Research Notes – The Great War (8) Patient Zero: The Spanish Flu

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set partially during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. Some of the older material I’m reposting in order to better organize it. This post from 2016, is especially important as the Spanish Flu will play a central role in the historical timeline. I hope you find it interesting and don’t mind me recycling! ~ Meg

The mysterious virus that emerged in 1917-1918 and reached pandemic proportions has a murky origin story. Smaller outbreaks had been occurring in the years leading up to 1918 but the flu wasn’t as severe in nature or as long in duration. People were getting over it within a few days to a week at most. The earliest and most authoritative report of the Spanish Flu comes from Haskell County, Kansas, USA. So why on earth was it called “Spanish” flu? More about that in a bit.

Fort Riley in Haskell County had been set up fifty years earlier to be a cavalry barracks during the Indian Wars. The fort was surrounded by rich farmland and sat near the confluence of two rivers. In the spring of 1917, when the USA decided to declare war on Germany, Fort Riley was hastily converted to a training facility. A large army encampment –Camp Funston–was constructed within the sprawling military reserve lands, to hold and prepare some 56,000 troops to go ‘over there.’

On March 4, 1918, Camp Funston’s cook, Albert Gitchell reported sick with a sore throat, fever and headache. He would have been up before dawn to prepare breakfast but after a restless night without sleep, he felt so unwell by morning that he reported to the camp’s infirmary. Gitchell is thought to be the great flu epidemic’s patient zero.

One after the other, men began reporting with similar symptoms. They were placed in isolation wards and the medic in charge informed his boss, chief medical officer, Colonel Edward Schreiner. By noon, 107 cases had reported and the fear of epidemic became real. By the end of the week, 522 cases had reported and by month’s end 1100 men had become incapacitated. Colonel Shreiner requisitioned a hangar to house the overflow from the overcrowded base hospital.

It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary flu. While most did recover, 48 men had died. The symptoms were alarming. The violent cough, projectile nose bleeds and the deathly blue discoloration of the face were not symptoms of the classic seasonal flu outbreaks. The medical staff realized they had something more deadly on their hands.

So why the “Spanish Flu” you might ask, when the origin was likely from the other side of the ocean? The flu was in fact, erupting all over Europe during the spring of 1918. However, the nations involved in the turmoil were reluctant to give publicity to the flu outbreak so as not to panic or further demoralize the already battered and war weary civilian population.

The sobriquet “Spanish” Flu became popular when the outbreak hit Madrid, Spain. Theaters, schools and tram service was curtailed to stop the spread of the disease. Most notably though was the contraction of the flu by King Alfonso XIII and members of his government. The Prime Minister and Finance Minister were both afflicted along with a third of the population of Spain. As a noncombatant country, the Spanish had no concerns about a ‘civilian scare’ and thus both foreign and domestic correspondents reported freely on the pandemic in that nation. Thus the virulent flu became known as “Spanish.”

Source material: Living With Enza – The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, by Mark Honigsbaum

Research Notes – The Great War (7) Chemical Weapons to Chemotherapy

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set partially during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg

The Great War introduced the concept of total war to the world, where the entire economies and civilian populations of the combatant nations would be mobilized in the effort for victory. This mindset of total war lowered the barriers to using any means necessary, no matter how gruesome, to achieve the desired outcome. Therefore, despite The Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases in 1899 and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare banning the use of chemical weapons, gases were deployed as early as 1914 in The Great War.

The French were the first to use gas in battle, deploying tear gas in grenades which were completely ineffective, the amounts of gas being so low as to be undetectable. The first large-scale use of lethal gas began in 1915, most notably on April 22 when the Germans fired artillery shells filled with chlorine gas into positions held by French Colonial troops in the region north of Ypres, Belgium. The German soldiers, wary of the gas themselves, failed to exploit this new deadly weapon before French and Canadian troops reformed the line broken by the scattering Colonials.

Chlorine gas continued to be used by the German Army throughout 1915, provoking the allies to respond by using it in kind, which quickly led to an escalation in the use of even more lethal substances. Phosgene gas was formulated by a group of French chemists and first used by France on the battlefield later in 1915. Phosgene was colorless and had an odor like moldy hay which made it difficult to detect. One drawback, if you can call it that, was that often the symptoms from phosgene poisoning weren’t manifested until 24 hours after contamination. Thusly, the troops on the field weren’t immediately incapacitated by the gas and were able to carry on fighting. It would only be the next day that these apparently fit troops would be sickened by their exposure. Phosgene was never as well known as the notorious ‘mustard gas’ but it was the cause of 85% of the 100,000 deaths attributed to chemical weapons during The Great War.

Mustard gas was introduced in 1917 by Germany prior to the Third Battle of Ypres. Mustard gas is the most well known of all the gases used in the war even though it wasn’t an effective immediate killing agent except in high doses. Rather, it may have taken up to six weeks for the victim to die. And it was a slow, horrible death. It blistered the skin, made the eyes sore, produced vomiting, caused internal and external bleeding and stripped the mucous membranes from the bronchial tubes, making breathing difficult and extremely painful. Delivered in artillery shells, the gas precipitated to the ground as an oily substance and settled in the soil, remaining active for days and weeks, even months if weather conditions were right. Because mustard gas was absorbed through the skin, gas masks, which had become standard issue equipment to all front line troops, were useless against an attack.

By the end of the war, all combatant armies had begun to use these deadly chemical weapons, constituting war crimes on all sides of the conflict.

Nevertheless, there is a rather amazing twist in this dark tale of war.

As The Second World War broke out, among the same group of belligerents as the first war, new fears about chemical attacks motivated urgent research into potential antidotes to these deadly agents. Doctors at Yale University Hospital began to study the medical records of soldiers who had been exposed to mustard gas during The Great War and they made an interesting connection that could be used to fight a different kind of battle.

Doctors Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman discovered that soldiers exposed to mustard gas had fewer white blood cells in their total blood count than normal. These immune cells, if mutated could develop into the cancers: leukemia and lymphoma. They proposed the idea that if mustard gas could destroy normal white blood cells, perhaps it could destroy the cancerous ones as well. An experimental drug was formulated from the components found in mustard gas and animal trials commenced with successful results. There was hope in the war against cancer.

The first human volunteer for this experimental treatment was desperate. His jaw was deformed by a massive tumor, the swollen, cancerous lymph nodes in his arm pits were so large he was unable to cross his arms across his chest. He was given the new drug developed from mustard gas and with each treatment, began to see improvement. Unfortunately for this patient, the treatment was too late for this advanced stage of cancer. Nevertheless, the results were hopeful and exciting and the age of chemotherapy had begun. And so it was that a deadly agent of war was transformed into a life saving agent in the war against cancer.

Header Image:  Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor). Otto Dix, 1924

Research Notes – The Great War (7) The British Expeditionary Force

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the British were an unknown quantity. Their Liberal government was horrified at the prospect of war. The Germans were counting on that queasiness to overrule the British commitment to uphold Belgian neutrality as promised under the London Treaty of 1839. The German invasion of France, as dictated by The Schlieffen Plan, depended on the armies being able to swing south through Belgium. On August 2, 1914, Germany demanded right of passage for their troops to march through Belgium. The Belgians refused. The Germans came anyway and Belgium found itself at war.

The British responded by delivering an ultimatum. Germany ignored it. They had delivered their own ultimatum to Belgium, in which they promised to leave their territory upon cessation of hostilities and to make reparations for any damage caused by the troops. No one believed that for a minute. Belgian Premier Charles de Broqueville said, “If Germany is victorious, Belgium, whatever her attitude, will be annexed to the German Empire.”

German troops entered Belgium on August 3, 1914 and Britain declared war on August 4th. Britain would enter a war in which she had not been directly affronted. German Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke knew the British would enter the war with or without Belgian violation. He said, “[England] … fears German hegemony and true to her policy of maintaining a balance of power will do all she can to check the increase of German power.”

The B.E.F. – British Expeditionary Force had first been organized in 1907. Behind the scenes, an inner circle of the British government had made greater commitments to France in case of war than was widely known to the public. Nevertheless, the commitment to the cause was to be rather small: four infantry divisions plus cavalry and artillery; no more than 100,000 men. Compared to the 2 million invading Germans, this was a drop in the bucket. However, in the beginning, British involvement was as important for what it symbolized -allegiance with France- as for what it actually contributed. When asked the minimum number of British troops with which France would be content, the politician Georges Clemenceau famously replied, “One, and we shall take good care to get him killed.” The British plan largely consisted of falling in on the French left flank and following their lead.

By the time the B.E.F. reached position in Mauberge on August 20, the fighting was well under way. France’s offensive in Lorraine was in trouble and Belgium was being destroyed.