the spanish flu foils the germans -- 6/30/20

Today's selection -- from The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. It may have been the Spanish flu that undermined the Germans' last great attempt at an offensive in 1918. That flu, which became the world's deadliest pandemic, likely started in Kansas and came to Europe with America's entry into World War I:

"The first unusual outbreaks in Europe occurred in Brest in early April, where American troops disembarked. In Brest itself, a French naval command was suddenly crippled. And from Brest the disease did spread, and quickly, in concentric circles.

"Still, although many got sick, these outbreaks were, like those in the United States, generally mild. Troops were temporarily debilitated, then recovered. For example, an epidemic erupted near Chaumont involving U.S. troops and civilians: of 172 marines guarding headquarters there, most fell ill and fifty-four required hospitalization -- but all of them recovered.

"The first appearance in the French army came April 10. Influenza struck Paris in late April, and at about the same time the disease reached Italy. In the British army the first cases occurred in mid-April; then the disease exploded. In May the British First Army alone suffered 36,473 hospital admissions and tens of thousands of less serious cases. In the Second Army, a British report noted, 'At the end of May it appeared with great violence .... The numbers affected were very great. ... A brigade of artillery had one-third of its strength taken ill within forty-eight hours, and in the brigade ammunition column only fifteen men were available for duty one day out of a strength of 145.' The British Third Army suffered equally. In June troops returning from the Continent introduced the disease into England.

A French trench at Verdun in 1916. The Spanish flu was able to spread quickly due to trench warfare used in World War I.
Trenches were often cold, rat-infested, filled with lice, and muddy.

"But again the complications were few and nearly all the troops recovered. The only serious concern -- and it was serious indeed -- was that the disease would undermine the troops' ability to fight.

"That seemed the case in the German army. German troops in the field suffered sharp outbreaks beginning in late April. By then German commander Erich von Ludendorff had also begun his last great offensive -- Germany's last real chance to win the war.

"The German offensive made great initial gains. From near the front lines Harvey Cushing, Halsted's protege, recorded the German advance in his diary: 'They have broken clean through .... ' 'The general situation is far from reassuring .... 11 P.M. The flow of men from the retreating Front keeps up.' 'Haig's most disquieting Order to the Army ... ends as follows: "With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind depend alike upon the conduct of every one of us at this moment."'

"But then Cushing noted, 'The expected third phase of the great German offensive gets put off from day to day.' 'When the next offensive will come off no one knows. It probably won't be long postponed: I gather that the epidemic of grippe which hit us rather hard in Flanders also hit the Boche worse, and this may have caused the delay.'

"Ludendorff himself blamed influenza for the loss of initiative and the ultimate failure of the offensive: 'It was a grievous business having to listen every morning to the chiefs of staff's recital of the number of influenza cases, and their complaints about the weakness of their troops.'

"Influenza may have crippled his attack, stripped his forces of fighting men. Or Ludendorff may have simply seized upon it as an excuse. British, French, and American troops were all suffering from the disease themselves, and Ludendorff was not one to accept blame when he could place it elsewhere."



John M. Barry


The Great Influenza


Penguin Group


Copyright John M. Barry, 2004, 2005


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