Revisiting horrendous flu pandemic here and around world after First World War

First World War soldiers in Omagh Hospital brought influenza home from the front lines
First World War soldiers in Omagh Hospital brought influenza home from the front lines

Friday’s page about the post-First World War influenza pandemic got some interesting readers’ responses.

Soldiers returning from the First World War brought home a virus nicknamed ‘Spanish flu’; the illness was thought to have started in Spain, though it might have begun in China or several other source-countries.

Chart of influenza deaths in America and Europe during October and November 1918

Chart of influenza deaths in America and Europe during October and November 1918

It struck down some 800,000 people in Ireland causing nearly 11,000 deaths, but more probably up to or over 16,000 deaths.

No one is certain of the statistics and it’s thought that between 50 and 100 million died worldwide.

“Since the period of the Great Famine with its awful attendant horrors of fever and cholera,” said Sir William J Thompson MD, the wartime Registrar-General of Ireland, “no disease of an epidemic nature created so much havoc in any one year in Ireland as influenza in 1918.”

“The WWI flu pandemic was horrendous,” wrote an Antrim doctor and News Letter reader, adding: “I would take Sir William’s conclusions as accurate…I think there is a bust of him somewhere in the Royal Victoria Hospital.”

Masked Red Cross workers demonstrate emergency flu 'Ambulance' in Washington, 1918

Masked Red Cross workers demonstrate emergency flu 'Ambulance' in Washington, 1918

Another reader’s note referred to “whole fleets of Royal Navy ships brought to a standstill because the bulk of their crews succumbed to the illness”.

Stephen Wallace emailed: “My grandfather told the story of a family called Rea and the Spanish flu wiped out the mother and two or three daughters, only the son survived and they were buried to the right of the front of St Matthias parish church near Moneymore. Some people were buried at night, according to legend, and only one man would enter the house with the undertaker and he drank whiskey and wore a mask to fend off the disease. Sad times.”

More about Sir William J Thompson’s frightful Irish flu statistics in a moment, but first, on World Mental Health Day, it’s perhaps appropriate to mention some other terrible statistics from the First World War, borne of the so-called ‘shell shock’.

The World Federation for Mental Health is today focusing its annual campaign on young people’s mental wellbeing in a changing world, and one of the many hugely distressing features of The Great War was its predominantly young, even youthful, soldiers.

First World War soldiers in Omagh Hospital brought influenza home from the front lines

First World War soldiers in Omagh Hospital brought influenza home from the front lines

The Mental Health Federation’s stated objective is “to bring attention to the issues that our youth and young adults are facing …and to begin the conversation around what they need in order to grow up healthy, happy and resilient”.

The average age of a British frontline soldier at the outbreak of the First World War was 29 years old, but some authoritative sources show that the British Army recruited 250,000 boys under 18, some as young as 12.

And while the shells, mines and bullets rendered rampant death and destruction on the front lines, a silent and unrecognised war took a terrible toll – shell shock, or ‘war neurosis’ now referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

According to author and historian Caroline Alexander: “At war’s end, legions of shell-shocked veterans dispersed into the mists of history…63,296 neurological cases; ominously, this number would rise, not fall, and by 1929 – more than a decade after the conclusion of the war – there were 74,867 such cases.”

As time passed, an estimated 10 per cent of the military wounded would ultimately be attributed to shell shock, and it took the medical profession years to come up with proper emotional and psychiatric therapies.

The other ‘silent war’ which started in the First World War’s trenches, the influenza pandemic, whilst more widespread than shell shock, was similarly bereft of remedies, and baffled the doctors too!

Ireland’s Registrar-General Sir William J Thompson commented on a curious local trait.

Flu deaths across the whole of Ireland “do not differ to any appreciable extent for each sex,” said Sir William, “being in the proportion of 100 males to 91 females.”

But the deaths of females “in the province of Ulster exceed those of males”.

And it was Belfast that skewed Ulster’s statistics!

Of the 1,514 influenza deaths in Belfast in 1918 Sir William discovered that 826 were females and 688 were males and concluded: “Doubtless the extensive employment of females in the factories and workshops of Belfast would account for the excess in the female mortality.”

A Dublin doctor’s analysis of the symptoms was recounted in Fermanagh’s Impartial Reporter.

“The well-known physician has said when the outbreak started it appeared to be influenza of the gastric-intestinal type, affecting the stomach and bowels. He met several cases of that and then there was a lull for a couple of weeks, after which the present epidemic began. ‘The types now met with’ he went on ‘are the respiratory, the feverish, and the nervous.’”

A deadly component of the illness was described by the Dublin doctor as “ordinary or lobar pneumonia and this is nearly always double. It is lobar pneumonia that is now killing the people in such large numbers. The nervous type is accompanied by nervous prostration, delirium, or even temporary mania. I have come across all three types”.

Meanwhile another Co Fermanagh newspaper published an article suggesting cures and remedies in October 1918.

“Most people are anxious to know of anything which will minimise the likelihood of catching the disease which is so prevalent. A few drops of Kurecold (price 10d bottle) sprinkled on the handkerchief, is probably as good a preventative as anything which can be obtained – a little should also be inserted into each nostril. Taylor’s Influenza Mixture (1s 6d bottle) which has proved highly efficacious, both as a preventative and a cure in former epidemics should also be taken.”