Lest we forget the other pandemic

This Anzac Day on the 25th of April 2020 when many public events are cancelled, I’ll be streaming exclusively LIVE on the History Out There YouTube channel the Anzac Commemoration by the Bundamba Salvation Army. The stillness and reverence of the occasion will be more poignant than ever because of the self-isolation caused by the coronavirus that now threatens lives and how we live them. We must never forget.

The current pandemic is not the first nor will it be the last global medical emergency. As the First World War surrendered its lethal preeminence, the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic swept the world to become the deadliest epidemic in human history. There were around 20 million civilian and military deaths in the First World War but even that paled as the new strain of influenza claimed 50-100 million lives worldwide.

Around 60,000 Australians died in the war, so it’s no wonder Australia’s mothers mourned and about 1,500 memorials to the First World War sprung up across the country . There were so many in fact that Australia was called a “nation of small town memorials” and I’ll be streaming live from one of them.

Australia was not spared by the post-war influenza either with 13,000 deaths. Every family was touched, and mine was no different with two young men who were two of the unluckiest victims of the war and its aftermath.

Many in my Dad’s family are footballers, just like Joe Emmerson who was a member of the first Footscray Football Club team in 1883. (That’s him in the very first team photo below, sitting in the front, second from the left.) Today the club plays in the Australian Football League. Joe was newsworthy from the outset as the side’s first ever rover. He even made Sporting Globe headlines for his eighty-sixth birthday. Joe’s club involvement continued well after he turned 90 when he was still acting as door keeper at the press box at home matches.

Joe Emmerson - Sporting Globe Saturday 30 April 1932 page 6 (2)

Not so fortunate was his younger brother Ernie Emmerson (pictured below). As a fresh twenty-year-old, Ernie went to serve his country in 1916 aboard the Australian troopship ‘Ballarat’. This is the same ship that the following year took my great-grandfather Tom Peacock to war only to be torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine.

Ernie dodged shrapnel and high explosive shells for over three years as a despatch rider with the Australian Cyclist Corps. The Australian Red Cross reported that on the very day that the guns fell silent on the 11th of November 1918, Ernie was admitted to a casualty clearing station in France suffering from influenza. Other documents suggest it was a couple of days later, but no matter because at the clearing station on the 16th of November, Ernie succumbed to the influenza about to sweep the world.

Ernie Emmerson - Footscray Independent Saturday 21 December 1918 page 2 (2)

My Mum’s family also sent many young men to the Great War. One such volunteer was twenty-one-year-old Clarence Torney. He embarked the troopship ‘Boonah’ on the 22nd of October 1918 which was the day after his cousin William Torney was approved for a Distinguished Conduct Medal, which is second only to the Victoria Cross.

With about 1,200 Australian soldiers on board, the Boonah sailed headlong into what became known as the “Boonah crisis”. On the 14th of November, three days after the Armistice was signed, the ship arrived in Durban, South Africa, only to be turned around and told to go home. The short time at anchor was enough for local stevedores from the Spanish flu-stricken city to infect the ship and the soldiers who were cramped below. By the time the Boonah arrived back at Fremantle in Western Australia in December 1918, more than a quarter of the men on board had contracted the virus with Clarence Torney among them.

Then the crisis began. The Commonwealth immigration authorities initially refused to allow the soldiers to disembark. After some delay the ship was allowed to dock and three hundred sick were ferried to the Woodman Point Quarantine Station. The rest of the men had to remain on board for a seven-day incubation period. But amid crowded conditions, the sickness spread. Public outrage grew against the immigration authorities’ refusal to allow all of the soldiers ashore. Public wrangling raged between state and federal authorities, and tensions increased to the point that the returned servicemen’s association threatened to storm the ship to take the sick men to shore. After nine days of bitterness, the ship broke quarantine and sailed to South Australia where the remaining men disembarked at a quarantine island.

Clarence was among the first group to be hospitalised at Woodman Point in Western Australia on the 14th of December 1918. That’s where he died a week later on the 21st of December and where his lays to this day (headstone pictured below).

68874_Private_Clarence_William_Torney - Vitual War Memorial Australia

Clarence Torney never made it to the war and never made it home either. Ernie Emmerson was struck down on the day the war ended. Both are among the unluckiest casualties of the First World War and the ensuing virus outbreak.

This Anzac Day as we maintain social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus, remember Ernie, Clarence and others like them, who gave so much back in the world’s worst recorded pandemic.

Click here to set a reminder to watch the 2020 Anzac Commemoration by the Bundamba Salvation Army streamed LIVE from a country town on 25th April 2020.

Photo credits:
Last Post bugler – courtesy of Brad Strong
Footscray Football Club’s first team 1883 – Sporting Globe, Saturday 30 April 1932, p.6
Sergeant Ernie Emmerson – Footscray Independent, Saturday 21 December 1918, p.2
Woodman Point headstone – Virtual War Memorial Australia

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