Charles Rees reflects on the different Anzac Day we experienced this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and he takes a look back at what was going on a century ago.
Emerging from the glow of candles burning, lanterns, torches, modern technology: mobile phones and even the odd log fire people appeared in the predawn, at their mailboxes, driveways, gardens, nature-strips, balconies and behind closed isolation doors to honour Australian and New Zealand veterans of wars of the past century. Named “Light Up The Dawn” people responded to the call in large numbers.

At 0600 hours/6am buglers sounded the Last Post and Reveille. Other musical instruments: violin, flute, cello, French horn, even an electric guitar helped to create a solemn reminder of the special occasion in the isolation circumstances. Particularly pleasing was the many young performers who took the opportunity to demonstrate their musical prowess with a variety of musical instruments helping to enrich the ANZAC Spirit at the emerging dawn light. Especially the teenage buglers.

A very different remembrance from the usual ritual of marches, dawn and other services, attended by large crowds of past years at cenotaphs, memorials and RSL’s; all because of a virus (Corvid-19). Another virus, “Spanish Flu”F, caused disruption to ANZAC Day services in 1919 and 1920. This influenza was a misnomer, as named because Spain remained neutral during World War One (WW1). With no reason to censor illness reports, unlike other European countries engaged in WW1, Spanish reports of “flu” appeared to be very high, hence the label “Spanish flu”.

Turning up in war-torn Europe later in 1917 infecting healthy and injured soldiers, thus adding to the death toll of the field hospitals plus creating an extra burden to army medical facilities already stretching their capacity. This “flu” was to become a pandemic travelling with troops returning to their countries from the battlefields thus spreading among many of their communities.

With men returned/returning from WW1 with physical, mental, emotional and spiritual trauma, many of them having had to deal with common influenza, dysentery, pneumonia, pleurisy, asthma, enteric fever, malaria and scabies, as well as toxic gases, they were confronted with health services in crisis and community/social restrictions of the Spanish Influenza pandemic; they were surely calamitous times.

In Dimboola an emergency tent/field hospital was erected on the recreation park area to accommodate the increased demand for hospital beds. Several ex-servicemen had come down with the “flu” and were to recover: Roy Dahlenburg, John Douglas, Frederick Taylor, William White returned home in 1919 and/or early 1920. Twenty-one-year-old Leslie Hirth did not beat the clutches of the virus. He was buried in the Hirth family plot at the Dimboola cemetery in 1919. Approximately 2,500 Australian people died from being infected with Spanish “flu” and secondary bacterial pneumonia.

Editor’s note: Leslie’s older brother, Alfred Sydney Hirth, is also commemorated on the Hirth family headstone at the Dimboola Cemetery. He was killed in action at Passchendaele in 1917.

The last of Dimboola’s WW1 volunteers returned home during the first half of 1920. They were, in order of their service discharge: Albert Wagstaff (25.01.20), Percy Thomas (27.01.20), Roy Emmett (02.02.20), John Douglas (03.02.20), Ronald Lamond (19.03.20), Douglas Naylor (05.04.20), William Meek (20.04.20), Sister Olive M. Gillies / nee Wiederman (06.05.20), last to arrive was Ernest Wall (11.06.20).

NOTE: Each of these names appears on any one of the eleven WW1 Honour Rolls at various locations in Dimboola.

By 1920 it was apparent nowhere on the Earth was spared of the Spanish “flu”. Tahiti, a Pacific Ocean tropical paradise island, had one-seventh of its population wiped out. Eskimos/Inuit of the North American Arctic region did not escape the ravages of infection. Nearly 1,000 died on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. In South Africa it was devastating, recording 300,000 deaths (6% of the population) in three weeks. With larger numbers of deaths in Europe, Asia and United States of America the Spanish “flu” having first appeared in late 1917, it raged on until the end of 1920. Loss of lives was to be greater than the WW1 death toll.

As I have walked down Dimboola’s less than busy Lloyd Street in recent days during the current social isolation, I’ve paused to wonder how Dimboolians and folk in other Wimmera places would have viewed their circumstances at the time 100 years ago. Facing economic hardship coupled with rationing of daily supplies as well as the influenza pandemic, from all accounts they were toughing it out and “soldiering on”.

So it is with us today in 2020 looking back at these horrific death figures and reflecting on our imposed isolation regime, I trust we can appreciate the desperate measures of isolation and social distancing to avoid a calamitous repeat situation of a century ago. With an uncertain return to the way life prior to Covid-19, I think it is timely for a review of past practises of the “rat-race” lifestyle imposed upon us by Mr Big: Government, Banks, Business, Church.

Let us not entertain irrational behaviour such as hoarding, selfishness and blame. Let’s refocus stay calm and keep well in mind, body and spirit.

‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46 verse 10) it continues... ‘I will be exhaulted among the heathen/nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.’

We can be assured by Psalm 46 verse 1: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very presence/help in (time of) trouble’. Allow this to be our comfort and assurance at the facing of the current pandemic crisis.

Like those hardly soles many years ago: tough it out and soldier on with grace.

‘Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.’
- Sir Winston S. Churchill, WW2 British Prime Minister