David Willis’ service in the AIF lasted only 6 weeks. He enlisted at Rosedale on 14 July and died in the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne on 26 August 1915. He was a victim of the 1915 outbreak of cerebro-spinal (meningococcal) meningitis and was in the Seymour training camp when he contracted the disease.
On enlistment he gave his age as 26yo. He was married – Edith Ann Willis – with 2 children. He had been born in Alberton but he gave his address as Rosedale. His occupation was labourer and his religion was recorded as Presbyterian. He was in 62nd Company at Seymour.
He was one of 4 siblings to enlist. Two brothers had already enlisted: Sydney Walter Willis on 18 January 1915 and Albert James Willis on 22 May 1915. Both were in their early twenties and single. The third brother, Henry Victor Willis, enlisted, at Yarram, the same day – 14 July 1915 – that his older brother, David, enlisted at Rosedale. Henry Victor Willis was also single and he was 20yo. He was killed at Fromelles on 21 July 1916. All 4 brothers gave their occupation as either ‘labourer’ or ‘farm labourer’.
The 3 single brothers all gave their mother – Mrs Janet Willis of Alberton – as their next of kin. The mother also signed the necessary permission for her underage son – Henry Victor Ellis – to enlist, and after his death all his medals went to her. There is no reference to the father in any of the service records of the sons.
All 4 Willis brothers appear on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll and the 2 who died – David and Henry – are included on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial. Additionally, all 4 appear on the honor roll for the state school at Alberton and the honor roll for the local Presbyterian Charge. The brothers were obviously well known in the local community.
The meningitis epidemic that hit in August 1915 was particularly virulent. While the organism responsible for meningococcal meningitis had been identified by the late 19C, there was no vaccine available at the time. The disease was especially alarming in the community because it had such a high mortality rate, and throughout August and September the names of those who had died from the disease were routinely published in the press. Invariably, the names of those who died were soldiers in the various training camps. David Willis’ name appeared in The Age (p.8) on Friday 27 August 1915. The headlines were: Meningitis Outbreak. Five More Deaths. Fourteen Fresh Cases.
The improved weather has not brought with it the abatement of the meningitis outbreak that was expected to accompany it. Fourteen fresh cases were yesterday admitted to metropolitan hospitals, and five deaths were reported at these institutions. Of the new cases, nine were soldiers, one was a civilian, two were women and two were children. With one exception, the deaths were all of patients who had been not more than two days in hospital.
There are now at Alfred Hospital 65 patients under treatment. Ten were admitted yesterday – four from Seymour camp, five from Broadmeadows camp, and a civilian case from Glen Huntley.
The article gave the particulars for Private Willis, one of the 5 who had died the day before: Private DAVID WILLIS, aged 28, of Rosedale. Admitted on 13th inst. from Seymour camp. Interestingly, he was the single exception to the observation in the article that victims died within one or two days of being admitted to hospital. According to the article, he lasted for 2 weeks before he died. In fact, the official death certificate noted that he had had the disease – cerebro spinal meningitis – for 3 weeks before his death.
Day after day, more cases and more deaths were reported in the metropolitan papers. Medical authorities did know that the disease was spread by human contact – coughing, sneezing etc – and they also knew that it was prevalent in crowded conditions, which was exactly the environment created in the military camps that had sprung up. In fact, there were equivalent outbreaks of the disease in military camps in many other countries at the start of the War. One strategy applied in Melbourne was to reduce the size of the largest camps – the one at Seymour seemed to have a very high incidence of the disease – and send the men to smaller metropolitan and country centres. In some cases men were sent home on leave. Potential carriers were isolated. The Alfred Hospital had to be taken over as a military hospital and there was talk of it needing to accommodate 600 men. The outbreak meant major disruption to the AIF’s training program. The focus on personal hygiene – including on behaviours such as teeth cleaning – was intensified. Doctors advocated the therapeutic benefits of eucalyptus oil.
As already demonstrated – see Post 48 on the death of Private Leslie John McLeod on the troopship HMAT Kyarra – men also came down with the disease on troop transports as they sailed to the Middle East. It was even more difficult to separate and isolate men on these ships.
Private David Willis was buried at Coburg Cemetery.
News of his death was published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 1 September 1915:
One of the Alberton soldiers, Private David J. Willis, fifth son of Mrs. Janet Willis, succumbed to meningitis in the Alfred Hospital on Thursday last [26 August]. He leaves a widow and two young children.
One year later an in memoriam appeared in the same paper:
On Active Service.
Willis – In loving memory of our dear son and brother, Private David Jeffrey, who passed away at the Alfred Hospital on 27th August, 1915. Age, 26 years.
– Inserted by his loving mother, sisters and brothers.
Your picture hangs upon the wall,
The dear face we love to see;
And in the hearts of those you loved
It ever dear shall be.
Silence is no certain token
That no hidden grief is there;
Sorrow that is seldom spoken
Is the hardest grief to bear.
It is not clear why the family gave the date of death as 27 August because the death certificate and all AIF correspondence has the date as 26 August 1915. Another inconsistency in the records concerns the number of his children. While the attestation papers clearly state that he was married with 2 children, pensions were allocated to his wife – Edith Ann Willis – 2 daughters – Mavis Beatrice Jean Willis and Isabel Edith Willis – and a son, David J Willis. All were from Rosedale. Presumably, one of the children was born after his death. This would mean that the wife was left with 3 young children. At this point in the War it was very unusual for a married man with children to enlist. Possibly, David Willis was desperate to join his three brothers, and he simply discounted the fact that he was married with young children.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
For more information on the graves of those members of the AIF who died in the meningitis outbreak in 1915 and were buried in the Coburg Cemetery, see this following post from the blog: