THE SO CALLED ‘SPANISH FLU’

            In November 1918 as the First World War came to an end a new and deadly foe established itself on the home front. It was unseen, advanced rapidly, took no prisoners and was commonly known as the Spanish Lady or Flu.
            One year later in November 1919, Dr. John Clough Thresh, the Essex County Medical Officer retired. In his final report (published in the Essex Weekly News) he stated that 21% of the deaths in Essex for 1918 were attributed to malady of influenza and complications that followed such as pneumonia. 2,495 flu deaths were noted which was twice as many as tuberculosis, scarlet fever and all other infectious diseases put together. Dr. Thresh added that if the influenza outbreak hadn’t occurred the annual death rate in Essex would have been the lowest on record.
            It is difficult to convey the magnitude of the 1918 outbreak, as the UK authorities using DORA, (the Defence of Realm Act) went to great lengths to supress any news that thousands of soldiers were either dying or incapacitated because of influenza. Reporting widespread sickness in the military was considered detrimental to the morale of soldiers and civilians alike.  Although news of the outbreak in the military was largely supressed, nothing could or was done to stop the spread of the infection itself.

20 million 100 million

            The number of all dead as the result of military action during 1914/1918 was estimated at 20 million.    Yet, the number of dead in the influenza pandemic world-wide was conservatively estimated as twice that of war deaths, perhaps even five times as high – 100 million. Precise figures are difficult to verify because of poor record keeping. The pandemic of 1918 to 1919 was the deadliest in modern history and infected an estimated 500 million people, about one-third of the then world’s population. Furthermore the outbreak spread to many places where there had been no fighting.
            Almost without exception every town and village in the United Kingdom has a memorial do those who died in the war. It is the same across the battlefields of Belgium and France.  Yet, despite the huge numbers of flu deaths there is almost nothing to remember those who died in the flu outbreak.  Perhaps, this is not surprising as heroic young men doing their duty and making the ultimate sacrifice has always been remembered since time immemorial. However, a silent killer with no cure that occurs regularly is part of the natural order.

Not from Spain?

            Although the influenza epidemic became commonly known as the Spanish Flu it did not originate in Spain. The name only came about because members of Spanish Royal Family became infected.  There were no reporting restrictions in Spain (the country was neutral anyway during WWI). News of the royal illness was passed to the local media in Madrid and in turn these reports were picked up by news agencies in London.   The allies did nothing to dispel rumours that the flu supposedly came from Spain. Even the weather seemed convenient to blame. The UK military leadership was desperate that nothing should interfere with the war effort and no culpability should be attributed to the high command. Also in England, the Armada, another invasion from Spain, ingrained in the national psyche naturally made the Spanish convenient scapegoats.
            As the outbreak took hold whole families were struck down and died within a few hours.  Schools, offices and factories closed and even the Brentwood asylum shut for new admissions.  The authorities could not hide the presence of the catastrophe any longer. Such was the crisis the Minister of National Service Sir Auckland Geddes deferred the call up of doctors for overseas military services and released them to help on the home front.
                An unusual aspect of this flu pandemic was the age of victims. The traditional victims of flu, the very young and the very elderly, were surviving better than healthy adults. Those aged 20 to 40 were much more likely to die. The epidemic was also as severe in densely crowded urban areas as in the sparsely populated countryside. Essex in 1918 was still a largely rural county. There was no Basildon new town, no Harlow and the established towns of Grays, Southend, Chelmsford and Colchester were much smaller than today.
            A host of factors helped fan the epidemic spread, such as poor hygiene, squalid conditions in the trenches and overcrowding in the camps. For civilians, years of poor diet and living in sub-standard housing was a contributory factor to breaking down immune systems. Health advice was poor or non-existent. Hospital and medical facilities were overwhelmed and doctors and nurses went sick in large numbers. Nevertheless secrecy and ignorance played a key part too.
            Yet, although censorship was the order of the day on military matters the local press was free to report sickness and death in the civilian population. It has to be remembered in 1918 there was no radio or television, telephones were rare and photography was still in its infancy. As such newspapers filed reports of the most appalling personal tragedies often in just a matter of a few lines. For example, on 25/10/1918 the Barking Chronicle told of James Shaw, aged 33, a crane driver of Manor park who suffering from influenza in a fit of depression killed his baby daughter aged two, wounded another daughter aged 7, then cut his own throat with a safely razor. At the same time the wife who was also afflicted lay in an adjoining bedroom. On 1st November 1918 the Essex Weekly News reported 200 children in Waltham Abbey sick. One sad case was that of a mother from Waltham Cross who after attending the funeral of her child returned home to find her husband who was also sick had died in her absence. Also noted was the death from influenza of Miss Hyatt the Head Mistress of Rayleigh infants School who passed away following complications after influenza.

Echo - Flu