Armistice 100: The deadly disease that brought misery after the guns fell silent

PUBLISHED: 09:00 10 November 2018

Hannah Mawdsley. Pic: Tim Stubbings/AHRC

Hannah Mawdsley. Pic: Tim Stubbings/AHRC


On Armistice Day, 1918, men, women and children united to celebrate the war’s end, but the relieved crowds without meaning to had helped spread a deadly disease.

A monster representing an influenza virus hitting a man over the head as he sits in his armchair. Pen and ink drawing by Ernest Noble, c. 1918. Pic: WELLCOME COLLECTIONA monster representing an influenza virus hitting a man over the head as he sits in his armchair. Pen and ink drawing by Ernest Noble, c. 1918. Pic: WELLCOME COLLECTION

The influenza pandemic of 1918 – known as the Spanish flu – infected about 500 million people around the world and is considered by many as one of the greatest medical catastrophes of the last century.

In Britain, 228,000 are believed to have died of it according to the Wellcome Library with an estimated 50million deaths worldwide.

In Bromley and Bexley newspapers there were weekly reports of influenza deaths.

Anne Batcock, 66, and her son Fred, 28, of Erith Road, Bexleyheath, were just two who succumbed, their deaths reported in the Bexleyheath and District Observer in November 1918.

Mother and son were buried together in Crayford in “a very touching” funeral ceremony, the paper stated.

Frederick Thomas Parker, of Adelaide Road, Chislehurst, died four days after Armistice Day on November 15, 1918 at the age of 29. He left behind a wife and three-year-old son.

There were announcements in the press calling for calm, but these were prompted by feelings of fear and panic.

Dr Frederick Toogood, a Lewisham pathologist, at the time described cases where inflammation of the lungs spread rapidly, but that bleeding from the nose was a good symptom.

A Dr Farthing urged sufferers to get to bed and keep warm and avoid crowded rooms.

Further advice included boiling handkerchiefs and burning tissues.

The gruesome symptoms saw some victims’ lungs fill with fluid starving them of oxygen.

This was shown by a creeping blue colour starting at the toes, fingers, nose, ears or lips before spreading over the whole body. It was usually a sign of a fatal case.

Historians believe the disease spread to Britain from northern France, where it was known as “le grippe”, carried by returning soldiers.

Its peak in Britain came at the end of the war. By all accounts it was a hugely devastating disease.

But outside medical circles, it has largely been forgotten.

Hannah Mawdsley – a PhD history student at Queen Mary University of London – said: “The Spanish flu is particularly fascinating since people know relatively little about it, despite this worldwide impact and its profound impact on so many families.

“There are heartrending accounts of soldiers who had survived four years of war, only to be heading home and receiving the news their wives or family members had died before they could get back.”

And there were the soldiers who stayed in France to help demobilise troops, only to catch the flu and die before they could get home.

For her studies, Ms Mawdsley has been looking at a collection of letters held by the Imperial War Museum’s archives.

They were collected in the 1970s by the journalist and historian Richard Collier who placed newspaper adverts asking for readers’ memories of the Spanish flu. He received more than 1,700 responses.

One letter, sent by a Mrs E. McDonald from Bromley, describes the deaths of her grandfather and cousin.

She watched in horror as they “died like flies” seeing victims taken in plain coffins to the cemetery by the lorryload. She was about 8-years-old at the time.

“The armistice celebrations themselves helped spread the flu. Many places had closed schools and public venues to limit the disease’s spread,” Ms Mawdsley, 32, said.

“But when the peace was declared, people celebrated in mass crowds allowing the virus to spread easily.

“I found the contrast between the armistice – which should have been a time of relief and celebration – and the death and misery of the Spanish flu particularly striking.”

On its legacy, Ms Mawdsley said memory of the flu has been overshadowed by the First World War.

However, it was never forgotten in medical circles with public health reform following in the decades after its outbreak.

But as we remember those who died in the war, it is important not to forget this devastating disease.

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