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War + communicable disease = the greatest pandemic ever known
July 31, 2014 4:30 PM   Subscribe

The Great War helped create the influenza pandemic of 1918, which eventually brought an early end to the Great War. "I had a little bird, Its name was Enza.  I opened the window, And in-flu-enza. ~ Children's Skipping Rhyme, 1918"
posted by Dashy (14 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Perhaps it's arguable that WWI helped create the influenze pandemic, but there's no way the pandemic contributed to ending the war. Sorry, didn't happen that way.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:50 PM on July 31 [3 favorites]


I thought this bit from Wikipedia apposite to that point, Chocolate Pickle:
In civilian life, natural selection favours a mild strain. Those who get very ill stay home, and those mildly ill continue with their lives, preferentially spreading the mild strain. In the trenches, natural selection was reversed. Soldiers with a mild strain stayed where they were, while the severely ill were sent on crowded trains to crowded field hospitals, spreading the deadlier virus.

Given that an estimated 1 million German troops were hors de combat due to the flu (the timing of this is unclear, but given a 25% and up infection rate overall it is not hard to believe), combined with likely similar civilian rates of illness and mortality, can easily be compared to the ravages of total warfare. Serendipitously, perhaps, this was during the phase in which the US entered the war, and Russia had largely departed, the latter of which you'd have thought would make it easier for Germany to continue. I don't think it's a stretch to suggest the pandemic had a hand in things.
posted by dhartung at 5:13 PM on July 31 [5 favorites]


Germany lost because of a collapse of morale. After the failure of the spring offensive, strategic victory became impossible, but defeat wasn't inevitable. However, mass surrenders started to take it's toll in a way battlefield losses never did. Too many German fighting men just have up. (Put another way, they lost in the fall of 1918 because they didn't win in the spring of 1918).

Illness could have certainly contributed to this loss of morale; it's been argued that the flu's morbidity and mortality were higher in Germany.
posted by spaltavian at 6:05 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]


Until the last 60 years or so, it's always been the case that the majority of casualties on all sides in war was caused by disease. For instance, a Union soldier in the Civil War was far more likely to die of disease than he was to die of a Confederate bullet.

WWI wasn't particularly unusual in that regard. The 1918 influenza may have increased that somewhat, but it's always been a factor and the generals knew it and made their plans based on it.

That didn't really start changing for the US, at least, until the Korean War, and most of the rest of the world learned from that, too.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:17 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]


Until the last 60 years or so, it's always been the case that the majority of casualties on all sides in war was caused by disease. For instance, a Union soldier in the Civil War was far more likely to die of disease than he was to die of a Confederate bullet.

But that wasn't necessarily true of civilians in those wars. I'm not suggesting the flu killed so many men Germany couldn't continue to field enough soldiers. But if Germans, civilian and solider alike, were getting hit disproportionately harder by the flu shortly after the failure of the Spring Offensive, that could have contributed to the collapse of the willingness to keep fighting.
posted by spaltavian at 6:25 PM on July 31


Spaltavian, what you're saying is "It's not inconceivable". Which is true. It could have happened that way -- but it didn't happen that way. Sorry, but it just didn't.

Influenza may well have caused huge casualties in the home front, but nothing like what Allied bombing of German cities did in WWII, and those casualties didn't cause Germany to quit. Nor, for instance, did the horrific levels of civilian casualties suffered by the USSR during WWII. Civilian casualties don't generally cause that kind of political change in authoritarian regimes.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:45 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]


I have recently said this elsewhere, but the Armistice of 1918 and the Paris Peace Treaty didn't even bring an end to WWI. It brought an end to the conflict between Germany and the Western Powers, and certainly the horrible trench warfare of northern France and Flanders, but fighting continued elsewhere until at least 1923.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:45 PM on July 31


Until the last 60 years or so, it's always been the case that the majority of casualties on all sides in war was caused by disease.

The 1918 flu had extraordinary mortality in the age bracket of soldiers.
posted by Dashy at 7:01 PM on July 31


WWI wasn't particularly unusual in that regard. The 1918 influenza may have increased that somewhat, but it's always been a factor and the generals knew it and made their plans based on it

World War I was actually the first mass conflict where combat produced a higher mortality rate than disease. I believe that, at least in Germany, by far the biggest killer of civilians in WWI was famine.
posted by absalom at 7:25 PM on July 31


My masters in history was focused on the First World War. Influenza did not end it early. First off, monocausal explanations for anything in history are usually very, very wrong. Second, Germany flat out lost on the battlefield and was running out of soldiers long before the pandemic hit.

Second, do not learn military history from a biologist. Everyone in a particular area of study is convinced that their area of study explains everything. It does not.

Third, the idea that there is a specific time when something was supposed" to have ended is ahistorical. Things end when they end.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:25 PM on July 31 [4 favorites]


"In the trenches, natural selection was reversed. Soldiers with a mild strain stayed where they were, while the severely ill were sent on crowded trains to crowded field hospitals, spreading the deadlier virus."

And then I notice this in the sidebar on the Guardian page...yikes.
posted by Fuzzypumper at 7:57 PM on July 31


I once worked for a parish church in Texas. One of my duties was to record births and deaths so I had access to historical records back to the middle of the 19th century. The rise in deaths in 1918 and 1919 attributed to "flu", especially amongst children and young adults, was startling. And then, just as quickly, it disappeared from the records thereafter...
posted by jim in austin at 5:03 AM on August 1


One of the unforgettable experiences of my life was hearing an elderly relative describe how, as a young child, she'd caught influenza in 1918 and been rushed to hospital in a horse-drawn ambulance. (Having survived the flu, she then lived to be nearly 100.) She could still remember the sound of the horse's hooves on the cobbles.

While we're remembering the influenza pandemic, let's not forget its little cousin, the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1916-28: slightly less deadly, but, if possible, even more terrifying. Given the choice between drowning in your own body fluids within hours, or being locked in a coma for decades, I think I'd go for the influenza.
posted by verstegan at 6:31 AM on August 1


I thought the First World War didn't end in 1918; it just took a 20 year halftime break to rebuild troop levels before launching into the 3rd quarter when Germany invaded Poland.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:39 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


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