Illness was a major killer in a war without antibiotics

WAR SERVICE: The McNaught brothers.
WAR SERVICE: The McNaught brothers.

WHEN we think of the many thousands who died in the First World War, most of us imagine they were all killed in battle or died later from wounds received.

However, these were the days before immunisation. childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, and chicken pox, as well as influenza and pneumonia, could spread like wildfire through a camp.

Many of the recruits were from isolated country regions and they were often the first to contract these illnesses.

Some, like Pte Alexander Lindsay Eden McNaught, died before they could even embark on a ship to take them overseas.

Alexander and his brother, Cyril Auckland McNaught, were the sons of Alexander and Ellen Caroline McNaught of Uki. Alexander is said to have been a bridge builder who enlisted at Brisbane on February 18, 1916, aged 22. He was attached to the 11th Depot Battalion and started his training at Enoggera.

However, he soon contracted measles and then pneumonia and died in Enoggera Hospital on March 22, 1916. He is buried at Murwillumbah.

His brother Cyril, a school teacher, also enlisted in 1916 and went overseas. He rose to the rank of warrant officer and was attached to the Army Ordnance Corps. It is assumed that he returned to Australia but many of the ordnance corps stayed in England to organise the return of others.

Many of those who died of illness had pneumonia. The First World War was notorious for its use of mustard gas. If inhaled this was deadly as it attacked the lungs. Apparently even a small dose of gas could result in pneumonia.

Without antibiotics or even sulphur drugs, death or at least disability followed swiftly. Some of our soldiers to suffer in this way were Pte Albert Walter Victor Bailey (Tenterfield), who died at sea before reaching England; Pte Alfred John Brett (Rock Valley), who died in France; Pte Joseph William Collette (Ulmarra), who also died in France; and Pte Thomas Currie (Kyogle), who died in England but not until February 1919.

Some soldiers are said to have died of pneumonia where perhaps it was not associated with mustard gas. Pte Norman Johnston (Brooklet) died in Greece in 1915. Although he was in the infantry it is unlikely he came into contact with gas.

There were also pneumonia deaths in other theatres of the war - in Palestine Sgt Herbert Victor Valentine Ellis (Gundurimba) and Tpr Thomas Kenny Gwynne (Gundurimba); in Egypt Pte Ernest Donald Gow (Ulmarra) and Pte James Alexander Stewart (Nimbin).

Quite often the official records simply tell us that someone died of illness. This could apparently mean dying from wounds as well as from some complaint.

Influenza caused the death of many of our soldiers in the latter part of the war, including some who became ill on the journey home or after they arrived back in Australia.

There were also many accidental deaths in training camps and later at the front.

Malaria was one of the dangers in the Middle East region. This caused the death of Sgt Walter Sydney Harvison in Syria. He was from Casino and was a member of the Light Horse.

Pte Horace Atkins (Kyogle) died in France of heart failure. Possibly he had a heart problem when he enlisted, but no details are given.

A strange one, however, is Pte Albert Leonard Withers (Lismore), who died of cerebral haemorrhage. He was with the 15th Infantry Battalion. He died in 1917 and was buried at Panama. Were boats coming home via Central America? If not, why was he there?

Topics:  historian world war 1

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