Armed Hostilities

How the Spanish Influenza Was Connected to WWI

Years ago, another pandemic “swept the globe killing over 50 million people globally, greater than the deaths associated with World War I , which was happening in parallel.”1 Occurring in three separate waves between 1918 and 1919, the Spanish Flu is remembered as a historic and devastating epidemic killing more American soldiers than enemy weapons. The military’s story of the pandemic was often overshadowed by World War I even though the events are closely intertwined. The Spanish influenza overlapped with the war for approximately nine months and persisted afterwards, with the war playing a major role in its spread and severity. Both were closely intertwined, with the war fostering the influenza while the flu killed millions and demobilized our fighting strength against the Germans.

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Understanding both World War I and the Spanish Flu is important due to the impact they had on one another and what can be learned from their association. Humanity has suffered many pandemics over the years, but none as deadly as the Spanish Flu. “This flu has been referred to as the greatest medical holocaust in history. Even worse, it quickly penetrated a susceptible world that was exiting out of a global war, with vital public resources being diverted to military efforts. The idea of a public health system was in its infancy.”2 The pandemic happened in three phases, with the first one appearing “in the spring of 1918, followed in rapid succession by much more fatal second and third waves in the fall and winter of 1918–1919, respectively.”3 During the first wave of the infections, military and government leaders failed to acknowledge the disease. They feared the cost of health care would take the much-needed resources and money away from the war. This negligence paved the way to the entry of a fatal second wave of infection. At the time, the government was directing almost all available resources and attention to the war, which in turn created a lack of healthcare funding needed to address any emerging public health problems, such as the flu. Ironically, military personnel were dying due to the failed devotion to direct more money into healthcare. The negligence and other interests of the government and military officials, at the time, allowed the disease to spread quickly. The pandemic had a tremendous impact, not only on the military but also on civilians. One could argue that the virus entered an unprepared world – one that was fighting a protracted war, in which it had to face a virus, but also a weakened healthcare system.

Spain stayed nonpartisan all through World War I and its press unreservedly detailed its influenza cases. This prompted the misperception that influenza had started or was at its most exceedingly awful in Spain. It gets called the ‘Spanish influenza’ in light of the fact that the Spanish media took care of their work. The history proved that censorship is risky during a pandemic. Throughout the World War I, censorship had advanced from a framework which should forestall the spread of military confidential information to a system to authorize political subordination. Individuals experienced difficulty associating with others and could not truly comprehend what they went through. Numerous veterans remained quiet as they got infected. They frequently self-medicated themselves with alcohol.4 It is difficult to know the extent of this censorship, since the best method to hide something is to not leave freely available records of its concealment. The news reports were controlled that might have become a danger to public spirit.

Barry’s Great Influenza effectively shows what exactly the pandemic meant for a huge number of families as well as the whole progression of history. Trust, he contends, is vital, on the grounds that without trust in data individuals have no solid information on what is going on.5 In 1918, when governments prioritized war outcomes over general wellbeing of public, fear overran people.6 Patients with influenza were starved to death since others were too scared to even think about bringing them food.7 Consequently, if the authorities had informed the public about the danger and spread of the virus in a right manner, people would have acted more cautiously and that would have brought less lethal results.

Furthermore, there is evidence that The Great War was directly linked to the pandemic. First, governments around the world were unfocused on addressing the outbreak because each was engrossed and determined to win the war. Second, military personnel and other support workers had to travel from one place to another, which significantly contributed to the spread of the virus. Billings posts, “the Great War, with its mass movements of men in armies and aboard ships, probably aided in its rapid diffusion and attack.”8 As such, while the Spanish Flu did not cause World War I, the deployment of troops during the war played a central role in the spread of the virus. As the troops mobilized around the world in crowded ships and trains, their movement aided in helping to spread the virus. “Some members of the Allied forces accused Germany of creating the outbreak to use it as biological weapons against its enemies.”9 Additionally, there were conjectures that the outbreak was due to “the trench warfare, the use of mustard gases and the generated “smoke and fumes” of the war.”10 Historians believe that a “mutated virus, which was spread by troop movements, caused the severity of the Spanish flu.”11 Therefore, it is important to investigate the role of the Great War in the pandemic, including the lack of adequate response from the government and war conditions that enabled the spread of the virus.

World War I saw the mobilization and movement of large numbers of troops within and between continents. Consequently, people became more directly connected than ever before. Those drafted into the army were drawn from various backgrounds and required to live with one another in various camps, barracks, and trenches spread around the world. However, overcrowding is one of the risk factors in the spread of contagious diseases, and thus these wartime conditions contributed to the spread the virus. When one individual was infected, the virus would spread quickly, and cases would grow rapidly. “A message sent to the Mayor’s office in California indicated that by October 6, 1918, there were only 200 cases of infection per day, but by October 25, the number has risen to over 2000.”12 The war created an enabling environment for the spread of the virus in military camps across the US and other places in Europe and around the world. “On September 1, 1918, 45,000 soldiers convened at Fort Devens, in Boston, and by September 23, 10,500 of them had contracted the flu.”13 Additionally, as military personnel moved from one camp to another in the US and Europe “at the height of the American military involvement in the war, September through November 1918, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20% to 40% of U.S. Army and Navy personnel.”14

The significant death rates associated with this virus disrupted the recruitment and training programs in the US by causing thousands of infected soldiers to be rendered non-effective for combat. The war and the virus collaborated with the war creating a conducive environment for the spread of the virus. Additionally, the virus significantly affected the progress of the war by rendering thousands of military servicepersons unfit to fight. Ironically, the government was being compelled to direct attention, resources, and personnel to combat the disease, even though these resources were urgently needed to support the military exercises. The emergencies associated with war derailed public health efforts and containment measures, such as social distancing and quarantines, in the fight against the virus. While it was almost impossible to address the problem of “crowding in the training camps, it was inconceivable on the battlefields. Evolutionary biologist, Paul Ewald, has argued that trench warfare and its crowded conditions enabled an especially aggressive and deadly influenza virus to gain footing in humans.”15 Ill soldiers were removed, and their positions were filled by healthy soldiers. This process allowed the virus to spread by infecting healthy soldiers. A Navy report released in 1920 stated, “It is reasonable to suppose that late in August influenza of severe type was spread from French, Spanish, and Portuguese seaports to the Orient, South Africa, the United States, and South America.”16

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The Great War and the Spanish Flu were undoubtedly and intricately linked. The war created the needed conditions for the rapid spread of the virus. With the government focused on meeting military needs, it left inadequate resources to counter an outbreak. In turn, the virus killed and rendered ineffective thousands of military personnel, thus shaping the direction of the war. These two monumental occurrences influenced each other to ultimately emerge as important historical events that provide a story and a struggle around war and disease.

Works Cited

“Collection of Personal Narratives, Manuscripts and Ephemera about the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic, 1917-1923.” Online Archive of California. Web.

Barry, J. M. (2004). The great influenza: The epic story of the deadliest plague in history. Penguin Books.

Billings, Molly. “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918.” Stanford Edu, 2005. Web.

Byerly, Carol. “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919.” Public Health Reports 125, no. 3 (2010): 82-91.

Solly, Meilan. “What We Can Learn from 1918 Influenza Dairies.” Smithsonian Magazine, 2020. Web.

Taubenberger, Jeffery, and David Morens. “1918 Influenza: The Mother of all Pandemics.” Revista Biomedica 17, no. 1 (2006): 14-22.

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  1. Jeffery Taubenberger and David Morens, “1918 Influenza: The Mother of all Pandemics,” Revista Biomedica 17, no. 1 (2006): 15.
  2. Ibid, 16.
  3. Ibid.
  4. John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. (Penguin Books, 2004), 165
  5. Barry, 290.
  6. Barry, 382.
  7. Barry, 412.
  8. Molly Billings, “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Stanford Edu, 2005, Web.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. “Collection of Personal Narratives, Manuscripts, and Ephemera about the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic, 1917-1923,” Online Archive of California, Web.
  13. Meilan Solly, “What We Can Learn from 1918 Influenza Dairies,” Smithsonian Magazine, Web.
  14. Carol Byerly, “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919,” Public Health Reports 125, no. 3 (2010): 82.
  15. Ibid, 86.
  16. Department of the Navy (US). Annual Report, 1919 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1920), 2427.

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