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New Zealand soldiers serving in the First World War endured much higher rates of injury and disease than official figures suggest, according to a new University of Otago, Wellington study.

The study, just published in The New Zealand Medical Journal, provides the first-known in-depth examination of the non-fatal health impacts suffered by NZ military personnel as a result of the war that ran from 1914 to 1918. *

Professor Nick Wilson image

Professor Nick Wilson.

Lead author Professor Nick Wilson, from the Department of Public Health says it is important for the public and governments to understand the true cost of war on human health so that more resources are put into measures to prevent conflict, such as diplomacy and working collaborations between countries.

“Behind official NZ figures for those wounded or sick in the First World War ( WWI ), there is an enormous amount of other suffering that was not officially reported.”

“Much of this was severe enough to send these soldiers to hospital or to result in their discharge from the military,” he says.

The study analysed a randomly selected sample of 200 military files belonging to Kiwi WWI army veterans. It found 94 per cent had at least one new health condition diagnosed during their military service and 89 per cent were hospitalised at least once for a new condition.

The most common diagnoses were for infectious diseases – which were at more than double the rate of conflict-related injuries.

Respiratory conditions such as influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis affected 33 per cent of personnel, and 14 per cent were diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections. Diagnoses suggestive of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were present in 10 per cent, and chemical warfare injuries were recorded in 6 per cent.

Professor Wilson says the results show that if governments do send military forces into combat, these personnel need adequate protection from injury and other health risks, including proper protective equipment and good medical services.

Associate Professor George Thomson image

Associate Professor George Thomson.

Study co-author Associate Professor George Thomson says their analysis suggests the true rate of illness and injury was more than twice what official figures suggest, and that on average these soldiers were hospitalised 1.8 times for new conditions.

Added to this, 59 per cent of personnel were deemed no longer fit for military service at some stage.

It has taken more than 100 years to establish the morbidity burden for NZ military personal in terms of new conditions and hospitalisations from WWI , which highlights the need for governments to properly document such health burdens from past wars, he says.

The study recommends further studies on WWI could be conducted to explore the relationship between health conditions and the proximity to frontline combat, as well as health risks associated with different military roles, and the health burden of Māori or Pasifika military personnel.

Publication details:

The unseen casualties of the First World War: insights from a randomly selected military sample

Nick Wilson, Jennifer A Summers, Glyn Harper, George Thomson

New Zealand Medical Journal (20 October 2023 edition)

For more information please contact:

Professor Nick Wilson
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington

Associate Professor George Thomson
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington

Lydia Anderson
Media Engagement Adviser
University of Otago
Tel +64 21 279 4728

* The authors acknowledge previous in-depth research on the injury and sickness of a sample of New Zealand soldiers using their WW1 personnel files. This research is detailed in two chapters in the 2009 book Before ANZAC, Beyond Armistice by Keith Scott. This work was based on a sample of 440 Central Otago soldiers. The authors plan to include citations to this prior research in forthcoming work on health and WW1.

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