The 1918/19 Flu Epidemic

Image, showing patients in Camp Funston, Fort Riley Kansas Influenzal Hospital. (Public Domain)

Between 1918 and 1919 an estimated 40-50 million people worldwide died from influenza.  Some reports put the number as high as 100 million, more than died in total due to World War 1.  Alarmingly this flu strain was most deadly to those aged between 20 and 40.

Glasgow was the first British city to be affected, in May 1918, and within weeks the illness had spread south, reaching London by June. During the next few months 228,000 people died in Britain. Before long the Flu had spread to the British, French and German troops.

The war had cost the country most of its fortune; industry was disrupted, there was damage to public services and millions were dead, missing or wounded.  Ships were bringing soldiers back from the front carrying the virus to their homes and communities.

No one knows for certain where or how this Flu outbreak first occurred. Bad news was considered harmful to the wartime effort so the Press was forbidden to write about the Flu. Since Spain remained neutral in the war its newspapers were the first to include news about the outbreak. This made people around the world mistakenly think that the virus started in Spain hence it was known as The Spanish Flu.

The disease quickly spread throughout damp trenches and crowded ships. By Spring it had become Pandemic. By the summer of 1918 it appeared to be receding but then another wave struck which was more deadly than the first and spread to millions around the world. A third wave of cases struck in early 1919 but by now the virus was beginning to lose its strength. By Summer 1919 no new cases were being reported.

Queensferry Cemetery holds the Commonwealth Graves of 43 men.
Queensferry Cemetery holds the Commonwealth Graves of 43 men.

Queensferry Cemetery holds the Commonwealth Graves of 43 named Naval men who died in 1918 and 1919; 27 of them died of influenza or unspecified illness. Researchers found this was a type A virus which can spread between humans, birds, pigs, horses and other mammals. They believe the 1918/19 Flu pandemic began in birds then moved to some type of mammals before humans caught it.

The long months of Flu terror ended as suddenly as it began. Nearly 1 in 5 persons throughout the world had been infected.

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