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Influenza and WW1, and WW2

field kindley frederick libby hap arnold influenza

The Flu Part Two

Again, for more information on the flu, there are many informative books published recently, but we recommend starting with John M. Barry's book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.

If It Wasn't Spanish, Where Did It Start?

The flu was called the Spanish flu at the time because Spain, as a neutral country, was the first one willing to publicly admit how pervasive the flu was.

It may never be possible to know for sure where the flu started. Theories range from China to western Kansas in early 1918, where a doctor noted a particularly deadly kind of flu that spread with WWI recruits to Army bases in Kansas and from there on overseas. However, along the way it mutated into a form of flu that in the spring was noted for being unusually mild. One reason for assuming this was a related version of the same disease was that people who had the flu in the spring seemed not to be so badly affected in the fall - almost a natural vaccination. Although there were reports earlier in the year of areas of unusually deadly flu that seem ominous in retrospect, August was the definite start of what everyone recognized as a killer flu.  The peak of deaths per week came in October.

Growth and Explosion

Flu wardAccording to The Great Influenza, one epidemiological study noted "a progressive increase in cases reported as influenza beginning with the week ending August 4, 1918, and of the influenzal pneumonia cases beginning with the week ending August 18."

By the end of September, the flu was exploding in places such as Camp Devens in Massachusetts. "In a single day, 1,543 Camp Devens soldiers reported ill with influenza. On September 22, 19.6 percent of the entire camp was on sick report, and almost 75 percent of those on sick report had been hospitalized. By then the pneumonia, and the deaths, had begun."

A few days later, "on September 26 the medical staff was so overwhelmed, with doctors and nurses not only ill but dying, they decided to admit no more patients to the hospital, no matter how ill."

The flu reached many isolated areas such as Alaska, where the Inuit were isolated enough to have little immunity to diseases common to more crowded areas. Among such populations, the percentage of deaths was even more shocking, reaching well over 50% in many villages, but it was hard to tell who had died from the flu and who had died because their family had died and there was nobody to take care of them. 

What Effect Did WWI Have on the Flu?

The movement of masses of troops in the new era of transportation spread the flu in ways that weren't even possible until shortly before 1918. Flu is considered to be almost an ideal disease in how easily it spreads (people are infectious before showing symptoms, the virus is spread wonderfully by sneezes, and can also survive on a hard surface for 24 hours) and the war was an ideal time for the flu to reach uninfected populations.

Well, almost ideal. But maybe this flu was not quite an ideal flu for killing the war-weary. For a disease that so often killed by turning a strong immune system against itself, one wonders, what if the war did have an unexpected effect on the flu? If young adult men around the world hadn't just been through a long, exhausting four years of war - if everyone else hadn't just been through four years of privation because of resources diverted to the front - would immune systems have been stronger, with more deaths from cytokine storms? Would the peak deaths (outside of the very young and old) have been in the 18-25 age group, instead of the next-higher age group? Did 10 million deaths in WWI save 20 million deaths in the flu?

Only God knows the answer to that question.

What Effect Did the Flu Have on WWI?

Both sides suffered greatly from the flu, so one might say it didn't help one side more than the other. However, to exhausted nations, the additional shock of the flu must have hastened the end of the war. Although the effect of the flu was supposed to be a state secret for the same reason that nations talk about troop readiness only in positive terms, seeing so many sick and dying would erode anyone's feistiness. It is notable that the Armistice came so soon after the peak of flu deaths.

What Effect Did the Flu Have on WWII? 

Some aspects of the answer are unknowable but interesting to think about in alternative history scenarios. After all, the generation that was in charge in WWII were mostly young officers in WWI, a little closer to the prime age for dying of the flu than the average soldier. What if some of the ones who died would have become the best-known names of WWII? What if some of the actual generals of WWII got to that position because of slots unfilled by men who died two decades before?

Would There Be WWII Without the Flu?

One sobering thought about the flu's effect on later history is that Woodrow Wilson had the flu, which began 3 April 1919, right in the middle of the peace negotiations. (It has been suggested that he had a stroke, not the flu, but Barry's book points out the symptoms matched the flu and not so much a stroke, though the flu probably helped cause the stroke he did have four months later.)

An aide got the flu the same day and died four days later. Wilson survived, but was changed. Before the flu, he had refused to give in to France's demands, not wanting harsh treatment for Germany. Afterward, however, many noted changes in him and it was said his mind was never the same. He became paranoid about having French spies everywhere, yet gave Clemenceau everything he asked for. The resulting Versailles Peace Treaty is well-known for having inspired thoughts of revenge in Adolf Hitler, whose ideas sounded good to a humiliated Germany.

Why Did People Write So Much More About WWI Than About the Flu?

Nobody seems to know for sure why the flu, which killed so many so quickly, did not get written about much at the time. The best guess seems to be that it was so horrifying and fast that everyone's main reaction was not to think about it. Besides, most of the time it was going on was still technically wartime (before the Versailles treaty) and neither side would want to be talking about weakness and sickness, at least of their own side. Afterward, well, it was afterward, and maybe these things were best forgotten.

Writers Inspired, or at Least Publicized, by War

The war, on the other hand, lasted over four years, giving writers more time to experience things and write about the experiences. Writing that could help the war effort was very much encouraged. There were several cases of books being written by participants of the war which had time to become bestsellers before the end of the war and before the death of the author in combat. 

The Red Baron not only wrote a book during the war but was amused to have British publishers wanting the rights to publish it in England because of its descriptions of air combat. James McCudden just had time to get his book Flying Fury written before being sent back to France and being killed. James Norman Hall experienced the war, wrote a bestseller (Kitchener's Mob) about it, got sent back overseas to write about the Lafayette Escadrille, and ended up flying as well as writing many other bestsellers.

Poet Wilfred Owen is famous for his poems written before his death in fall 1918. John McCrae, who wrote the poem most associated with WWI, "In Flanders Fields", died in January 1918 of what, a year later, might have been complications of the flu; in many cases deaths listed as "meningitis" or "pneumonia" were the result of influenza.

So the war effort on both sides encouraged writing. The flu, apparently, only encouraged the living to get on with living.

Notable People Who Got the Flu

Besides Woodrow Wilson, many other well-known people got the flu, and because of their status in some cases their flus changed history, though none so strikingly as Wilson's.

  • Major Willard Dickerman Straight was one of the officers Cornell University contributed to WWI. Although he was not part of the fighting, his is probably Cornell's best-known name from that era. He caught the flu while in France arranging Woodrow Wilson's mission to the Paris Peace Conference, and after his December 1, 1918 death, his widow contributed money for a hall in the center of campus to be built in his memory, which is still popular as a student union and dining area.
  • H. H. (Hap) Arnold ("Architect of the USAF") built up US air forces stateside after the US entered the war, but badly wanted to be overseas. In the fall of 1918 he finally got to France, but flu delayed his arrival at the front until...November 11th.
  • American ace Field Kindley had a flu shortly before his death in early 1920. It was probably not directly responsible for his death, but he would not stay in bed as the doctors wanted him to since he was busy preparing Kelly Field for Pershing's arrival. Diminished capacity resulting from the flu could well have contributed to the aircraft accident in which he died.
  • American - sort of - ace Frederick Libby was back in the US and flat on his back with the flu, fighting for his life, at the time of the Armistice. "I just couldn't die in this bed this way. True, it might be better than going down in flames on the last day of the war, so I pass out or go to sleep. In the morning I am very weak, with no fever and not quite sure about the noises, but my nurse assures me there is an Armistice and I that am out of danger."
  • The oldest Cornell graduate to die in the war (class of 1884) died as an indirect result of the flu. Charles Hagadorn was the commander at Camp Grant, whom doctors had warned of the dangers of flu at his camp. He authorized overcrowded situations anyway, thinking military necessity superseded the danger. After the death toll at Camp Grant exceeded 500, with thousands more sick, he committed suicide on 8 October 1918.


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