In the closing months of the war, a terrifying pandemic swept the globe, devastating populations already coping with the losses of war. Known as the Spanish Flu, or Influenza, it appeared early in 1918, and reached a climax in October and November of that year. Victims of this virus showed many of the same symptoms of milder flu – headache, fever, nausea and respiratory problems. Mortality rates, however, were significantly higher, and unlike other flu outbreaks (where children, the elderly and the weak were most vulnerable), it particularly affected young, healthy adults.
The origins of the virus were unclear, and remain a matter of debate among historians and epidemiologists. It became associated with Spain because of the greater coverage it received in the Spanish press (unlike other countries with stricter wartime press restrictions). Earlier cases, however, appeared in the USA and elsewhere in Europe. Several other theories circulated at the time. In Britain, some believed the illness was spread by the German enemy, or was even a form of germ warfare.
It is difficult to be certain about how many people were killed by the Spanish Flu. Current estimates suggest deaths of between 30 to 100 million worldwide, with 2.2 million of those in Europe, and approximately 235,000 in Britain. What is clear is that infection rates were high enough to have a significant impact on army and civilian life. In 1918, the British army estimated that, because of the flu, over half of its men in France were out of action between June and August. It was violently contagious, and the mass movement and cohabitation of armies in wartime provided perfect conditions for the spread of the virus. The resulting strain on resources certainly affected the functioning of armies in the final months of the war.
Back in Britain, with its wartime press restrictions, reports of this pandemic remained relatively low-key. Early reports treated it as another occurrence of normal flu. In July 1918 The Illustrated London News observed in its science column that,
Luckily the complaint – which, as a matter of fact, now recurs annually, is this year of a type so mild as to show that the original virus is becoming attenuated by frequent transmission.
By the following February, the gravity of the epidemic was more clear, and the ILN referred to the “appalling outbreak of ‘influenza’ [….] From the high North to the Tropics its victims are to be counted by the thousand, and it is still at its deadly work.”
A hint at the feelings of the population, however, can be found in the medicinal advertisements in these publications. “Influenza!” exclaimed one ad for throat lozenges, “suck a tablet whenever you enter a crowded germ-laden place.” The nature of the virus was still unknown, but treatment focused on the avoidance of germs and microbes – a recent development in medical knowledge at the time.
Other advertisements illustrate the assumed link between the flu and the war. A weakened, anxious nation was considered particularly vulnerable to illness, and some remedies were aimed at the ‘nervous’ causes of infection: “Victory,” said one ad for Sanatogen, “And now for Reconstruction! But first Reconstruct Your Nervous System.”
The epidemic began to subside after the spring of 1919, just as negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference were gathering pace. Striking populations just as they emerged from war, the Spanish flu provided a final ironic twist, by killing millions who had managed to avoid man-made violence.
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