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‘The Influenza pandemic’, 1918–19 War narrative20 June 1917 – 16 April 1919
Queensland journalist Francis Brewer served in France with the 20th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. He returned to Australia in February 1919, writing in his diary that the men on his ship hoped to be greeted by locals when they stopped at Fremantle, their first port. But as the ship docked, they were told by health officials that they couldn’t come ashore: ‘saw a man in a white suit waving his arms in semaphore fashion … It was a message telling us we were not to land. It was a bitter disappointment, the torture, to us, was excruciating.’ Australian ports were quarantining returning soldiers in the attempt to prevent the spread of a virulent influenza. More people died of the 1918–19 pandemic than in the entire First World War. Known as the ‘Spanish flu’, it is thought to have originated in rural Kansas in early 1918 and spread rapidly through military camps in America, then to troopships travelling to Europe. The contagion reached Australia in early 1919 and seemed to most affect young healthy adults. By late 1919, some 15,000 Australians had died from influenza.