The 1918 Influenza Pandemic may have originated in the Far East, but the first recorded cases surfaced at a military base in Kansas, in the United States. From there this highly infectious Influenza-A (H1N1) virus spread to other bases across the United States.
When American troops deployed to Europe, the flu travelled with them. Fueled by close quarters, massive troop movements, and unsanitary field conditions, it quickly struck soldiers in the trenches of France. From there it spread to Spain and beyond.
During World War One, most European countries were subject to strict censorship. In Neutral Spain, however, newspapers freely reported where and when the disease struck. So people, believing that that country alone was affected, dubbed the disease La Gripe Española or Spanish Influenza.
This first wave of influenza mimicked the common cold, causing mild symptoms and few fatalities. Its victims were mainly the sick and elderly around the world.
It first reached the UK in May 1918. From Glasgow, it followed transportation and communication routes southward, reaching London a month later. As it progressed, it became more and more virulent.
A second wave, a deadly mutation of the first, circled the world again from September through November. This time, to everyone’s horror, it targeted healthy young adults. These 20 to 40 year olds, those who bore children, laboured in factories, and fought wars, were the backbone of the nation.
Victims suffered severe sore throats, headaches, chills, high fever, and overwhelming fatigue. Some also endured massive hemorrhaging , vomiting, and violent coughing. Those who contracted bacterial pneumonia, a secondary infection, suffered cyanosis, a lack of oxygen that turned their skin turned a terrifying shade of bluish-black. The disease was swift. Those who arose hale and hearty at dawn could be dead by tea-time.
Many British councils, desperate to contain its progress, sprayed their streets with chemicals, ordered their citizens to wear masks, and forbid spitting and coughing in public. As the disease continued to spread, theatres, dance halls, churches, and other public-gathering places were closed. If cinemas, small and generally crowded with children, were left open, they were emptied every few hours for ventilation. School closures were left to the discretion of local authorities in most parts of the country. In London, however, they were closed only when their teachers fell ill.
Since its cause was unclear, people adopted a variety of preventive measures. The November 3, 1918 issue of News of the World suggested “Wash inside [your] nose with soap and water each night and morning; force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply. Do not wear a muffler; take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work.” For good measure, evidently believing that stick-to-your-ribs carbohydrates would build resistance, the editors added, “ Eat plenty of porridge.”
Some sprinkled that porridge liberally with cinnamon, which was valued for its medicinal properties. Some ate prophylactic raw onions or, for some reason, carried potatoes in their pockets. Others, to build resistance, sipped cups of cocoa or Oxo, a nourishing beef beverage. Some desperate souls even downed lumps of sugar dipped in kerosene.
Many, on the chance that influenza was caused by germs, washed up with Lifebuoy soap, laced their drinking water with tincture of iodine, gargled with salt solution, and disinfected everything else with germicides. Those fearful of air-born contamination hung camphor balls around their necks or carried handkerchiefs imbued with ammonia vapors or volatile oils like eucalyptus. Some even kept incandescent gas burners alight day and night. Others, convinced that tobacco fumes offered protection, nursed cigarettes and pipes.
Despite all these precautions, however, the flu flourished. As Britain was struggling to cope with wartime disruptions in industry and public services, as its populace was nursing its ill and mourning its dead and missing, military ships were returning infected troops into its midst.
The country’s health care services began to buckle under the strain. “Doctors and client queues are the order of the day. People wait and sneeze, “ noted the Daily Mirror on October 23, 1918. Nurses, doctors, and chemists, working feverishly, eventually succumbed in large numbers, leaving their chemist shops, dispensaries and overcrowded surgeries understaffed. Although medical schools posted senior students to the wards, at the time there was no known treatment against the flu nor antibiotics to treat its secondary complications. So they could offer no help.
The fabric of society unraveled further. As people lost family members, depression rose and suicides soared. As scores of policemen were stricken, murders, some reputedly committed under “influenza-induced delirium,” soared too.
As the dead multiplied, burial also posed a serious problem. Not only was there a dearth of coffins, but many gravediggers had fallen victim too. Morgues filled with scores of dead bodies, stacked up like cords of wood. Many communities, having little alternative, organized mass burials.
As World War One drew to a close in November 1918, the public celebrated the return of their servicemen with parties, parades, hugs, and kisses. This close physical contact initiated the third wave of the Spanish Flu. Though it lingered through spring 1919, this last strain proved far less lethal than its predecessor. Eventually the Spanish Flu disappeared altogether.
All told, the 1918-19 Spanish Influenza Pandemic infected nearly a third of the world’s population, killing anywhere between 50 to 100 million people. In Britain, as many as 250,000 people lost their lives.
Despite its widespread devastation, the Spanish Flu has largely faded from human memory. This may be because obituaries of fallen soldiers and influenza fatalities appeared side by side in British newspapers. Perhaps the public, linked the two together. Perhaps they experienced influenza losses as an extension of the war, instead of a separate tragedy.
Still, memories of this scourge have not faded entirely. Like the popular children’s rhyme, “Ring Around O’ Rosie,” which is commonly associated with the Great Plague of London, the Spanish Flu too lives on in a jump-rope chant, once popular among British children.
I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened a window