The story of HMAT Boonah in WWI should have prepared us better for the challenges of the Covid pandemic.

Arthur Thwaites was a chemist’s assistant from Parramatta. He enlisted on October 15 1917 as part of the medical corps, but was not called for overseas service until October the following year, when a call went out for reinforcements. He was then 30 years old,

The ship he boarded had an interesting history. It was German built for the Australian trade, but was seized in Sydney the year war was declared and converted to a troop ship.

HMAT Boonah.

On the way to the Middle East, HMAT Boonah called at Durban. However, by the time it arrived, the armistice had been signed and the ship, with almost a thousand soldiers on board, was called back to Australia.

Unfortunately, the city of Durban was already coping with an outbreak of the deadly ‘Spanish’ flu. In an ill-fated decision, local stevedores were employed to service the Boonah, thereby transmitting the virus to the defenseless troops.

On December 12 The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the progress of the transport. It had reached Freemantle after a slow, rough passage from South Africa, By now there were approximately 300 cases of pneumonic flu among the troops and the ship’s crew. The paper also mentioned that there had been one death, that of Sergeant A.C. Thwaites, on December 9.

His family were in complete shock as they had not been notified. Christmas came and went and still no word came from the military authorities. In mid January Senator Albert Gardiner wrote to the Minister for Defence seeking answers on behalf of Arthur’s mother and brother.

A letter had been sent Mrs Thwaites, dated December 12, but of course it took some time to reach her. The three day delay was because the officer responsible, Major O’Halloran, had succumbed to the virus himself. Captain Griffiths discovered the omission when he replaced O’Halloran.


To his credit, Capt. Griffiths wrote to Arthur Thwaite’s grieving mother straight away;

An inquiry had begun aboard ship into the death of Seargent Thwaites on December 10. Statements were taken from those who had witnessed him walking along the deck prior to his disappearance overboard. One man who knew and recognized Arthur was Roy Robins;

Captain Gilbert Brown, a doctor in medical corps, provided a revealing statement;


The official finding used some unfortunate wording even if was technically correct. A person in a state of delirium with a temperature of 104 degrees may well see cold water as blessed respite, not a conscious attempt to take his own life.


There was a dreadful dilemma for the Western Australian Government when HMAT Boonah wanted to land sick men in Freemantle. The State was still free of flu and as in the case of the Covid pandemic, they were desperate to keep it that way. A letter of protest from the men aboard the ship was published in The West Australian, signed The Pariahs. It was subsequently reported on by the Victorian publication The Australasian on December 21;

The writers state that as long as they are forced to remain aboard the germ-infected vessel, with the false decks alive with filth and bacteria breeding broth, fresh cases will be reported until the whole shipload is diseased, They have been on board since October 30, and if they are to remain on board until the ship is declared clean they will have to be there until October next.

Albert W. Bray. father of a soldier on board, also spoke out; In a letter to the editor of The Daily News (Perth) dated December 14 he pleaded for the men to be off-loaded to a quarantine centre and asked;

What interests or considerations are preventing these soldier lads from getting their due chance of health or life? How many more cases of sickness or death are required to make the authorities do a strong common-sense thing? These lads went forth to stake their all for us in the Great War, and surely they should not be told that of the million square miles in Western Australia there is no spot where they can be landed to get their chance of escaping infection.

Finally, in a protracted operation lasting three days, 300 of sickest men were ferried ashore in a harbour tug called The Reliance.

The Freemantle Harbour vessel The Reliance ferried men from HMAT Boonah to a quarantine station.

They were transported to The Woodman Quarantine Station, south of Freemantle. Unfortunately there had been little shelter on The Reliance, and many were drenched by sea water. Three would die on the very first day ashore.

There was one positive in this terrible story. When army nurses were asked to volunteer to care for the soldiers, so many stepped forward that names had to drawn from a hat.

A total of 600 men were taken to the station. Ultimately 27 soldiers and 4 nurses succumbed to flu at Woodman.

Meanwhile, conditions aboard the Boonah became so intolerable that the Returned Servicemen’s Association threaten to storm the ship and take the remaining men ashore. Something had to give, and against quarantine regulations the ship left on December 20th, heading east. More cases of flu occurred, but thankfully there were no deaths. The rest of the men went into quarantine at Torrens Island, Adelaide.

There is a memorial at the now closed Woodman Quarantine Station to those who died. The location has been transformed in a recreation camp.

Memorial to HMAT Boonah victims at Woodman Quarantine Station.



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