Affiliates Seminar: Influence of weather and climate on disease in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War

The death rate in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the First World War (WW1) was 18.5%, higher than rates for the United Kingdom and Canada. Around 9% of reported AIF deaths resulted from diseases and were predominantly climate sensitive. AIF hospital admissions for non-battle conditions exceeded the total number of AIF enlistments. To our knowledge the climatic influences on these high morbidity and mortality rates have not previously been quantified. Analysing these influences provides a case study that highlights the importance in accounting for climate in determining the future health, capacity and ultimate efficacy of armed forces, particularly in a time of increasing climatic extremes. To analyse the climate-health outcomes relationship we re-examined data available in Australia’s WW1 official histories (OWH) by CEW Bean and AG Butler, the Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour (ROH) and the National Archives WW1 personnel files (NAA). We then reviewed meteorological data and identified that the European 1917 winter was the coldest winter for 26 years. We have calculated the AIF United Kingdom official morbidity figure of 77,743 could be under-reported by up to 2.7-fold. European winter disease deaths exceeded summer disease deaths by a factor of three.Over 61% of AIF disease deaths in Europe occurred during the extreme 1917 winter and the Spanish Flu outbreak during the 1919 winter, whereby 69% were respiratory infections. Climate related diseases also severely affected the AIF at Gallipoli (Turkey) and the Light Horse regiments in the Jordan Valley between September and December 1918.


Hon. Lecturer Clem Davis worked as an operational meteorologist with BOM for 33 years. Since retirement he has held an honorary position with the Fenner School where he has been investigating local and regional climate change. As a volunteer guide at the Australian War Memorial, he became interested in the impact of climate on the AIF, especially during the First World War, which has led to this paper. Clem will outline the context and main findings of this paper.

Hon. Associate Professor Liz Hanna managed Intensive Care Units before transitioning to Hospital Administration and then to academia. Her PhD in chemical exposures led to national and international engagements in human health policy. Over the recent decades she focused on health impacts and policy responses to climate change and climate related disasters, and more broadly, environmental determinants of health. Liz will outline the influence of climate on the different health categories and the impact on resources needed to manage these issues.

Dr. Philip Kokic has made many contributions, through the application of statistical methodology, to a wide range of topics in climate science. His contributions have influenced government policy and business decision making, resulting in significant benefits to the environment and various sectors of the economy. Phil will provide the basis of the statistical analysis used in this paper.