The “Spanish flu” was used to describe the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 and its name suggests that the epidemic began in Spain. But the term is actually an improper term and indicates a key fact: the countries involved in the First World War did not accurately report their flu epidemics.
Spain remained neutral throughout the First World War and its press freely reported its cases of influenza, including when the king of Spain Alfonso XIII contracted it in the spring of 1918. This led to think wrongly that the flu originated or was at worst in Spain.
“Basically, it’s called the” Spanish flu “because the Spanish media has done its job,” said Lora Vogt, curator of education at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. In Britain and the United States, which has long accused other countries of disease, the epidemic was also known as the “Spanish hold” or “Spanish lady”.
READ MORE: When the rules for wearing a mask in resistance to the 1918 pandemic
Historians are not sure where the 1918 flu strain started, but the first recorded cases occurred at an American army camp in Kansas in March 1918. By the end of 1919, it had infected until a third of the world’s population and killed some 50 million people. It was the worst flu pandemic in history, and it was probably exacerbated by a combination of censorship, skepticism and denial among the belligerent nations.
“Viruses don’t care where they come from, they just love taking advantage of wartime censorship,” says Carol R. Byerly, author of War fever: the flu epidemic in the American army during the First World War. “Censorship is very dangerous during a pandemic.”
Flu in Europe
When the flu started in 1918, wartime press censorship was more entrenched in European countries because Europe had been fighting since 1914, while the United States only entered the war in 1917. It is difficult to know the scope of this censorship, because the most effective way to conceal something is to not leave publicly accessible records of its deletion. Finding out the impact of censorship is also complicated by the fact that when governments pass censorship laws, people often censor themselves for fear of breaking the law.
In Britain, which fought for the Allied Powers, “the kingdom’s defense law has been used to some extent to suppress … news that could threaten national morale,” said Catharine Arnold, author of Pandemic 1918: eyewitness accounts of the greatest medical holocaust in modern history. “The government can slam what is called a D opinion on [a news story]”D” for defense – and that means it cannot be published because it is not in the national interest. “
Newspapers and officials claimed during the first flu wave in the spring and early summer of 1918 that it was not a serious threat. the Illustrated London News wrote that the 1918 flu was “mild enough to show that the original virus is attenuated by frequent transmission”. Sir Arthur Newsholme, chief medical officer of the British Local Government Board, suggested that it was not patriotic to be concerned with influenza rather than war, explains Arnold.
The second flu wave, which started in the late summer and got worse this fall, was much more deadly. Even so, the belligerent nations continued to try to hide it. In August Italy’s interior minister – another Allied power – denied reports of the spread of the flu. In September British officials and newspaper barons quashed the news that the Prime Minister had caught the flu while traveling to Manchester. Instead, the Manchester Guardian explained his extended stay in the city, saying he had caught “intense cold” in a rainstorm.
READ MORE: Why the second flu wave of 1918 was so deadly
Nations at war concealed the flu to protect the morale of their own citizens and soldiers, but also because they did not want enemy nations to know they were suffering from an epidemic. The flu ravaged General Erich Ludendorff’s German troops so badly that he had to suspend his last offensive. The general, whose empire fought for the central powers, was anxious to hide the flu outbreaks of his troops from the opposing Allied powers.
“Ludendorff is famous for observing [flu outbreaks among soldiers] and say, oh my god, this is the end of the war, “said Byerly. “His soldiers contract the flu and he doesn’t want anyone to know about it, because then the French could attack him.”
The pandemic in the United States
The United States entered World War I as an allied power in April 1917. Just over a year later, it passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to say all that the government viewed it as hurting the country or the war effort. Again, it is unclear to what extent the government has been able to use this to silence information about the flu, or to what extent newspapers have self-censored for fear of reprisals. Whatever the motivation, some American newspapers have downplayed the risk of the flu or the extent of its spread.
In preparation for the Liberty Loan March in Philadelphia in September, doctors tried to use the press to warn citizens that it was not safe. However, the editors of the city’s newspapers refused to publish articles or print letters from doctors about their concerns. In addition to trying to warn the press, the doctors also tried unsuccessfully to convince the Philadelphia director of public health to cancel the walk.
The war bond fundraiser attracted several thousand people, creating an ideal place for the spread of the virus. Over the next four weeks, the flu killed 12,191 people in Philadelphia.
READ MORE: How American Cities Attempted to Stop the Spread of the 1918 Pandemic
Likewise, many US military and government officials have downplayed the flu or refused to implement health measures that could slow its spread. Byerly said the army medical service recognized the threat posed by the flu to troops and urged authorities to stop troop transport, stop the draft and quarantine the soldiers; but they faced resistance from online command, the War Department, and President Woodrow Wilson.
The Wilson administration finally heeded their calls by suspending a project and reducing the occupation of troop ships by 15%, but other than that, it did not take the extensive measures recommended by the doctors. General Peyton March succeeded in convincing Wilson that the United States should not stop transportation and, as a result, the soldiers continued to fall ill. By the end of the year, approximately 45,000 US military personnel had died from the flu.
The pandemic was so devastating among the First World War nations that some historians have suggested that the flu precipitated the end of the war. Nations declared the armistice on November 11 amidst the worst wave of the pandemic.
In April 1919, the flu even disrupted the Paris Peace Conference when President Wilson presented a debilitating case. As when the British Prime Minister contracted the flu in September, the Wilson administration hid the news from the public. Rather, his personal physician told the press that the president had caught a cold in the Parisian rain.
See all pandemic coverage here.