First World Warfare letters make clear Spanish flu that has parallels with COVID-19

Touched by the COVID-19 outbreak, Jacqueline Carmichael sifted through faded letters from WWI to mention the Spanish flu. She found haunting resemblances to today, when life was changed by the pandemic.

For the author, the paper-based exchange between soldiers and their families towards the end of the war, when the Spanish flu emerged over festivities, is particularly moving.

In her new book “Heard in the midst of arms: True stories from the Western Front, 1914-1918” she devoted a chapter to the parallels between the two pandemics.

After “curling up in depression” and watching friends on Netflix, she said she started revising her book after it had already been submitted.

The importance of the Spanish flu only made itself felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Carmichael, who lives in Port Alberni, BC

“We hear a pandemic and say, ‘Oh, I think I saw something about it at Downton Abbey,'” she said in a recent interview.

“But the fact is, this is exactly what our ancestors looked at 100 years ago.”

It was then that she realized that among the many ailments her grandfather George “Black Jack” Vokal suffered from during the war, what he called the flu was another name for the flu.

“I went through the letters again and looked specifically for signs of flu, flu and illnesses. Everything was in black and white with chewing gum. I just had to look at it differently.”

Her grandfather caught the flu while traveling from France to England on a troop ship called HMS Monas Queen, and described the experience in a letter dated March 24, 1919.

“We moved out of the harbor, laden with soldiers, laden to the Scuppers. The seas ran uphill and a storm as high as a man was blowing,” reads the letter on yellow, crumbling paper.

“I had a very bad dose of the flu and managed to get onto the second deck, wedged between two steam pipes, and never moved for the entire fourteen hours on board. A full three-quarters of the men were seasick.”

Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum, said it was difficult to find the exact number of soldiers who died from the flu. A medical history book gives 776, but that number is controversial and the actual death toll is believed to be much higher, he added.

The disease found its way across the country as the returning men traveled by train, he said.

“It really worked its way into every city, every town, almost every village in the country.”

Cook sees some obvious parallels between Spanish flu and COVID-19, such as closings of schools, theaters and churches, but also increased public health discussion.

One of the disease’s most important legacies was the creation of the Ministry of Health in 1919 in response to Spanish flu, he said.

Prof. Stephen Davies of Vancouver Island University, a historian who is also director of the Canadian Letters and Images Project, said evidence of the Spanish flu came from letters written in camps in England or France as soldiers after the illness in Canada asked.

“It’s just single lines scattered throughout the letters, but there isn’t anything substantial that focuses on the flu,” he said in an email. “You are well aware of this, however.”

A letter from William Stares dated July 21, 1918 described the symptoms of the flu.

“Severe headache, partial loss of legs, pain and fever,” it says. “For a week I just looked at the ceiling, counted the flies, worked out imaginary patterns on the paint, went through some of the battles again and (in my mind) killed the Germans by the thousands. The boy in the next bed thought about it more safely the bed. (Assuming I was insane) I laughed when he told me about it. “

Carmichael said the letters show that most of the spread came after Armistice Day because people couldn’t “hold back” to celebrate the end of the war with parties and parades.

“The armistice was a super-spreader event because these people were so crowded and of course as soon as they went home they were pushed into troop ships that further exposed them,” she said.

Soldier Robert Shortreed of Guelph, Ontario captured the mood in Paris in a letter written to his mother the day after the armistice describing roads that were “crazy with joy” and “impassable to humans.”

“It’s going to be almost as bad today. There are flags everywhere. The French way of showing their joy is to kiss everyone and few people escaped yesterday. Of course, the soldiers came in for their share.”

Carmichael read the letters mentioning the Spanish flu and said she felt “a different kind of empathy” towards soldiers and their families because they were dealing with something the world is going through.

“You could dodge the grenades, run between the bullets and somehow get through and still get knocked down by a virus,” she said.

“It was probably one of the greatest tragedies of the war.”

This Canadian press report was first published on November 6, 2020.

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