Try to imagine a time when the most terrifying sound you could hear was not the rattle of machinegun fire or the whistle of falling artillery shells, but the sound of a sneeze. The Influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide – more than the First World War – and yet we still know little about how or where it started and why it was so lethal.
WHAT was SPANISH FLU?
Influenza is a respiratory virus that spreads between persons through the air and by direct contact. It was a well-known disease, with the last major pandemic occurring in 1889-1891
The crowded conditions of trenches, troop ships and trains, or barracks promoted all respiratory infections but this was particularly true for influenza.
Most people infected in 1918 had ordinary “flu” consisting of several days to two weeks of fever, weakness and cough. This was militarily important because of the large numbers of soldiers who could not fight because they were ill with influenza.
During the last German offensives on the Western Front in early 1918, Allied headquarters were extremely concerned that insufficient soldiers would be available to stop the German advance.
Because of military secrecy associated with troop numbers, information on influenza was suppressed and the first reports actually came from Spain due to their lack of censorship.
It became known as “Spanish flu” not because of the origin of the virus but due to where it was first reported.
THE MEDICAL RESPONSE
The doctors and nurses of the First World War were used to massive casualties following major battles, such as the Somme, but influenza was different.
Huge numbers of sick soldiers appeared suddenly from all units, not just those in the trenches, with a disease that no one was expecting or understood.
As you might imagine, doctors and nurses were particularly hard hit by infections contracted from their patients, which stretched the remaining well medical personnel beyond human limits. But the death rates in doctors and nurses was very low, except for those who had just joined the military, such as emergency service nurses (VAD).
The medical technology of the early 20th Century had little to offer soldiers whose lungs were failing from influenza as this predated antibiotics and mechanical ventilation support. Just trying to control fevers and provide fluids for the massive numbers of incapacitated soldiers was about all that could be done.
This was very discouraging for doctors and nurses who had made such progress against war wounds and epidemics such as typhoid, to suddenly find themselves faced with an infectious disease that seemed more like a medieval “plague” than a modern disease.
The first thing to notice is that although this is an infantry company (usually about 100 men), attrition has reduced it to barely the size of a platoon (10-20 soldiers).
Because the photographer recorded the names of each man in order, one can reconstruct what happened to each of them by the end of the war, which was only three months into the future.
Four would die during combat in those three months. It is also known that five (in blue) became ill enough to be hospitalised during the influenza pandemic and one (in red) of those soldiers died of influenza. This is not untypical of the attack rates experienced in late 1918.
Major The Hon. Charles Lyell
Charles was born in 1875 and educated at Eton and New College, Oxford.
In 1910 he became the Liberal party Member of Parliament for South Edinburgh and in 1911 he was appointed as Private Secretary to Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister.
In 1917 Charles resigned his seat and joined the forces. He was working in Washington as the Assistant Military Attaché to the British Embassy when he caught pneumonia and died.
Able Seaman Albert Edward McKenzie VC
Able Seaman Albert Edward McKenzie VC was just 19 when he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Zeebrugge Raid.
The raid was one of the most celebrated episodes of the First World War as the Royal Navy attempted to block the Belgian port and prevent the German navy from using it. More than 200 sailors and marines were killed and over 300 wounded. Albert’s comrades chose him to receive the award for his bravery.
He was presented with his medal by King George V at Buckingham Palace while, still recovering from his wounds. In October of 1918 he became a victim of the influenza pandemic and was buried in Camberwell Old Cemetery, South London.
Major Reginald Oscar Schwarz
Major Reginald Oscar Schwarz was born in South London and has the unusual distinction of playing International rugby for England and Test cricket for South Africa.
Reginald’s three England caps came at fly half in 1899 and 1901, but he was on the losing side on each occasion. Greater fortune came his way at cricket.
In 1903 he went to work on the Johannesburg railway. He played in 20 test matches for South Africa and between 1905 and 1912 in four series against England.
He was a leading exponent of the googly and in all took 55 test wickets at an average of just over 25. Such was his skill that he was named Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1908.
At the outbreak of the war he joined the South African army and served in German South-West Africa. By early 1916 he was in France, where he was awarded the Military Cross. He then served in a number of posts but, with increasing poor health, was transferred to the salvage corps in early 1918. Seven days after the Armistice he died of pneumonia. He is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery.
Bertha was born in Brigus, Conception Bay, Newfoundland, on 14 November 1894.
In 1916, aged 21, she volunteered to serve overseas with the Canadian Voluntary Aid Detachment of the British Red Cross.
She arrived in England in December 1916 and was posted to the 4th Northern General Hospital in Lincoln. The hospital occupied the old buildings and fields of the former Lincoln Grammar School. It had bed space for 41 officers and 1,126 other ranks. Over 45,000 men were treated in the hospital during the war.
Bertha worked in Lincoln for seven months until July 1917, when she was moved to Bermondsey Military Hospital in London.
Bertha was working in Bermondsey at the height of the Spanish Flu pandemic and in late 1918 she contracted the illness. She died on 3 November, eight days before the Armistice, and 11 days before her 24th birthday.
She was laid to rest in Wandsworth (Earlsfield) Cemetery, London. Upon her headstone are inscribed the words, ‘She died for those she loved’.
Husband and Wife
At Etaples Military Cemetery in France are buried a husband and wife – both of whom died during the influenza pandemic.
Mrs Florence Grover, aged 21, is buried in Plot I, Row C, Grave 1 of Etaples Military Cemetery. Her husband, Private Albert Grover, aged 23, who died three weeks later, is also buried there.
One of the nursing sisters Mary McCall, recalled: “One particularly tragic case I remember was a little girl, a very young bride, who’d been brought out to see her wounded husband. She had probably caught the infection before she left, because not long after she arrived in the ward she collapsed and was taken to the Sick Sisters’ quarters with influenza. She died a day or two later and it was terribly tragic for the poor husband. Then later he caught it and died too.”