Contagious diseases were as deadly to the soldiers at Gallipoli as combat

ANZAC Cove. Medical Journal of Australia

Australian medical researchers have taken a fresh look at the the spread of illness at Gallipoli in 1915 which proved to be as dangerous to the soldiers as front line combat.

The study found diseases raged through the ranks because of problems in diagnostics along with insufficient antimicrobials and not enough beds.

Contagious diseases, particularly gastrointestinal ailments, took an enormous toll on the Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli, according to an article published in the Anzac Day issue of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA).

Dr Milton Lewis, at the University of Sydney, and Professor Stephen Leeder, Editor-in-Chief of the MJA, say a fly-borne epidemic of intestinal infection ravaged the troops.

“Regimental and divisional staffs and general headquarters were slow to appreciate the causes of the epidemic: seriously inadequate handling of rubbish disposal; the Army Medical Service’s excessive focus on water purity as a safeguard against such infections; and the military commanders’ concern to retain troops with less serious cases of the infection on the front,” they write.

Limited antimicrobials and insufficient beds in hospital facilities plagued the medical management and control of the communicable diseases.

At its most virulent, diarrhoeal disease claimed as many men through sickness each fortnight “as would be placed out of action in a general assault”.

“Flies swarmed from May until October. Latrines were built, rubbish burned and bodies buried, but incompletely so and disease continued to spread, especially as the troops’ nutritional status began to wane,” Lewis and Leeder write.

Dental problems, lice infestations and a limited diet added to the challenges of the Anzac fighting men.

“Battle fatigue, illness and the risk of death — these were the realities daily confronting the Anzacs,” Lewis and Leeder say.

“We need to be clear in our understanding of the variety and depth of challenges faced by those troops 100 years ago.”