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The Battle of Georgia: A World At War with the Flu


Our guest post this week includes some family history from homeschooling blogger Carolyn VanGorkom of The Novel Historian, whose aim is "to collect stories, novels, dramas, audio, video and other resources that tell the story of our past in a way that engages students in their area of delight."

The Great War was far away and long forgotten in rural California, at least before the US got involved. That was the era when my grandfather, Jack, came of age. He wanted to learn scientific ways to improve the family farm, so he enrolled in California’s new University Farm. (That was a division of UC Berkeley in rural Davisville. It began teaching students in 1908. As you may have guessed, it became UC Davis in 1959.)

Jack wanted to apply new scientific methods to his family’s farm, among other studies. He even served a turn as editor of the school newspaper. But money was tight, and by January, 1918, he couldn’t afford to continue.

The Zen of Airplane Maintenance

Studying WWI Biplane
Image credit: Library of Congress

The US had entered the War a year before, so Jack joined the army.  He trained as an aircraft mechanic in St. Louis.   (Farmers are good repairmen.  I remember Grandpa was always handy at whatever needed fixing.)  He received a bronze medal for graduating highest in his class. 

Grandpa Jack,
in uniform

Sent to Georgia as a crew chief, he was soon promoted to corporal in a machine gun unit.  While training on the aircraft, Jack got the scare of a lifetime.  The pilot turned off their engine midair!  (Thankfully, he turned it back on.  It was all part of their training exercise.)

Training complete, his squadron was ready for deployment when the flu struck. Hard. Jack was confined to his pup tent, and his meals were dropped off outside. The squadron left without him. Those weeks he spent recuperating are what Grandpa always called “The Battle of Georgia.” It was only one front in a viral war raging across the nation and the world.

Flu Epidemic of 1918

I had a little bird, and its name was Enza.

I opened the window, and in-flew-Enza.

Jump-Rope Rhyme from 1918

The first US case of influenza was reported at a military base in Kansas in the spring.  That wasn’t cause for headlines, at least at the time, because the flu has been a regular visitor to our shores since time immemorial.  What made this unusual was the season:  influenza generally peaks in the winter.  Worse, it was the first of three waves of illness: spring, fall and winter.

And that’s not all.  People who got sick in the first round were the lucky ones.  It left them immune to the second, more deadly wave.  Older adults also seemed to have some immunity to the so-called Spanish Flu, probably because the Russian Flu had been the flu du jour from 1889 to about 1900.  Kids born in that interval (like my Grandpa Jack) hadn’t been exposed to the 1918 virus.

On the Origin of (Germ) Species

Scientists have long debated where the pandemic started.  The military base in Kansas?  A field hospital in France?  Spain, like the name implies?  One researcher points to a respiratory illness reported in Northern China in 1917.  Chinese officials later identified it as being identical to the worldwide outbreak soon after.  That source may seem far-fetched, until you consider this little-reported snippet of history.

Route of Chinese labor corps

You see, the British and French high commands were desperate for more manpower, so they formed the Chinese Labor Corps.  Their job was to free up trained soldiers for the front lines.  Sailing around Africa would tie up the shipping lanes, and it would put the ships in harm’s way.  The war was raging in the African Theater as well.

Instead, they brought the Chinese workers across the Pacific by ship, then across Canada by rail, and back to ships across the Atlantic.  Whew!  That’s a trip worthy of Phileas Fogg

Problem is, the viral outbreak in China was in full force, and some of those workers came down with it on the trip.  They were kept in strict quarantine for the trip, but the hospital in France recorded hundreds of deaths once they arrived in early 1918.  While nothing is definite, it seems likely that the spring wave of the flu outbreak started there.

Now, I want to be perfectly clear, I’m not blaming ANYONE for what happened next.  Germ theory was just gaining acceptance.  Louis Pasteur did his famous experiments in the 1850s.  Even in the American Civil War, doctors still resisted even the basic measure of washing hands between patients.  And with the advent of the Great War, where people moved around the world like never before, it was only a matter of time before a pandemic emerged.

The Spanish Flu and Armistice  

The flu devastated both sides in the war, military and civilian.  The death toll from fighting was around 17 million.  The flu claimed at least three times as many lives.  Statistics show that it may have hit the Central Powers even harder and earlier than it hit the Allies. Entire fleets and platoons fell ill.  Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918.  It could be argued peace came because both sides were too sick to fight.

By the way, Spain’s only contribution was the name of the flu.  Blame that on the media.  You see, wartime censors refused to let newspapers report on the massive number of deaths from the flu.  Average flu seasons might kill one person in a thousand.  This flu killed up to 5% of its victims; that’s fifty per thousand!  Wartime morale was low enough, thank you very much, so don’t print bad news! 

Spain, however, was under no such obligation.  It was a neutral party in this war, so its newspapers reported the news.  (Astonishing, right?)  The rest of the media reported as if Spain were the only place with an epidemic, and the “Spanish Flu” was born.

The media also was focused on reporting about the war.  That eclipsed local coverage of the flu.  Public health departments issued gauze masks, and local governments employed quarantines.  But for the most part, the flu was a personal battle, waged by families or by individuals like Grandpa Jack.

The Home Front

Armistice was declared before Jack could deploy to Europe.  After his private battle with the flu, he was discharged and sent home.  He arrived in December, 1918, just in time for Christmas.  But no one was celebrating.

Grandpa Jack on Tractor
Grandpa Jack plowing the
family farm

The flu had invaded the family farm in California, shortly before Jack arrived.  His mom had been caring for his dad and all three sisters, along with a visiting relative who holed up in her room.  (She wouldn’t come out for fear of catching the flu.)  None of the animals had been fed or watered for three days.  His mom met Jack at the door with a bucket and sent him to milk the cow. 

Grandpa Jack worked until sundown doing neglected farm chores.  And I’m sure if anyone asked him then, “Who won the Battle of Georgia,” he would have answered, “The Flu.”

Great Aunt Verna
Great Aunt Verna

Post Script:  There was hardly a family that didn’t know someone who died in the Flu Epidemic of 1918.  Ours is no exception.  This article is dedicated to Jack’s sister, who had lingering health issues from the flu’s high fever.  It later claimed her life. 

Rest in Peace, Great-Aunt Verna!

Photos used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Copyright 2017 by Carolyn VanGorkom of The Novel Historian.

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