Encyclopedia - The Influenza Pandemic

Emergency hospital for influenza sufferers In the summer of 1918 a severe form of influenza - 'Spanish Flu' or 'La Grippe' - broke out which eventually claimed up to 70 million lives around the world until it finally, unexpectedly, disappeared in 1919.  In this the virus claimed far more lives than the war itself claimed during 1914-18.  The name Spanish Flu was derived from the early high mortality numbers in Spain.

Initially the outbreak, which began in the Middle East in the spring of 1918 before reaching the Western Front shortly afterwards, took on a mild form.  However by the summer up to a third of influenza sufferers reported increasingly harsh symptoms, including bronchial pneumonia, heliotrope cyanosis and septicemic blood poisoning.  A sizeable number died of their symptoms.

The pandemic inevitably had military consequences although a far higher number of civilian casualties were suffered.  The virus swept across German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish battle lines prior to reaching France, thereby crucially inflicting casualties through sickness at a time when Germany and her allies could ill-afford such losses.  Quantifying the effects of such losses at a time of increasing Allied successes on the battlefield is however problematic.

By the autumn the virus had spread across the Atlantic to the U.S.A. via military ships.  Often the symptoms of a brief fever of short duration was followed abruptly by death.  So quickly did the strain overwhelm the body's natural defences that the usual cause of death in influenza patients - a secondary infection of lethal pneumonia - was often not present. Instead, the virus caused an uncontrollable haemorrhaging that filled the lungs, and patients would drown in their own body fluids.

The reasons for the pandemic essentially remain unknown.  The deprivations of a world war are held responsible by some scientists, although the virus similarly swept through areas which had suffered markedly less than others, such as the U.S. and much of Europe.

In particular around 450,000 civilian deaths were incurred in the prosperous United States, the majority among otherwise healthy people under the age of 40.  In Britain some 228,000 civilian casualties died; 400,000 in Germany.  Hardest hit however was India with a reported 16 million casualties alone.

Each nation at war went to great lengths to conceal the extent of losses suffered through the virus, concerned that such reports would serve to encourage their enemies.  In reality each were suffering as badly as the other.

Curiously, in mid-1919 the pandemic withered and died abruptly without a treatment having been found.  Scientists continue to believe that a repeat of the pandemic, albeit in a varying form, would find science as equally unprepared to meet its challenge.

A 'Base Rat' was a soldier perpetually at the base, typically in conditions of comfort and safety.

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