The 1918 Flu Pandemic – Trench Fever – Extra History – #2


“It stalked into camp, when the day was damp
and chilly and cold. It crept by the guards, and murdered my pards with a hand that was clammy
and bony and bold. And its breath was icy
and mouldy and dank And it killed so speedy, and gloatingly greedy That it took away men from each company rank.” Private Joshua Lee, 34th Infantry Division, 1919. [Opening theme] When we left off, the 1918 flu was aboard troop transports headed
for the battlefields of France. And though this first wave
of the virus was comparatively mild, its time in the trenches would reforge it
into hardened killer of men and helped tip
the balance of the war. In early April, it erupted among the American troops
at their disembarkation ground in Brest. By April 10th, the first cases began
showing up in the French army, which generally trained and served
alongside American units. It was hard
to notice at first. High fever, headaches,
and weakness could come from many diseases
that swirled around the trenches such as insect-borne trench
fever or typhus. But it soon became clear
that this was different. The troops called it three-day fever, knock-me-down fever, or La Grippe. It rarely killed, but men who got it were out of action
for days and lead-footed for weeks. The overcrowded camps and trenches
of the Western Front were ideal tinder for an epidemic. Men lived within inches
of each other, their immune systems compromised
from exhaustion and disease. And unlike a city where the virus
might run out of victims, here, fresh bodies were rotated
onto the line every few days. It spread to the British in early May, and by then, there was
no hope of containment. It swept through them
like a bad spirit. English hospitals saw
over 36,000 admissions for flu in a single month. Only then, when it began undermining
the troops’ ability to fight, did military doctors
raise the alarm. The outbreak had sprung up
during a critical phase of the war. The Germans had launched
a massive Spring Offensive, and Allied generals needed
every man possible on the line. But as spring
turned to summer, the frontline hospitals of the Allies
swelled to over capacity. Men on the front lines
would get ready to rotate to the rear, only to find that the unit ordered
to relieve them had instead gone into quarantine. Medical tents had run out of space,
and some hospitals took to laying patients
outside on canvas tarps. In late May, a group of French recruits
came down with it. 69% of them had to be hospitalized
and 5% died. By the end of the summer, 10% of the British army
had fallen ill. Back in Washington, D.C. Welch and his epidemiologists finally took notice. The flu, previously ignored, became a matter of national security. They set about turning the Rockefeller Institute into an information gathering and communication center for the disease. Welch wanted anything he could get his hands on, reports, lung samples, information on treatment, so he dispatched doctors to centers of infection to swab throats and collect samples. But all of it remained
a closely guarded secret. No one wanted
the Central Powers to know that the Allies were being
weakened by disease. Upon entering the war, both the U.S. and Britain had clamped down on the press with unprecedented censorship measures. When American officers denied
or minimized reports of the flu, newspapers at home
accepted it without question. The British, for their part, tried to strangle any mention
of the spreading plague. But with the virus now infecting
the civilian population, news of an epidemic started to leak. In May, the virus arrived in Madrid, and since Spain was neutral, it wasn’t subject
to wartime censorship. There, the flu made front page news,
especially once it infected the king. It whipped through Spanish cities, passing from person to person so fast that local wits named it
after a hit opera song, The Naples Soldier. It was as catchy as the song,
the joke went, if more deadly. International newspapers picked up the story on the Madrid outbreak and, erroneously, assumed the disease had originated there. And from those articles,
the killer gained another name: the Spanish Flu. But it wasn’t just the Allies
covering up the flu’s impact. On the other side
of No Man’s Land, the German commander, General Ludendorff, was also wrestling
with the disease. Ludendorff had gained day-to-day command
of the German military in 1916, along with a huge amount
of political power, and he’d used it
to embark on a bold plan to save the Kaiser
and Germany. And to be honest, it hadn’t gone so well. First, he’d planned to crush
the Allied supply lines with unrestricted submarine warfare. Instead, it had helped drag America
into the conflict. Now, 84,000 Americans were arriving on the Western Front each month. But that would be
a surmountable problem if he could knock Russia out of the war and free up the troops fighting
on the Eastern Front. Luckily for him, a revolution had broken out
against the Czar, and to fuel the chaos, he helped transport
a famous Bolshevik revolutionary, one Vladimir Lenin, back to Russia. The plan worked… kinda. Ludendorff had hoped the strict peace terms
he’d forced on Russia would scare other Allies
into opening negotiations. But instead, the harsh treaty only had convinced
them that peace was not possible until they achieved total victory, and forced an equally punishing treaty
on Germany. But at least Ludendorff now had
his 50 divisions from the Eastern Front, and he’d used them
for one more, all or nothing shot
at winning the war. He’d retrained
the freed up veterans as assault specialists, stormtroopers, and launched his massive Spring Offensive
in hopes of securing victory before the Americans
arrived in force. As the offensive began,
Ludendorff’s army had better trained troops, superior tactics, higher morale, and for a brief time,
numerical superiority. And at the beginning, it all went so well. German troops had captured more territory than they had since 1914,
and driven a wedge between the British and the French. But the Allies had held on
to the strategic port roads and railroad junctions. All the ground that Ludendorff captured was worthless,
shell shocked dirt. And they’d taken
a lot of casualties, so the next phase
of the operation was critical. But as he began
to organize for a final push, his generals requested a delay. The German army, you see… had the flu. They’d caught it in June, probably from a British prisoner of war, and by July it was sweeping the ranks. German troops,
their systems already weak from food rationing, appeared
especially susceptible to infection. Half a million soldiers were sick. In some units, a quarter of the men
were too ill to fight. Ludendorff delayed
the attack five days. After that, the commanders would just have to
deal with the reduced unit strength. Meanwhile, the Allies,
who had caught the flu earlier in the spring and summer,
were recovering. Despite sickness, exhaustion,
and casualty depletion, on July 15, the German marshalled
for their one last attack. A rolling bombardment
pounded the French and American lines as they advanced. Stormtroopers rushed behind with fast-moving
infiltration tactics. Gas shells turned the battlefield
into a chemical hell. But the French, British,
and Americans held, and counterattacked. And they would keep
counterattacking for 100 days, pushing the Germans
back step by step. Ludendorff had failed. Within weeks, he was shut in his office,
suffering a nervous breakdown, and by October, he was fleeing across the Swedish border in sunglasses
and a fake beard. Now, it would be wrong
to say the flu defeated Ludendorff’s Spring Offensive, because there were other factors. It was an overambitious operation
with a nebulous goal. He kept changing the objectives, units outran their supply lines, and he lost too many men. But, German accounts do suggest
the flu bled the army’s manpower and resolve
at a critical moment. And just as
it had tipped the balance, it was gone. In August, British hospitalizations
fell to the point that they had declared
the epidemic over. But it wasn’t over. For as the balance
of the war was shifting, so were the virus’ genes. Even today, no one’s sure
what happened. Perhaps the original,
deadly virus had temporarily mutated into a mild strain, only to have its lethality
re-emerge. Or it may have infected
someone, even an animal, that had a different version
of the flu, and the two viruses combined. It’s even possible that,
as it passed through millions of soldiers, this avian virus was gradually adapting itself
to human hosts. Most frightening of all, the war itself may
have given it a nudge, because the soldiers
the flu infected had been exposed
to a chemical agent known to cause
genetic mutation: mustard gas. The soldiers’ throat and lung cells laced
with chemical weapons may have helped increase
the rate of genetic shift, and raised the likelihood
that a new strain would develop. However it happened, the virus
that emerged from the trenches was both highly contagious
and severely lethal. It could kill within 24 hours
of presenting symptoms, drowning a patient
in their own fluids. And while common flu strains primarily kill the very old
and very young, the 1918 flu struck people down
in the prime of life. The mild first wave was over, and the second lethal wave
was about to begin. In fact, it was already making
itself known on the troop ships delivering soldiers
to nations across the globe. The Naples Soldier was on the march. [Ending theme]

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