The Spanish Plague: Coffins, While Supplies Last


This is a story of a battle that killed anywhere from 20 to 50 million people. This is the story that possibly decided the end of World War One, a battle which was waged on every continent except for Antarctica. This is the story that was the Spanish Plague and the desperate but almost universally futile attempts to contain it.

The Spanish Flu, despite the misleading name was not started in Spain. It was first discovered in the trenches of France in the First World War. Among the toxic gases, artillery bombardments, and desperate attempts to gain ground, there was an illness brewing. It would rip through entire battalions leaving them weak and feverish. In its first wave, the plague was a severe but rarely fatal strain. Germany was planning a massive counterattack which was dependent on overwhelming manpower. As the German command readied themselves for the attack, it had to be delayed when the German Army contracted the flu. The German leaders delayed as long as they could but eventually had to attack. The attack was a failure. The flu was not the only reason the attack failed, but it was likely a major contributor. This was to be one of the last great offensive movements of the Germans during World War One.

In May of 1918, the flu spread to Madrid, Spain where news was less censored than in either America or England. This is where news of the flu finally broke and where the Spanish Flu got its name.

As troops began being sent back to their home countries, they brought the plague, but it wasn’t the mild strain of the flu that had been found in the trenches of Europe. this strain was a killer. Perhaps this new plague was a result of combining two strains of the flu. Perhaps it reacted with the mustard gas that was known to cause genetic mutation. We don’t know why it changed, but the important thing is that it did. It became highly contagious and extremely deadly, passing through shipping lanes and railroads. It could kill its victim in under 24 hours.

The flu didn’t just kill through fever, causing people to drown in their own bodies. Many coughed so hard it tore abdominal muscles. Miniscule tears could form in the lungs causing oxygen to leak out and gather under the skin. When nurses moved these patients, they crackled like Pop Rocks. Most of the afflicted were in the military, but the Army refused to halt troop movements as the Axis powers were nearly ready to crumble.

In Camp Grant, a doctor told the commander that the hospital was too overcrowded and would lead to the deaths of hundreds of men. Two weeks later Col. Charles B. Hagadorn was found dead from a self-inflicted pistol shot to the head. Moments before he had been informed that 500 men had died, and the trains used to transport troops from the camp had become plague trains.

It wasn’t any better on the civilian side where reports of the flu were still being suppressed, and in Philadelphia thousands flocked to the streets in support of the war effort in Europe. In several weeks the city would run out of coffins and wood to build them, forcing the dead to be buried two bodies deep in mass graves, if they were buried at all. The disease that children distilled it into a rhyme, “I had a little bird and its name was Enza, I opened up the window and in-flew-Enza.” Mortuaries had run out of space, forcing citizens to live with bodies in their houses. This was not unique to America, as all over the world the flu was being found and reported. There was no way of containment other than quarantine and there never would be. No vaccine was ever found.

In rural Alaska, where people still believed they were under the banner of the Russian Tsarist Empire, despite there being neither a Tsar or a Russian Empire, entire villages had to be burned to the ground by the U.S. Coast Guard as there was nothing left alive in them other than feral sled dogs who had been forced to eat the bodies of their owners to avoid starving. They didn’t know what country they were part of, but the flu had still found them.

In the South Pacific, twenty distinct languages were erased as all of the people who spoke them were killed by the plague.

Only one area of the world had no cases of the flu. American Samoa closed its borders when reports of the flu came to the next island over. Governor John Poyer sent a telegram to the island’s port workers: nothing in, nothing out, no exceptions. Shore patrols were formed to stop smuggling. American Samoa would continue this isolation until the last reports of the flu died down in 1920.

The flu would eventually break and the world would forget, but we can’t afford to forget. With the interconnectedness of the world today, an outbreak of this scale could be catastrophic. The 1918 Flu or the Spanish Plague killed people in the prime of their lives, in contrast to other earlier flus which killed the old and young. We need to observe our past to learn from it. When people think of plagues, they think of the Black Plague. They don’t think of the sickness that killed their grandparents’ siblings. This plague is less than a hundred years old, and in that amount of time, medical treatment has come a long way, but it is still not infallible. We must be willing to confront the fact that there could be a plague in our lifetimes and start preparing ourselves.

One hundred years is all it takes to forget. One hundred years ago Americans buried their dead in mass graves. One hundred years ago doctors were helpless against a disease. Last year the flu vaccine was 40% effective. What if in the future the doctors get it wrong – they are human. What if the vaccine is 0% effective and in that year the strain is deadly and contagious? We are a long ways from where we were 100 years ago, but we are far from safe. Maybe I’m wrong, and we’ll get lucky and nothing will ever come to pass. Then again, one day our luck may run out. Will we have enough coffins?