Vancouver Island faced the challenges of war and influenza through 1918. 

Although the Great War ended in 1918, during the spring and summer of that year the fighting was still intense in Europe. When the Russians left the war in March 1917 after the February revolution, German leaders were confident of a victory. But the United States joined the fighting in April, and fresh American soldiers began arriving. After the failure of the ‘Michael Offensive’ in the spring of 2018, the Germans realized it was no longer possible to win the war. But the battles went on, and soldiers continued to depart for Europe. 

Recruited by the British government to free troops for front line duty, the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) comprised volunteer workers from China and Mongolia. 

The CLC performed essential support work including unloading ships, repairing railways and 

roads, building dugouts and trenches, and filling sandbags. The volunteers travelled across the Pacific and then were sent by train to the east coast for eventual transport to the war zone in Europe. Victoria was a stopping point on their journey and the following photograph shows members of the CLC waiting at the William Head Quarantine Station. 

Around 100,000 men served in the Corps for the British and another 40,000 for the French before the end of war. Mainly aged between 20 and 35, most were repatriated to China between 1918 and 1920. The Pacific Marine Review, a magazine published from 1904 to 1950 dedicated to marine and shipping news, published the following in a 1920 edition. 

“During the last five months, almost 50,000 Chinese coolies have passed through the port of Vancouver on their way from work in the European war zone back to their homes in China. At times the congestion at the Williamshead quarantine station has been very great. For instance, at the end of the second week in March there were over 8000 coolies housed at that point.”(1) 

Back on the front lines in Europe, fighting returned to the Somme in the spring of 1918. Several more battles were fought there in August, and on August 8, 1918, the Battle of Amiens marked the start of the final Hundred Days. The Canadian Corp played a leading role, and Canadian across the country took pride in that role. 

While the war dragged on, at home on Vancouver Island, residents faced their own battle with the Spanish flu. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 took place from January 1918 until December 1920 and is considered to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Estimates are that the virus infected 500 million people around the world and resulted in the deaths of between 50 and 100 million people or three to five percent of the world's population. The reason for the huge range in the estimates is that records from the time did not always record the flu the cause of death. Many death certificates showed flu but others showed pneumonia and other causes, which could have been directly related to the flu. 

The following is from a website called “The Spanish Influenza in Victoria, Canada, 1918-1920.” 

“In the four municipalities that comprised Greater Victoria, the total number of deaths recorded by the Provincial Board of Health between July 1, 1918 and June 30, 1920 from Influenza or Pneumonia Following Influenza was 259... Among the residents of our cemeteries are whole families felled by Spanish Influenza ... Army recruits from Saskatchewan and Quebec who arrived fresh-faced at Willows Camp, bound for Siberia, only to end their days at the Stadacona Park Isolation Hospital... Nurses and nuns and volunteer caregivers who made the supreme sacrifice from tending influenza patients... It is of course not possible to identify every person in Greater Victoria who died of Spanish Flu. The required source is a death registration document, Circumstances of Casualty (Canada) or Vital Statistics Act: Schedule B—Deaths (British Columbia). The cause of death is given as ‘influenza’ or some combination of ‘influenza’ and ‘pneumonia.’ ‘Pneumonia following influenza’ is common.”(2) 

A website dedicated to the history of Ladysmith reports: 

“By October 26, City Medical Health Officer Dr. A.C. Frost had requested authorities to close all churches, schools and social clubs in Ladysmith and citizens were urged to shop early so that ‘store clerks could return home to their families before 6 P.M.’ By the following week a total of 19 deaths from influenza were reported in Vancouver and Victoria... This was not welcome news for the citizens of Ladysmith. There had been a breath of cautious optimism as the war in Europe wound down, but nearly fifty men from the town had lost their lives during the conflict, while many others had been severely wounded and would require years to recover... Ironically, many local businesses saw the influenza outbreak as a commercial opportunity. A Ladysmith Drug Company ad urged people to buy ‘compound essence of cinnamon to ward off the first attack of the Spanish flu. 25 cents a bottle‘ — and an advertisement placed by Thomas & Harris on High Street proclaimed that the Spanish flu could be avoided by buying ‘solid leather boots and shoes — we have them in all sizes.’”(3) 

Researchers now know that the virus that caused the Spanish flu is the H1N1. This same virus is responsible for the Russian flu epidemic of 1977-1978, the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, and several outbreaks since. 

Pamphlet about the Spanish Influenza; published by the Nanaimo Board of Health.

End Notes

1) “Pacific Marine Review,” April 1920, page 127; accessed through the The Internet Archive: pacificmarinerev17192paci#page/n413  



4) Courtesy of the BC Archives: Item I-67752; Accession number: 193501-001; 

Originally published in the Victoria. Genealogical Society Journal, Summer 2018 edition. This and all material on this website copyright KM Lowe and the Relative Writer unless stated otherwise.