Over one hundred years ago, another pandemic swept the globe, infecting an estimated one-third of the world’s population at the time, and killing over 50 million people globally – greater than the deaths associated with World War I (the Great War), which was happening at the same time. The Spanish Flu killed more American soldiers than enemy weapons. The pandemic occurred in three waves between 1918 and 1919 disproportionately killing young healthy adults. The Spanish Flu is cited as the most devastating epidemic in the world’s history, as it was responsible for more than 50 million people globally. The story of the influenza epidemic in the military is often lost in the historical narrative of the Great War, but many documents and stories help in understanding that the war and the epidemic were intertwined as discussed in this paper. The pandemic overlapped with the war for approximately nine months and persisted afterward, with the war playing a major role in its spread and severity.
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 such association. Humanity has suffered many pandemics over the years, but none has been as deadly or as far-reaching as the Spanish Flu. Doctors have described the Spanish Flu as the “greatest medical holocaust in history.” This flu broke out in a world that was coming out of a global war, with vital public resources diverted to military efforts. The idea of a public health system was in its infancy – in many places, only the middle class or the rich could afford to visit a doctor. The flu killed many people in slums and other poor urban areas, among populations with poor nutrition and sanitation, and often those with underlying health conditions. The pandemic occurred 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.” 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 caused the lack of healthcare funding needed to address any emerging public health problems, such as the flu. Ironically, military personnel was 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 so quickly. In a short period, it turned into a devastating and uncontrollable outbreak. The pandemic had a tremendous impact, not only on the military but also on civilians as well. The damage caused by the Spanish Flu in 1918 affected the country economically, socially, and politically among other aspects. It suffices to argue that the virus came into an unprepared world – one that was fighting a protracted war, in which it had to face a virus, but this time, doctors and the weak healthcare infrastructure could not stop the virus from spreading.
The Spanish Flu of 1918 occurred at a time when no country was not prepared to deal with such an outbreak, especially given the world was coming out of a war that had ravaged the entire globe for almost half a decade. The Great War was directly linked with the pandemic for various reasons. First, governments around the world could not focus on addressing the outbreak because each was determined to win the war, with the Allies on the one side, and the Central Powers on the other. 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 posits, the Great War, “with its mass movements of men in armies and aboard ships, probably aided in its rapid diffusion and attack.” 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. For instance, as the troops mobilized around the world in crowded ships and trains, it helped to spread the virus. The causes of the outbreak are still unknown, but some claims link it to the war through widespread speculations. Some members of the Allied forces accused Germany of creating the outbreak to use it as biological weapons against its enemies. 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.” Historians believe that a mutated virus, which was spread by troop movements, caused the severity of the Spanish flu. 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 the conditions of the war that led to 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. For instance, 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 helped to spread the virus. When one individual was infected, the virus would spread quickly and such cases would grow rapidly. For instance, a telegram by the Mayor’s office in San Francisco 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. Therefore, it suffices to argue that 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. For instance, 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. 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.” The high mortality and morbidity rates associated with this virus disrupted the recruitment and training programs in the US by making thousands of infected soldiers non-effective for combat. The war and the virus collaborated – on the one hand, the war created a conducive environment for the spread of the virus. On the other hand, the virus significantly affected the progress of the war by rendering thousands of military servicepersons unfit to be on the battlegrounds. Additionally, 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. Additionally, the emergencies associated with war derailed public health efforts and containment measures, such as social distancing and quarantines, in the fight against the virus. If 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.” For instance, infected soldiers in the trenches were evacuated and their positions were taken by healthy people, and this process created a revolving belt through which the virus continued to spread by infecting healthy individuals (new soldiers) to adapt, reproduce, and mutate into highly virulent strains without having to burn out. 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.” World War I ended in November 1918, and as soldiers returned home, they brought in the virus to the country.
The Great War and the Spanish Flu were intricately linked to one another. Specifically, the war created the needed conditions for the rapid spread of the virus. The government was solely focused on meeting military needs, thus leaving inadequate resources to counter an outbreak. Similarly, the virus killed and rendered ineffective thousands of military personnel, thus shaping the direction of the war, directly or indirectly. Therefore, these two occurrences influenced each other to ultimately emerge as important historical events.
“Collection of Personal Narratives, Manuscripts and Ephemera about the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic, 1917-1923.” Online Archive of California.
Billings, Molly. “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918.” Stanford Edu, 2005.
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.
Taubenberger, Jeffery, and David Morens. “1918 Influenza: The Mother of all Pandemics.” Revista Biomedica 17, no. 1 (2006): 14-22.