Did Spanish 'Flu finally bring the Great War to an end?

No-one quite knows where Spanish flu came from. But it almost certainly wasn't Spain.

During the final year of World War One and for several months afterwards, the pandemic spread ultimately killing over 50 million people worldwide. In Britain the death toll was almost 300,000 and over one quarter of the British population were affected. Worldwide the death toll rose to over 50 million. By the end of pandemic, only a small island in Brazil’s Amazon River Delta had been spared.

The tragedy, of course, was that many of the casualties were fit, healthy men who had survived the horrors of the trenches only to be struck down by the deadly disease.

The first well-documented case of the disease occurred not in Europe, but at the US Army base of Fort Riley, in Kansas - home of the US Cavalry School. On March 11th, 1918 Albert Gitchell, the camp cook, reported sick with a high temperature and other symptoms of flu.

Later that same day over a hundred soldiers had reported sick with similar symptoms. Within days almost 500 men had fallen ill, over 50 of whom would subsequently die of what the Army initially regarded as a case of pneumonia.

It may be that the ultimate tragedy of the pandemic is that it arrived with the self-same US troops who regarded as the 'saviours' of the Allies, fresh fighting men who were to help finally win the war on the Western Front.

The truth is no-one is sure where the disease originated. What is certain is that the large-scale, worldwide movement of men and women at the war's behest was a major cause of the pandemic’s spread.

The origin of the name, however, is more easily explained. Spain remained neutral during World War One and when King Alfonso XIII succumbed in 1918 his condition was widely reported by the Spanish press. He wasn't the only European leader to fall ill. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George contracted the disease as did Germany's Kaiser Willhelm.

But wartime censorship meant that these and other cases went largely unreported. Although attempts were made to educate the public in the hope of limiting the spread of the disease, the extent of the pandemic was deliberately kept out of the newspapers.

And with good reason. General Ludendorff apparently later reported that Spanish flu had saved Germany from an outright Allied victory.

Instead, with casualties mounting and cases of 'flu rising, the Allies met to discuss peace terms with the Germans and an Armistice was declared.

The rest, as they say, is history.


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