By Rosemary Bailey
This article was published in the August 2014 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society
In the autumn of 1918 the Great War was coming to an end, peace was edging closer and the future becoming more certain. But then a deadly disease erupted which killed more people worldwide than had died in the fighting: Spanish flu. The flu infected both the military and civilians alike and my grandmother Susanna Saul became a victim in November 1918. Those countries involved in the war were able to maintain morale by censoring the extent of the epidemic while in neutral Spain no such censoring took place. This is why the epidemic is known as Spanish flu.
Current estimates of the number who died as a result of Spanish flu are between 50-100 million people worldwide with 250,000 dying in Britain. The percentage of the population dying in each country varied – at one extreme in Samoa 20% of the population of 38,000 died within a two month period.
Most flu epidemics kill a higher proportion of young, elderly and already weak people, this one was different because it killed predominately young healthy adults. Those who recovered from the flu were often left depressed and some took their lives, and, it is reported, even those of their families.
Symptoms included fever, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headache, cough, sore throat, runny nose and breathing problems. In some cases there was massive swelling, bleeding and near-complete destruction of the surface cell layer of the lungs. Most deaths were from bacterial pneumonia, a secondary infection caused by influenza, but the virus also killed people directly. The cause of death for Susanna Saul is given as ‘influenza’ and ‘cardiac failure’, perhaps reflecting her age.
For the civilian population in Britain medical advice was scarce. Most doctors and nurses were still out at the front treating soldiers so medical care was for flu patients was minimal, in any case there were still wounded soldiers occupying hospital beds in Britain. Many people wore a small gauze mask made from three layers of butter muslin across the mouth to inhibit the virus. ‘Oxo’ was advertised as a good way of increasing nutrition and fortify the system.
At the height of the epidemic in London in October/November 1918, nearly 1,500 policemen, a third of the force were off work sick at the same time. Council office workers took off their suits and ties to dig graves. Coffins that had been stockpiled during the war were suddenly in short supply and factories that usually produced other goods started coffin manufacturing.
Many children were kept away from school by their frightened parents, and the children sang:
I had a little bird
Its name was Enza,
I opened the Window
And in-flew Enza.
When she contracted flu In November 1918 my great great grandmother Susanna Saul, neé Bassford was 87 and living in Rounds Green, Worcestershire. Her husband had died in 1898 aged 70 and I suspect she was living with one or more of her unmarried children, although her death was registered by her daughter Harriet Jones who was present at her death. Her husband, Thomas Saul, was the grandson of Peter Saul who moved from Banbury in Oxfordshire to rounds Green around 1800 probably in a response to increased industrialisation in the area.
So why was Susanna Saul a potential victim of WW1? In recent years a team of investigators at the Royal London Hospital led by virologist John Oxford have identified the huge troop staging and hospital camp in Etaples, France as being the centre of the 1918 flu epidemic. In the camp thousands of birds and pigs were kept for food and it is now known that flu viruses, when they jump between species, can become more virulent. As well as three large static hospitals, there were tens of thousands of men in transit through the camp at any one time: those on their way on home leave and those returning to their units after leave – perfect to spread the virus round the world. In addition usually less virulent strains of flu are favoured since those people with more virulent strains tend to stay at home and not pass it on. However during the war the seriously ill patients were shipped back home, taking the virus with them. So at Etaples there was a potential source of the virus and also the means for it to spread round the world.
To be fair there have been other theories as to the virus’ source, including the China or Kansas, but what is certain is that the unprecedented close quarters troop movement around the world because of the war caused the virus to spread globally.
So although not killed in the fighting, or by enemy action at home, or even while working in a war related industry she did die because of the war!