Saturday, March 28, 2020

1918 Spanish flu and WWI deaths

I just began Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, and as it happened during my researching “The Spanish Flu,” I ran across the following in Wikipedia:

“This increased severity has been attributed to the circumstances of the First World War.[95] In civilian life, natural selection favors 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. The second wave began, and the flu quickly spread around the world again. Consequently, during modern pandemics, health officials pay attention when the virus reaches places with social upheaval (looking for deadlier strains of the virus).

And, “Academic Andrew Price-Smith has made the argument that the virus helped tip the balance of power in the latter days of the war towards the Allied cause. He provides data that the viral waves hit the Central Powers before the Allied powers and that both morbidity and mortality in Germany and Austria were considerably higher than in Britain and France.”

And, “Also, the outbreak coincided with the deaths and media focus on the First World War.[126] Another explanation involves the age group affected by the disease. The majority of fatalities, from both the war and the epidemic, were among young adults. The number of war-related deaths of young adults may have overshadowed the deaths caused by flu.[85]
“When people read the obituaries, they saw the war or postwar deaths and the deaths from the influenza side by side. Particularly in Europe, where the war's toll was high, the flu may not have had a tremendous psychological impact or may have seemed an extension of the war's tragedies.[85] The duration of the pandemic and the war could have also played a role. The disease would usually only affect a particular area for a month before leaving. The war, however, had initially been expected to end quickly but lasted for four years by the time the pandemic struck.”

COMMENT:  Over the years, I’ve read of World War I and attributed the huge number of British deaths to the ineptitude and insensitivity of General Haig.  Now we know that the Spanish flu played a significant role.  How large a role perhaps no one is prepared to guess.  But the large death toll of all the participants (and all were affected by the Spanish Flu) induced many, especially in France and Britain to become pacifists, unilaterally intending to not go to war and to handle all military threats by negotiation.  Seeing these two nations, as well as the Isolationist U.S. as militarily weak, Germany and Japan saw their chance and pounced.   I can’t recall the statistics but my impression is that the total deaths of WWII far exceeded those in WWI.  

All the historians I’ve read on the subject assert that had it not been for WWI, there would have been no WWII.  But perhaps we could also say that had it not been for the Spanish flu, the death tolls among British and French soldiers in WWI would not have been so outrageously high.  Perhaps the numbers would have been reasonable enough to prevent the large numbers of important British and French politicians from becoming pacifists. 

The U.S. wasn’t overtly pacifistic after WWI, but by returning to their prewar isolationism, what they became was similar.  They returned to George Washington’s advice, “avoid foreign wars,” they saw no need to maintain a large army.  Roosevelt had a background with the Navy and saw to it that it was larger and more potent than many realized, and did engage in “lend lease” in order to supply weapons to Britain and the USSR, but the picture the U.S. presented to both Germany and Japan was that of a militarily weak nation that could be taken advantage of.  

“Yes, the U.S. has the ships of a potent Navy,” Yamamoto argued, “but we can wipe out most of it, especially the carriers at Pearl Harbor.  I have a plan to do that.”  He had a good plan, but the carriers didn’t happen to be at Pearl Harbor when he carried it out.  “Not to worry,” he thought.  “They aren’t a military nation.  We can sink their carriers later on. . . long before they can change their impressive industrial system into a war machine.”

There were lots of misunderstandings rising out of World War One.  We Americans, British and Russians have learned from the mistakes of WWI and WWII and now practice the old adage, Si vis pacem, para bellum. . . at least so far. 

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