, the Ashburton Borough Council office was appointed a Bureau – effectively an operations centre for managing affairs relating to the outbreak. If one required nursing, medicine, disinfectants or any assistance, they would apply at the Bureau.

The various doctors and chemists at the County Hospital were stretched thin tending to influenza patients, under the watchful eye of Health Inspector Mr. E N Johnson.

In statements undersigned by the Mayor R Galbraith, all indoor and outdoor gatherings including religious services and entertainments were forbidden by the Borough Council. Shops were closed early, and all women willing to help nurse or cook during the epidemic were called upon by the Mayor to put their names forward.

The new war

The Great War had come to a close just days prior, but we found ourselves embroiled in a brand new conflict: a war against influenza.

A sharp increase in case numbers in the middle of November had the people of Ashburton worried, and it was even said that “in one street, it was stated, in every house there were patients, many of them young children.” An inhalation chamber was set up on Burnett Street, where people would go to disinfect the throat and lungs by inhaling zinc sulphate – a process that actually made people more vulnerable by damaging the respiratory system.

Inside an inhalation chamber that was set up inside a bicycle shed in Christchurch, 1918. Low-res image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/1-008545-G.

The Guardian reported that on the 22nd of November, roughly 60 families were receiving attention from the Bureau, and there were a number of cases at the County Hospital and scattered around in private residences. A temporary hospital was active in Methven, which received its fair share of nurses appointed by the Health Inspector Mr E N Johnson.

There were many cases outside of town – on the 21st a doctor went to visit a family in Alford Forest and found a man, his wife, and seven children “all down with influenza.”

As influenza sufferers became well again, there were complaints that “several persons recovering from influenza were walking about the streets, freely intermingling with the public, and going in and out the shops.” The Guardian made sure to remind the public that “a severe penalty is attached to anyone suffering from influenza appearing in a public place.”

Anzac Day

Despite the trials faced by Kiwis over the course of the war, and the harrowing influenza epidemic months prior, Anzac Day 1919 in Ashburton was surprisingly normal according to the Guardian.

Bunting was flown across town, flags were displayed, and a commemorative service at St Stephen’s church was followed by a procession and ceremony at the Domain. Several columns were published on the 25th and 26th of April detailing the addresses made during Ashburton’s Anzac Day celebrations, during which there was not one single mention of the influenza epidemic.

Anzac parade in front of the Saunders building, East Street. The photo is labelled as being from 1919, but another version owned by the Ashburton Museum calls it the “first Anzac day”.

This is a no-brainer perhaps; Anzac Day is focused on remembering our fallen soldiers after all, but you would think that even a passing reference to the influenza outbreak would have been made at least informally. We can only read between the lines and try to gauge feeling – perhaps it was deemed inappropriate to divert attention away from the theme of remembrance for the Anzac troops, or the influenza outbreak was too recent and painful to acknowledge.

Nevertheless Ashburton took pride in its Anzac celebrations and at least we made a solid effort, as it was reported in the papers that celebrations in Wellington were “half-hearted” due to the day having fallen so close to the Easter holidays.

In Sydney influenza was still taking its toll, and so no demonstrations were permitted for the celebration of Anzac Day.

By Connor Lysaght

This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 24 April 2021.

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