WWl: Fighting the war against disease

By Michael Botur

Michael Botur reports on a life claimed by the influenza epidemic that struck NZ.

Sergeant Bertram Boock died from the flu on his 32nd birthday.
Sergeant Bertram Boock died from the flu on his 32nd birthday.

7 A virus invades

While war raged on the Western Front, hundreds died at home in the Featherston Military Camp.

Their deaths are chronicled in a register which Ministry of Culture & Heritage historian Imelda Bargas was stunned to discover.

It records 271 deaths - more than half from influenza. Staff Sergeant-Major Bertram Boock of the NZ Medical Corps was the camp's quartermaster. His sad story moved Bargas so much she keeps his memorial booklet above her desk.

"Not only had Boock served overseas during the war and returned home safely only to die of disease, he appeared to have died on his birthday. He was just 32, the same age as me."

Boock succumbed to influenza on November 10 at the height of the 1918 epidemic that would come to be known as the Spanish Flu the next year. The virus would kill 8600 New Zealanders.

Jennifer Summers of the University of Otago's Department of Public Health says: "The 2009 swine flu had its genetic origins from the 1918 strain."

Auckland, where the flu first landed, paid the price for being unprepared. Downtown Victoria Park became an open-air morgue. The dead were dispatched to Waikumete Cemetery by train, where they remain buried in a mass grave. While returning soldiers were buried as heroes, influenza victims at Featherston were laid to rest far from home.

What touched Bargas about Boock's death was that while two of his medical colleagues also died, the staff had to carry on saving lives while they were grieving for them.

They also carried on using useless measures to combat a virus they could not comprehend.

"Those measures helped spread the flu, in cases. It was common practice then to let air flow through crowded buildings, or have guys inhaling sulphur dioxide."

Those who did not perish from pneumonia while awaiting deployment endured nosebleeds and vomiting. Men recuperating in tents were vulnerable to the elements.

"It was horrific even if you survived it," Bargas says. "Young, healthy, fit guys who had got through their medical exam were taken down."

Bertram Boock, son of Lily and Israel, is buried at Karori Cemetery in Wellington.

July 30, 1914

The Herald reports:
• A formal and official declaration of war by Austria against Servia is made. Both nations are preparing, as are the surrounding countries.
• Austrians in Canada are leaving to rejoin regiments.
• The war news results in "conditions approaching panic" on the New York Stock Exchange.
Other news:
• Parliament received several petitions from people opposing the Bible in Schools referendum.

- NZ Herald

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