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The Innocent ANZACs

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Written by Jackson Thomas

They were not killed in a hail of bullets, by exploding bombs or poisonous gases in the trenches. But they died in their thousands; the Innocent ANZACs.

Shortly before the end of World War I, in November 1918, a deadly flu virus struck New Zealand and other islands across the South Pacific.

While the history of ANZAC Cove and battles such as the Somme has led to numerous books, articles and even films, the 1918 flu pandemic is largely forgotten or is at best a footnote in New Zealand’s wartime history. Yet a staggering 8,600 men, women and children died, about half as many as the number of New Zealand servicemen killed in action in the First World War.

From 1916-1918, military camps were particularly hardhit by the influenza, so soldiers who had yet to enter battle and some who endured and survived the horrors of war, were cruelly killed on home soil by what in modern times can be easily cured in a matter of days.

A stroll through the War graves section of Waikumete Cemetery reveals dozens of graves of these soldiers. Pacific island troops were first offered to assist in the war effort by Niue, Rarotonga and the Cook Islands and were referred to as ‘Native Reinforcements”, deployed directly in to the NZEF. Different surroundings and a strange new climate are thought to be the key reasons why Pacific troops were hit particularly hard by the flu whilst in New Zealand training.

But more poignant is a large granite memorial (see picture) erected in the memory of more than 1,100 people who died in Auckland alone as a result of the epidemic.

Here they were buried in a mass grave and it was not until the early 2000s that the area was recognised with a simple monument, again demonstrating how little is known about this tragedy.

My great grandmother was a child at the time and family members recall her telling stories of people being carried from their homes and loaded onto horse-drawn carts to be taken by train to the cemetery for burial. She also recalled hundreds of tents being erected in the nearby Avondale Racecourse where people were sent to recover, or die.

I was fascinated with oral interviews from World War 1 shared during a communications studies tutorial held by Auckland Library representatives. In these interviews, one woman spoke of her childhood and being confined to her home with family, living for weeks under a forced quarantine; they were not able to socialise with their friends, other family, or even go to school.

Indigenous populations were hit particularly hard. Throughout the pandemic, the mortality rate amongst Maori was seven times that of European New Zealanders, a trend which has continued right up to present day with Maori and Pacific Islanders still suffering far more illnessrelated mortality than European New Zealanders.

The indigenous populations of the South Pacific islands also suffered horribly with the pandemic which was thought to have been brought by sea to Western Samoa via an islands trader, the Talune, in November 1918. Approximately 8,500 Samoan people (about 25% of the population at the time) died as a result.

New Zealand had seized Samoa (the former German colony) at the beginning of the war and at the time there was strong criticism of the New Zealand Government’s handling, or mis-handling, of the situation by not quarantining the island. This anger and frustration lingered for decades until, eventually, in 2002, then Prime Minister, Helen Clark, made an official apology to the Samoan people.

Amidst the horrors and heightened emotion of war, many stories and events can be simply overlooked. Following the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War 1, let there be some acknowledgement of those lives claimed outside the theatre of battle; the lives of the innocent ANZACs. Jackson Thomas is a student at Unitec.