The Great Spanish Flu Pandemic.
I had a little bird,
And its name was Enza.
I opened up the window,
Children’s skipping rhyme 1918.
It is likely that several of the servicemen featured on this site who died in the second half of 1918 did not die due to enemy action at all but died in the Great Spanish Flu Pandemic which was raging worldwide at this time.
The 1918 flu pandemic, commonly referred to as the Spanish flu, was a category 5 influenza pandemic caused by an extremely severe and deadly Influenza A virus strain of subtype H1N1.
An unusual feature of this pandemic was that it mostly killed young adults, with 99% of pandemic influenza deaths occurring in people under 65, and more than half in young adults 20 to 40 years old. This is unusual since influenza is normally most deadly to the very young (under age 2) and the very old (over age 70).
Another unusual and alarming feature was the speed at which the infection rampaged around the globe which was unprecedented and still is. From 1918 to 1920 it had spanned the world evolving into a milder infection which then petered out.
The virus was referred to as Spanish Flu as Spain was the first European country to publicly report this outbreak. It is not known for certain where virus came from but is thought to have been Avian, originating in birds and jumping directly to humans.
The first recorded case was at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas, USA when Albert Gitchell, a cook, complained of a bad cold in the morning. By noon there were over 100 very sick men on the camp and within 5 weeks 1127 men had been infected and 46 died.
Many people died very quickly. Some people who felt well in the morning, became sick by noon, and were dead by nightfall. Those who did not succumb to the disease within the first few days often died of complications from the flu (such as pneumonia) caused by bacteria.
The total mortality of the 1918–1919 pandemic is not known, but it is estimated that 2.5% to 5% of the world's population died. As many as 25 million may have died in the first 25 weeks. It is suggested that 250,000 died in the UK from Spanish Flu but nobody knows for certain as the speed and severity of the outbreak led to wrong diagnosis and under recording due to the extreme pressures that the medical professionals and health authorities were encountering.
Almost certainly some people in Ulceby died from this infection. The social and economic effects on the population of the UK during this period were clearly most severe bearing in mind the population was already burdened with the painful reality of 4 years of war.
Older estimates say the flu killed 40–50 million people while current estimates say 50 million to 100 million people worldwide died. This pandemic has been described as "the greatest medical holocaust in history" and may well have killed more people than the Black Death.
For comparison the total number of deaths in WW1 ( 1914 to 1918 ) is estimated at approx. 20 million.
Young soldiers who were mobilised and traveled long distances for training and eventual deployment worldwide may well have hastened the spread. Living in close proximity to each other, sometimes in harsh conditions, they proved particularly vulnerable to this infection. The numbers of deaths of British and Commonwealth servicemen from Spanish Flu are not known or have never been made public. Surprisingly little has been written about it although amongst the warring nations there was considerable censorship at this time.
The following quote from a report by Dr French to the Ministry of Health is interesting and must have been typical.
“In the midst of perfect health, in a circumscribed community... the first case of influenza would occur, and then within the next few hours or days a large proportion- and occasionally every single individual of that community- would be stricken down with the same type of febrile illness, the rate of spread from one to another being remarkable... Barrack rooms which the day before had been full of bustle and life, would now converted wholesale into one great sick room, the number of sick developing so rapidly that hospitals were within a day or two so overfull that fresh admissions were impossible.” Dr. Herbert French to the British Ministry of Health
It is known that, of the American soldiers who died during WW1 in 1918, 57,000, just over half of the total American casualties, died due to the influenza virus. It is not clear how many personnel in other Allied armies died as a result of the epidemic but it will be significant.
With Spanish Flu raging both at the Front and back home WW1 was grinding to a halt and the Armistice was clearly inevitable. The Germans were in a hopeless position by this time but the sudden catastrophic outbreak of this infection was probably a contributing factor.