By Daniel Hubbard | November 16, 2009
I wonder how many people remember why we have Veterans Day when we do. After years of war, on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” the guns fell silent on the Western Front and for all practical purposes, World War I—The Great War, the War to End All Wars—came to an end. More than fifteen million soldiers and sailors were dead. Yet as so often happens in war, the dying didn’t stop. Today, what happened next is overshadowed in our memories by the war itself. Many a veteran who otherwise would have gone home did not make it. No one knows from where it came. Some say China, others Kansas or Boston. One name implies wrongly that it came from Spain. Between late winter 1918 and late spring 1920 it killed from 50 million to 100 million people, a good number of them the soldiers whose plight contributed to making the Spanish Flu the worst pandemic of all time.
World War I made moving massive numbers of young men a necessity. Troop trains and ships were not held up by the fear of the flu. There were much greater fears to be confronted. Once in the trenches, the mildly ill stayed where they were and didn’t spread their mild sickness. The critically ill were sent to overcrowded hospitals full of susceptible men in weakened condition. In a world torn by war, a virulent form of flu was not just transported freely and encouraged to strengthen, it was given huge populations of people already weakened by wounds, disease and hunger. In the end, it killed far more people than the war that encouraged it. It was a strange flu. It did not kill primarily the very young and the old as do most types of flu. It killed people in the prime of life by setting off a runaway immune response in them so powerful that it either killed directly or left the lungs damaged and susceptible to pneumonia.
The 1918 Flu infected one of every three people in the world and left no part of the planet unscathed. Events like that change people. So, even if your personal past does not include a war hero, a gas attack victim, a front-line nurse or a draft dodger, your past might have been touched by this product of 1918. One of my grandmothers, in her late teens at the time, caught the flu that year but survived. Living in a small city she must have known of many who weren’t so lucky. I never thought to ask her about it when she was alive, so today I am left to wonder if it was a strong influence on her. A few years later she was in medical school. It was a time when a woman practicing medicine was a very strange thing and I can’t help imagining that if any one thing made her choose that path, it was the Flu of 1918.
It is too late to ask all but a very few of the people who were alive back in 1918 if they caught the flu in those years but it might not be to late to ask their children. Did they ever hear stories from their parents about the Great War or the Great Pandemic that followed?Twitter It!