A little dip back in time to see how the influenza pandemic was being characterized in the papers over a century ago. The article comes from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, October 19, 1918, and the photograph from The Sketch a year later.
THE INFLUENZA SCOURGE. We are told that the best way to guard against influenza is not to worry about it. It is sensible advice, although probably it will have little effect, for the people who are given to worrying over what may happen to them will go on worrying. The people who will follow the advice will be those who would have done so in any case. It would be idle, of course, to try and soothe popular fears by minimising the severity of the epidemic. The whole world is in its grip, and not only is it widespread, but its form is often most virulent. In Sheffield last week, for instance, the number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia reached 300, and all over the country the mortality has been high. There is thus far no sign of any abatement of the scourge, and there are no measures known to medical science that can prevent its running its course. The only useful precautions are those that the individual can practise himself—living as healthily as possible both in mind and body, taking plenty of fresh air, food, and sleep, and keeping out of crowds. If, despite this, he gets it, let him go to bed at once; it is not a complaint that tolerates obstinate heroics. This world outbreak has completely mystified the medical profession. There have been similar pandemics but a writer in The Times is of the opinion that there has been none of these proportions since the Middle Ages. It has swept over the earth like a cyclone, and the causes of its spread are unknown. It is not to be ascribed to the war, although it is possible that its effect has been more pronounced on account of conditions that the war has produced. We do not know that there is even sound evidence of that, for in this country the national health was never so good, and although the sanitary conditions are worse through shortage of labour, that can scarcely apply to the United States where the epidemic is as bad as here. Perhaps the mental state of the people, which has been abnormal for over four years, may have lessened the resistive power, and provided a favourable reproductive nest for the disease germs. But the phenomena of the disease remain baffling, and call for profound and lengthy scientific study that has not hitherto been given to them. We have passed beyond the time when any intelligent mind would see in this world affliction a visitation from God for fighting a war in defence of our liberties. Pandemics are mysteries only because they have never been thoroughly investigated. We may be sure there are definite physical causes for them, and that it is not beyond the brain of man to trace them. The last thing we must do is to give way to superstitious fears.
I’m sure everyone has stepped up contact with family members in the last while. We’ve been hearing from my husband’s relatives in the UK and in other parts of Ontario, and from my family too, here in Canada and in the Netherlands. Several of the notes that have come have mentioned nature, and how birds are singing and geese are honking, oblivious to the turmoil. A good friend who lives in Manchester tells me she has been working in her garden, and it made me realize how anxious I am for spring, because digging in the earth and helping things grow is such a soothing pastime. (And this morning I read a beautiful essay reminding me that even when the television is “full of terror … the trees are full of music.”)
My father and his wife are in Guatemala right now, on their sailboat. They live aboard, traveling the world, and made it into the country just before its borders closed. “Today was the first day of the curfew starting at 4 p.m.,” my dad wrote yesterday to our wider family group, “and although a busy high bridge towers over the Rio Dulce not far away and we are surrounded by marinas, not a thing is moving on land or on the water except the odd toucan, a pair of parakeets and assorted other birds. It is eerily quiet.”
Dad suggested a group of us — aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings — check in with each other every couple of days, since we are a far-flung lot. My mom and her husband are in Portugal, due home Friday, and we have all been eagerly anticipating their safe return. This morning she wrote to the group, “We are anxious to get back home to all the snow, which is the reason we leave in the winter!! Everything is in lockdown here and has been for about a week. First of all the schools and universities all closed, then the store, bars, restaurants. Some outdoor patios stayed open for a few days as long as people sat far apart, but now everything is closed. They are being very strict about it. Grocery stores are open but fewer people are there. There are big signs everywhere warning people to keep a distance and to look at the products and choose only what you want, and buy only what you need. Do not handle things. There are no attendants at the deli counter, only packaged things to choose from. There are big plexiglass screens shielding the cashiers and only cards are accepted, no cash. There are red signs on the floor for cash lineups showing how far apart you must be. Pharmacies will only let one or two people in at a time. When one person goes out, one can go in. In the lineup outside people are 2 metres apart. The post office is like that too. There are only 6 apartments occupied in our hotel now and when we go out to get groceries we have to ring to be let in. We cannot stay in the room when the maid comes. She is wearing a mask and we have go out until she is finished.”
Even though I’m in my 50s now, I’m used to my parents worrying about me. It’s weird to have the tables turned. But the emails help. And in our day and age we’re lucky enough to have facetime too. My teenage daughter can still hang out with her friends this way. All of this brings to mind how essential letters must have been a century ago for people separated by war, though the missives had to float slowly back and forth across the ocean, and sometimes all kinds of things had changed by the time the letters got read. When the influenza pandemic began in 1918, new worries piled on to the worries that had already existed for years. Snooping through the wonderful Canadian Letters & Images Project, I found a treasure trove of photos and letters connected to a soldier named Cecil Moody, who enlisted in 1915 and served with a Field Ambulance unit until the end of the war. He had a wife he called Budsie back home in Canada, and a little boy nicknamed Bobs. The collection contains almost 40 letters, but the one below is especially touching, and gives a glimpse into how the flu pandemic impacted medical workers’ already challenging duties.
Les Fermont, South of Arras, June 29, 1918
Although you let a week slip by without writing, I can fully forgive you for the dandy snaps you sent. I was ever so pleased with them girlie. Isn’t wee Bobs getting to be a big boy. Lord! He will be as big as his Dad if I don’t soon get home. And you are looking to sweet for words Dearie. The boys that I have showed the picture to all say what a peach of a looking girl you are. And really Hon. I am so wonderfully proud of you when anybody pays you a compliment; it always makes me feel as though it had been paid to myself.
You’re some little tailoress too Budsie. Bob’s clothes look awfully cute. You must feel jolly proud of yourself, turning the wee chap out so smartly.
Well, you will notice that I too have missed a week in writing, but my excuse is good, and an honest one. Our ambulance base covered more miles in the last two weeks than they have since we have been in France. We have had three or four moves in the last two weeks, but apart from that, we have been running day and night, hauling Spanish Flu patients. I guess you have read in the papers about the influenza plague. Well, we are certainly getting our share of it in France now. Harry has been in the Hospital for the last two or three days, but he is OK again. Now, it’s nothing really serious, but by gosh, a man is almighty sick for a couple of days. I think Fritz’s army is also suffering from the plague from the reports of the prisoners taken lately. In fact, it is rumoured that that was the reason their offensive was given up. …
Well Hon, we are back in the line again after the longest rest our division has had since we have been in France. We all have to break ourselves in again, but we are on a very quiet front, so unless something starts up, we shall have a very “cushy” time. In the last 13 days, our old bus has travelled just over 1300 miles! Most of the rips have been short ones, but numerous. … We have been sleeping in our cars for a long time, but we don’t like to take chances now that we are hauling so many flu patients. I think that is how Harry caught it.
… No, I’m afraid there is slim chance of my ever getting back to you Darling, until this damn war finishes up. How I would love to be with you again. But I couldn’t bear to come home for for a couple of months and then have to leave you again. I would much rather wait until I can have you again for “Keeps”.
Poor old Harry. If there’s ever any sickness going around, it always seems to attach itself to him. His chances of returning to Canada seem pretty slim now. He has not heard anymore.
Buds, why don’t you write a little letter to me from Bobs. You have never even mentioned whether he has received any of the little notes I have enclosed in your letters. You can ask him what he wants to say and write it for him. Don’t suggest anything – just see what he would say on his own accord. Where did he get the wee tricycle? Can he ride it alright? …
Well old sweetheart, I must say Au Revoir. If you miss one week in writing Dear, make the next letter twice as long. I love to get your letters so much. Have you noticed any of my letters missing? I still number them. All my love to you precious girl, and a big kiss. Love too to Bobs.
Lately in the news there have been stories about hospital ships being brought into action to help ease the burden on regular hospitals; about distilleries making hand sanitizer especially for police and healthcare workers; and about automotive companies producing ventilators instead of car parts. There’s even been speculation that a certain high-end parka manufacturer might begin churning out hospital gowns.
Each time I hear these stories, as well as today’s announcement that the Canadian government will help businesses “re-tool” to produce the supplies we need, I am reminded of my WW1 research, both for The Cowkeeper’s Wish with Tracy, and for my new book, still in the early stages, about patients and staff at a military hospital here in Toronto in the First World War.
In those days, all sorts of factories had transformed to produce munitions, but there were countless other changes too. Fancy shoemakers made army boots, milliners made military caps, and tailors made uniforms instead of ordinary suits and overcoats. Passenger ships became troop carriers or floating hospitals. Car manufacturers made military vehicles, and rubber tire producers made gas masks and balloons for reconnaissance. Even cardboard box manufacturers were affected by war: boxes of all sizes were now needed for care parcels for soldiers and sailors, for the boots and shoes and hats that made up their uniforms, for the medals that got pinned to them and for the ammunition they used. Cardboard discs hung in windows, proudly announcing that the man who lived there was off fighting for king and country.
Though the Spanish flu pandemic that surged in this period differed from the current outbreak, I feel somewhat comforted to dip back in time and explore how an earlier generation coped with worry and fear, and what sorts of decisions were made to try to slow the spread. Their pandemic rushed in at the end of a horrific war, and ours comes in the midst of environmental despair. Many people seem to be feeling a weird clash of emotions. On one hand, we’re only just recognizing an obvious but beautiful fact as the virus drifts across borders: we really are all in the same boat. Italy seems close when you can sit at your computer in Canada and hear people singing from their balconies, in isolation together. At the same time we’re dismayed by what we’ve collectively done to the planet that holds us. A sense of despair was also there a century ago, as the war was ending: people likened influenza to a deadly wind blowing about the earth as a kind of punishment.
According to Howard Phillips, the author of Black October, “many people were convinced that [the flu pandemic] must somehow have been connected with the war. Thus, in Entente countries, tags coined included ‘war plague,’ ‘Flanders grippe,’ ‘Hun flu,’ ‘Turco-Germanic bacterial criminal enterprise’ and ‘German plague,’ as many believed that the war-epidemic link lay in the unburied corpses on the battlefields or the dastardly use of poison gas. ‘So many were killed in the great war of the white people’, explained indigenous healers in faraway Southern Rhodesia, ‘that the blood of the dead caused this great sickness,’ while in the memory of one elderly flu survivor sixty years later, the war ‘poisoned the air … all the bombs and things … travelled with the wind [around the world].’
There were three waves of the pandemic then, just as there are expected to be subsequent waves of Covid 19. In January 1920, two years after the original outbreak, the death of a young Toronto boy prompted the Star headline “Is flu back again?” Over the course of the month, both the Star and the Globe reported on large outbreaks south of the border with such increasing alarm that it soon seemed inevitable the epidemic would return, swirling over the city like frenzied snowflakes, and falling wherever it chose. In Chicago, California-bound trains were “crowded to the limit” with people fleeing to escape flu. And in Detroit, the coroner announced the county morgue was “filled to its capacity with bodies. … If bodies continue coming in as they have in the last two days extra arrangements for their care will have to be made.” Ads appeared in Toronto papers for cure-alls like Hamlin’s Wizard Oil: snuff it up the nose at the first sign of a cough or sore throat and you could stop the symptoms from turning into “dangerous influenza.” By the end of January, there were “more than 500 cases of flu at the border,” as one headline put it, characterizing the illness as a band of murderers poised to invade.
In all likelihood we are in for a long and difficult ride that will impact all of our lives in a variety of ways. Hopefully we manage to lean on each other, without touching, of course. A friend of mine — the writer Phil Dwyer — recently posted some wise words.
“Trying times test us. In our responses, we show who we really are.”
This pretty card is among Nettie’s pictures and letters at CLIP. Strange how an image of grasped hands reads differently right now.
One of my favourite resources for first-person material from the First World War is The Canadian Letters & Images Project, which features scanned images of letters, diaries, photographs and ephemera, and defines itself as “an online archive of the Canadian war experience.” It was an obvious place to look to further our series of posts on the influenza pandemic that happened more than a century ago. Featured below, with thanks to CLIP, is a letter from Jeanette “Nettie” Bridges to her mother back home in New Brunswick. Nettie was a VAD stationed at a hospital in Reading, Berkshire, when she contracted influenza in October 1918. She had only recently married a Canadian soldier.
The story has a happy ending: Nettie and her husband survived both the pandemic and the war, and returned home to raise a family in Canada. But reading Nettie’s words reminds me how grateful we must be to the healthcare workers looking after our most vulnerable just now, all across the globe. A dear old friend of mine works in public health in Ottawa; my niece is working in a hospital as part of her nursing studies; and another good friend and neighbour works in the emergency room of a busy Toronto hospital. This post goes out to them and their ilk as a small way of saying thank you.
Now wasn’t it just like me to be one of the influenza victims, but when I tell you that one third of the staff on night duty & a great many on day duty are down with it you would probably have been more surprised if I had escaped.
I never felt better in my life than I did last Thursday just a week to-morrow. We went for a long ride on the top of a tram that morning before we went to bed and the air was beautiful. I was so well wrapped up too. had a sweater under my great coat & the latter has a nice big opossum collar on it now. Went on duty that night feeling fine Friday morning about 5 o’clock my throat began to feel raw, but I didn’t think much of it. At 7:30 just when we come off duty I felt a bit shivery so took a dose of quinine as we had been told to do if we felt that way as a precaution (two of our staff at least of no.3 where Mary is had died of influenza and pneumonia a week before and everyone was being very careful).
After breakfast I told Mary I thought I would go right to bed as I didn’t feel extra well, I kept getting hotter and hotter and by 10.30 my temperature was 101 so by 1.30 I was in a bed down here (they send one of the hospital ambulances for me).
The Sisters Sick Quarters or Sick Hut is down at No.1 and consists of 2 little hut wards of 5 beds each very cosy with a nice bright fire burning in the grate day and night. Pretty chinez sheets and little rose puffs on the bed, so it is very comfortable would be very lonely to be in a ward alone as no one is allowed in to see us but as the other beds are occuppied by 2 V.A.D’s & 2 Sisters we keep each other company.
Mary and Marion send me flowers & grapes or something each morning and bring my letters down to me but I’m not allowed to see them, so far they have both escaped. …
I was glad everyone was pleased with the wedding especially Mr & Mrs Mackay & you and father. you are really the only ones that count.
We are very well looked after here – a day nurse and a night nurse both from the London hospital Whitechapel where Stanley was. They had to send to London for help as none of our staff could be spared to nurse us. The medical officer (same one that looks after the offices) comes in to see us morning and evening and we have every attention. The pain in my head legs and back was something desperate and you have a cough. On Sunday I developed bronchitis which was quite natural knowing me tendency in that direction. I have an inhaler every four hours of eucalyptis and benzoine am really all better now and if I was home would be up, but in the army you have to do as you re told. Have been on chicken diet and actually get it for my lunch each day. I will probably be allowed to sit up by the fire tomorrow afternoon.
The Influenza epidemic has been dreadful all over England. So many of the officers in our hospital here have had it and lots of the Tommies down where I was that’s when I caught it, as I was looking after dozens who had it.
By the time you get this I will be up and as fit as ever so don’t worry about me. The rest in bed is great.
I don’t think I will get many wedding presents till I get home. The chest of silver will be perfect but I think will wait till I get back.
Tea has come in so I must stop. We have lovely thin bread and butter and jam and tea at 4.30. …
A great deal of love to you and father and I do hope you have a good maid by now.