As the ‘lockdown’ continues, the nature of the times we are living through was highlighted by an email my wife received from a friend on April 18th. Her friend had just driven on her own behind her husband’s hearse to the Crematorium. She very much appreciated that there were still people who stopped and bowed their heads as the hearse drove past. Her husband was a man with a distinguished academic career, he had not died of Covid 19, but only six would be allowed at his funeral.
THE 1918 FLU PANDEMIC
The 1918 Flu Pandemic was the deadliest in history, infecting an estimated 500 million worldwide and killing an estimated 20 million. It was caused by the H1N1 Virus which reappeared as ‘swine flu’ in 2019. There was no widespread ‘lockdown’ as we have today and although the term was not used there were attempts at ‘social distancing’. Public gatherings were cancelled, cinemas closed and I have written in a previous edition of Brumration about the controversy regarding the closure of Churches and Chapels. They did not have the advantages of social media so couldn’t, as we can, witness the Pope praying in a deserted St Peters or the Archbishop conducting a service from his kitchen.
There are numerous theories as to the source of the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Professor John Oxford led a British team in 1999 that published their findings in a Royal Society Report in 2001. Professor Oxford believed that the possible source of the Pandemic was the British Camp at Etaples where at any one time there could be as many as 100,000 men going to or returning from the Western Front battlefields. Conditions at the camp were ideal for the transference of any virus, and as early as 1917 the British authorities at the camp had recognised the onset of a new flu like disease with a high mortality rate. Could the virus be linked to the transfer from poultry with a virus which was brought in from local farms which mutated and transferred to pigs and to the soldiers at the camp at Etaples?
There are numerous reports of an outbreak of the virus between September and November 1918. There was a Private Vaughn in South Carolina, ‘Lucy’ at Brevig Mission in Alaska and seven Norwegian miners at Spitsbergen. A 2017 book by Laura Spinney highlighted Private Gritchell who fell ill on March 4th 1918 at Camp Furston in Kansas. Within a few hours there were over 100 similar cases in the Camp Hospital, within days the number of cases had reached 522, and by March 11th there were cases in New York. A picture from the time shows American soldiers gargling with salt water in an attempt to protect them from the virus. This was one of the ‘fake news ‘stories’ which was repeated on Facebook recently claiming it would be a preventative for Covid 19.
American Reports of the time decided it was the Chinese who were really responsible, and was a belief supported by the Pasteur Institute in 1993. They believed it originated in China, mutated in the USA, was brought over to Europe’s battlefields, and spread around the world by returning Allied soldiers sailors and airmen.
A Report published by the University of Newfoundland claimed that the illness was very similar to an outbreak in Northern China in November 1917, and was brought over to Europe by the 96,000 Chinese labourers who worked for the French and the British.
You will note that despite the pandemic being referred to as ‘Spanish Flu’ there has been no mention of Spain. As a neutral country in World War 1, Spain did not have any wartime censorship. Newspapers were therefore free to report the outbreak, unlike other countries where reports of a flu epidemic might affect the morale of the population. The stories from Spain, combined with the illness of King Alfonso X111, led people to believe that Spain was the source of the outbreak.
It should perhaps come as a warning to us that the 1918 Flu epidemic came in ‘waves’. The first came in June/July followed shortly by another which peaked in November. The final wave was in January 1919, peaking by the end of February. It is believed there were over 150,000 civilian deaths in Britain, the highest rate of death since the 1849 cholera epidemic.
As ‘Spanish Flu’ became a worldwide pandemic with millions of lives lost, in Britain it was an illness which hit all levels of society. What was particularly noticeable was the high level of infection amongst young adults. The highest death rate was amongst people in their early twenties, older people seemed to have some immunity developed from earlier flu type illnesses. As in the current epidemic men were more susceptible to the virus than women.
One aspect which also seems to apply to the current outbreak might also have been social conditions. Housing was a major issue, and sanitary conditions in inner cities in particular remained a challenge. Wartime rationing had also impacted on the diet of the poor in particular. Reflecting on the last edition of Brumration, how many of those men buried in the mass grave at Worms am Rhein had been starved and forced to work, and were therefore very susceptible to such illnesses.
We were able to turn on our television screens to see that our Prime Minister was unwell and were therefore not too surprised when he ended up in hospital. Winston Churchill was able to hide his various illnesses from the British people, but Prime Minister David Lloyd George was not so successful in September 1918.
Lloyd George became ill with Spanish Flu in September 1918. He was 55 at the time, the same age as Boris Johnson, and he was visiting Manchester on 11th September 1918 to receive the Freedom of the City. The streets were thronged with people but before the ceremony could take place he developed a fever and spent the next week confined to bed in isolation.
The Westminster Gazette first reported on 13th September that he was suffering from a bad chill and had been unable to receive the Freedom of the City. His Physician Sir William Milligan confirmed he was suffering from influenza, he was confined to bed and obliged to cancel all appointments. This was described at the time as a ‘precautionary measure’ the same phrase used when the current Prime Minister entered hospital.
It was possible then in time of war to keep a tight grip on any news that might impact on morale and the language used indicates an attempt to lessen the seriousness of his condition. His illness came at the end of the first ‘wave’ of the epidemic, but a week after being taken ill he was well enough to travel back to London by train.
After weeks of recuperation he had made a full recovery in time to lead the British delegation at the Treaty of Versailles negotiations. By then both the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and the US President Woodrow Wilson had also suffered with the flu.
The Deluge, Arthur Marwick, Macmillan 1973
Royal Society Report 2001, Professor J S Oxford
BBC News (Wales) Website
The Times Saturday Review, 20th May 1917. Pale Rider by Laura Spinney