Peaceful armistice, deadly flu

Peaceful armistice, deadly flu

One hundred years ago an armistice (truce) between Germany and the Allies was signed in France on 11 November 1918. Around the same time, a devastating influenza pandemic spread worldwide. History curator Stephanie Gibson looks at two women with ties to both events.

The armistice marked the end of fighting in the First World War on the Western Front in France and Belgium. This occurred on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Back home, New Zealanders took to the streets to celebrate the event.

People parade down a street
This photograph taken by Leslie Adkin shows the people of Levin celebrating the Armistice. In his diary entry for 13 November, Adkin noted: ‘Peace celebrations + a lovely fine day for the rejoicings … Town full of people + a large number in fancy dress.’

“The procession [2]”: ‘Armistice Celebrations in Levin, Nov. 13. 1918’. From the album: Family photograph album; 1917 – 1920; Adkin, Leslie, 13 November 1918, Levin, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of Adkin Family, 1997. Te Papa (O.031594)

However, coinciding with the end of the war was a devastating influenza pandemic that swept across the world and through New Zealand. Many public celebrations were cancelled to avoid large gatherings of people.

Originating in the northern hemisphere, this strain of the flu killed an estimated 9,000 New Zealanders over a short period from October to December 1918. An estimated 50 million people died worldwide, which was nearly three times the number of soldiers who died in the First World War (Rice 2017, 12).

The 1918 flu pandemic is New Zealand’s worst public health disaster. A high proportion of the dead were young adults, with Māori suffering especially severe losses with about 2500 deaths out of a population of about 50,000 at that time.

Many people helped to turn the tide of sickness. One of these was Church Missionary Society member Sybil Mary Lee (1872-1956). In 1915, Lee had travelled to Britain and worked visiting Māori soldiers in hospitals in Wandsworth and Walton-on-Thames (in and near London).

Photographic portrait of Miss Sybil Mary Lee
Postcard with portrait of Miss Sybil Mary Lee, about 1917. Maker unknown. Gift of the Butcher and Lee families, 2012. Te Papa (PS.003215)
Embroidered floral postcard
This embroidered postcard was sent by a soldier of the New Zealand (Māori) Pioneer Battalion in France to Sybil Lee when she was in Britain during the war.

Postcard, ‘Souvenir from France’, 1916-17. Maker unknown, France. Gift of the Butcher and Lee families, 2012. Te Papa (GH022223)

When she returned to New Zealand in 1918, she was faced with the influenza pandemic. She helped set up a temporary hospital for Māori patients in Hastings which opened on 26 November 1918. In her unpublished memoirs she recalls:

‘It was shearing season, and the sickness was spreading fast among the shearers… I was supplied with car and driver, and each morning given the names of stations to be visited where whole gangs of shearers were down with the “bug”. It was really worrying, for there were not the necessary facilities for nursing. Then it was decided there would be a Maori Emergency Hospital and the Hastings Drill Hall was chosen.’

The Drill Hall was transformed in less than 48 hours into a workable hospital with Lee in charge of the nursing staff on opening day.

Nurses who had worked near battlefronts overseas found themselves in great demand during the influenza pandemic. One of the key figures in our exhibition Gallipoli: The scale of our war is Lottie (Charlotte) Le Gallais (1881-1956). Lottie became a military nurse in June 1915 and went to Gallipoli on the hospital ship Maheno.

Larger-than-life model of nurse in the Gallipoli exhibition space
Lottie Le Gallais as represented in Gallipoli: The scale of our war. This image captures the moment when Lottie learned of her brother Leddie’s death on Gallipoli in July 1915. Photo by Michael Hall. Te Papa

Lottie had one more stint of military nursing back in New Zealand, working at Featherston Military Training Camp during the influenza pandemic. This was one of the most dangerous places to be in New Zealand during the pandemic – huge concentrations of young men, many living in tents, with gales and heavy rain in early November – all added to the high rates of infection and death toll.

Certificate of thanks, 1918, by Otago Hospital and Charitable Aid Board. Gift of John and Nancy Owen, 2008. Te Papa (GH012027)

Volunteers, particularly lay nurses, were vital during the pandemic, offering their services to help local hospitals and other relief agencies. Certificates of thanks were issued afterwards, such as this example from the Otago Hospital Board to Miss Jessie Miller.

A metal implement
Pressure inhalation sprayer, about 1910, New Zealand, by A. & T. Burt, Ltd. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (GH011797)

This pressure inhalation sprayer was used during the 1918 flu pandemic in attempts to limit the spread of the disease by spraying people’s throats with a mist of zinc sulphate solution. It was believed to be antiseptic, and was the only officially approved preventative. However, it was not effective against the influenza virus, and may in the long run have done more harm than good by damaging throat and lung tissue.

At that time, viruses and antibiotics hadn’t been discovered yet, and no-one understood that respiratory viruses like influenza are incredibly dangerous because they are spread so easily by coughing, and can survive on cold surfaces for days (which is why handwashing with soap is so important). Regardless of our improved knowledge, these risks remain.


  • Bargas, I. (2018). The 1918 influenza pandemic. Ministry for Culture and Heritage
  • Lee, S.M. (undated). Unpublished memoirs. Courtesy of the Butcher and Lee families. Te Papa
  • Rice, G.W. (2017). Black Flu 1918: The Story of New Zealand’s Worst Public Health Disaster. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press


1 Comment

  1. Armistice Weekend. am doing cemetery tours off the Soldiers Cemetery at Featherston, the soldiers came from, all over New Zealand, fought overseas, and returned to Featherston Camp, sadly died off influenza.. over 150 soldiers buried at Featherston. So will be doing my part to remember them. Clareville Taphophile.

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