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War and Pandemic
The spring of 1918 wasn’t like other years. Sure, adults went to work, and kids went to school. But that year a war raged in Europe, and thousands of young men were sent into the conflict. Unfortunately, war is all too common. But that spring, a silent killer was also on the loose, one that would ultimately take the lives of many more Americans than the war did. This killer was the Spanish flu.
At first, health authorities didn’t realize the severity of the disease and were unaware of the coming wave of misery that would sweep the globe. The disease was virulent influenza that sickened and ultimately killed millions; however, it was just a harbinger of the beast that was coming in the fall of that year.
The second wave of the flu was a mutation of the first wave that had been brewing in the trenches of war-torn Europe. This more toxic strain arrived on the shores of America to ravage the lives of the young, the old, the rich, and the poor alike. By the spring of 1919, the plague had seemingly vanished, but it left a trail of destruction, with one in four on the planet sickened and millions dead. One prominent historian who wrote about the pandemic said one thing is clear about the 1918 flu pandemic: The virus “killed more humans than any other disease in a period of similar duration in the history of the world.”
This article gives a timeline of the horrendous events in America that defined the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
June 1914 – World War I begins. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, set in motion a complicated chain of events among the nations of Europe. As accusations and threats were exchanged between countries, they chose sides and built alliances. The Great War, or World War I, pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey against the Allied powers consisting of France, Great Britain, Russia, China, and eventually the United States. Before it ended, the conflict engulfed dozens of nations and would cost the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians.
April 1917 – The United States enters the war. Though the U.S. had supported the Allied nations financially and with war materials since the beginning of the conflict, it did not enter the war with troops until April 1917. German submarines sank three U.S. merchant ships in March 1917, with heavy loss of life. President Woodrow Wilson, with the consent of Congress and a large segment of the public in support, declared war on Germany and the Central powers. Shortly after the declaration of war, the U.S. instituted a draft, and hundreds of thousands of young men were sent to training camps situated around the U.S. to be trained in the art and science of war.
June 1917 – America builds up the military. The U.S. established the draft to provide soldiers for the war in Europe. Draftees were shipped to one of 32 military training camps located around America. The size of the camps ranged from 25,000 to 55,000 soldiers. Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which was written to prohibit interference with military operations, prevent insubordination in the military, and prevent the support of United States enemies during wartime. The effect of this act on the reporting of the flu pandemic was to suppress coverage of the disease for fear of lowering the morale of the troops.
Outbreak of Influenza
March 1918 – Outbreaks of a serious flu-like illness were reported. Soldiers at Camp Funston, Kansas, become seriously ill with influenza. The number of cases increased rapidly.
May 1918 – Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were deployed to Europe to fight in World War I. The Sedition Act of 1918 became law. The Act extended the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover more offenses, including speech and expression of opinion that cast the government or the war effort negatively or hindered the sale of government war bonds. Penalties for non-compliance ranged from five to 20 years in prison.
September 27 to October 13, 1918 – At Camp Sherman in Ohio, 13,161 men, about 40 percent of those at the camp, caught the flu, of which 1,101 died.
September 1918 – The second and more deadly wave of influenza emerged at Camp Devens near Boston and the naval facility in Boston. By the end of the month, more than 14,000 soldiers reported flu symptoms, with 757 deaths. One of the camp doctors reported on the terrible course of the contagion, noting that the soldiers “rapidly develop the most vicious type of Pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the Mahogany spots over the cheekbones and a few hours later you can begin to see the Cyanosis extending from the ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the colored man from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible.”
September 1918 – Influenza became a reportable disease to the Board of Health in New York City. Infected individuals were told to stay home or, if their case was severe, go to a hospital.
September 28, 1918 – Liberty Bond parade in Philadelphia. Against the recommendations of local doctors, the city sponsored a Liberty Loan parade to sell war bonds. Two hundred thousand attended, and the flu spread quickly through the crowds resulting in hundreds of deaths over the next few weeks.
Fall 1918 – The flu spread across America and resulted in a shortage of professional nurses. The shortage was primarily due to so many nurses being used in military camps and the war in Europe supporting the troops. The shortage was exacerbated by the refusal of officials to use trained African American nurses. The second wave of the pandemic peaked in the United States.
October 1918 – Philadelphia experienced a severe outbreak of flu. The number of dead bodies exceeded the city’s morgue capability, forcing cold storage plants to be used as temporary morgues. Most major cities mandated the closure of theaters and night schools and prohibited public gatherings. In San Francisco, California, the Board of Health required any person in public to wear a mask. The dock workers in New York City were hit hard by the disease, resulting in a 40 percent decline in productivity.
November 11, 1918 – Armistice Day was celebrated to mark the end of hostilities in World War I. By the end of the war, the U.S. military had mobilized over 4.3 million soldiers. As a result of the celebrations across the nation, there was a resurgence of influenza.
November 1918 – In Salt Lake City, Utah, officials placed quarantine signs on the doors of 2,000 homes where the residents had the flu.
December 1918 – Public officials began education programs on how to prevent the spread of the flu. The Committee of the American Public Health Association recommended stores and factories stagger opening and closing times to minimize foot traffic on the sidewalks and street cars.
America Learns to Cope With the Pandemic
January 1919 – San Antonio, Texas, residents reported a new flu outbreak. In New York City, 706 cases of the flu were reported, with 67 deaths. Funds were requested in Boston to begin studying the treatment of influenza.
February 1919 – The number of cases in New Orleans, Louisiana, declined significantly.
Spring 1919 – The third wave of influenza began in America. This wave was less deadly than the second wave but still killed tens of thousands across the nation.
January 1919 to June 1919 – Treaty of Versailles. Though the armistice signed on November 11, 1918, ended fighting in the war, it took six months of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to hammer out the details of the peace between so many nations. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in Paris in June 1919, required Germany to disarm, make necessary territorial concessions, and pay heavy reparations to certain European countries of the Allied forces. Many historians believe the harsh terms of the treaty toward the Germans led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich in Germany, which ultimately led to World War II.
April 3, 1919 – President Wilson became ill with a viral infection. After a grueling schedule of meetings at the Paris Peace Conference, President Woodrow Wilson left the meetings and went to bed sick. His doctor found him with intense pains in his back, head, and abdomen, severe coughing spells, and a high fever. He was eventually diagnosed with a case of influenza, though medical historians have debated this diagnosis for a century. Wilson slowly recovered from his illness; however, there were lingering neurological ramifications. After nearly six months in Europe, the president returned to America. In October 1919, he suffered a debilitating stroke, and within five years, he died at age 67.
1918 to 1920 – The Death Toll. Estimates vary widely on the number of people who died worldwide from the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920. Low estimates are around 20 million, and with a population of 1.8 billion people on the planet at the time, that is around one percent of the total world population. High estimates put the death toll at around 100 million, equivalent to a five percent mortality rate. For comparison, around 20 million died because of World War I over a four-year period.
One in four people on Earth showed symptoms of the flu, and countless others had the virus but showed no symptoms. The United States fared better on a percentage basis than other parts of the world, with around 675,000 deaths out of a population of 103 million, a mortality rate of less than one percent.
References and Further Reading
- Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Penguin Books, 2018.
- Berg, A. Scott. Wilson. Penguin Group, 2013.
- Boy, Paul S. (Editor in Chief). The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928 – 1990.
- Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
- Spinney, Laura. Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. PublicAffairs, 2017.
- The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th Edition. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannia Inc., 1994.
- West, Doug. The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic in America: A Short History. C&D Publications. 2021.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on February 28, 2021:
John: Thanks for the comment. As I wrote this article I saw just how much similarity there is today with the COVID-19 pandemic and what people went through a 100 years ago. I am glad we have a vaccine today!
John Coviello from New Jersey on February 28, 2021:
An interesting timeline of the events surrounding the Spanish Flu outbreak. Thanks for this article.