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The Greats Wine Flu Epidemic Of 1918
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
The millions of Americans sick and the tens of thousands dead affected both the civilian and the military war effort, which of course went on despite rumors of an imminent armistice. Massive absenteeism slowed production at shipyards and arsenals. As early as September 27 the New York Times had reported: “Influenza Stops Flow to the Camps of Drafted Men.” Orders for 142,000 men scheduled to report for induction the following week were canceled, since draft officials were understandably reluctant to pump manpower into the hothouses of infection that the army camps had become. In the first week of October 16,000 military men were stricken, and troopships headed for France became floating pestholes. In the American Expeditionary Force roughly one out of every three soldiers with influenza died, far worse odds than a man faced in battle. Among some army units influenza mortality reached 80 per cent.
The raging course of this pestilence posed a cruel dilemma for the nation’s Commander in Chief. On the evening of October 8 Woodrow Wilson met with the army chief of staff, gruff, able General Peyton March.
“General March,” Wilson said, “I have had representations made to me, by men whose ability and patriotism are unquestioned, that I should stop the shipment of men to France until the epidemic of influenza is under control.” March was well aware that at embarkation ports where 300,000 troops were being sent through monthly, the death rate among the sick had reached ao per cent. To pack soldiers into troopships, both men knew, was to pass a death sentence on thousands of them.
But the epidemic was siphoning off manpower at both ends of the military pipeline; all told, 70,000 A.E.F. doughboys were now sick. Their commander, General “Black Jack” Pershing, pleaded desperately for replacements. American troops were winning the battle of the Meuse-Argonne against the Germans in their sector, despite over 150,000 down with influenza. Were they to lose it now to a germ? Wilson had to weigh the effect of a troop cutoff on Pershing’s staying power.
One additional and critical factor had to figure in Wilson’s decision. A few days before the conference with General March, Max, prince of Baden, imperial chancellor of Germany, had appealed to Wilson for an armistice. The enemy finally seemed to be cracking. Wilson had to estimate the effect on the enemy’s faltering will to fight should the Germans suddenly learn that the pressure was off, that the flow of American replacements had ceased.
Of course, the flu struck both sides with a harsh neutrality. General Ludendorff dreaded the dreary morning recitals by his chiefs of staff of the latest count of troops felled by the disease. Many German companies were down to fifty rifles, and the plague was obviously sapping the strength of Germany’s army and its people. Civilian and military deaths from the epidemic were moving toward a quarter of a million. But all this was reason for the Allies not to relent, but to tighten the screws on their staggering foe.
Wilson is reported to have said: “They tell me you decline to stop the shipments.” March replied: “Every such soldier who has died [from influenza] has just as surely played his part as his comrade who has died in France. The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause.”
The President thought gravely about it and finally agreed with March to keep the troops going. Then, just as March was about to leave, Wilson’s eyes brightened, and the general was astonished to hear the President of the United States recite:
Children were spouting the same rhyme all over America that grim fall.
In the face of unremitting devastation, the ineffectual correctives went on: the arrests for spitting and coughing, the use of face masks, the prohibitions on public gatherings, and the desperate cures—inhalation of chloroform fumes, removal of tonsils, even the extraction of teeth. In Louisiana the presumed medicinal properties of Scotch whisky drove the price up to twenty dollars a quart. In New York City the telephone company pleaded with people to limit calls to urgent matters, since the epidemic had not only loaded the circuits with many genuine emergencies but had at the same time decimated the ranks of telephone operators.
There was no reluctance to tie influenza to the Great War. Evangelist Billy Sunday exhorted his flock: “We can meet here tonight and pray down an epidemic just as well as we can pray down a German victory. The whole thing is a part of their propaganda; it started over there in Spain, where they scattered germs around … there’s nothing short of hell they haven’t stooped to since the war began.”