The War and the Influenza Pandemic

As the war still raged on the Western Front in the spring of 1918, a new threat appeared, one as deadly as the war itself. An influenza virus originated in the farm country of Haskell County, Kansas only a few miles from Camp Funston, one of the largest Army training camps in the nation. Labeled H1N1 by medical researchers working for the United States Public Health Service, the virus spread like a wildfire as disparate populations were brought together and then returned home, from the heartland to the coasts and then in consecutive waves around the world. The second wave was a mutated strain of the virus even deadlier than the first. The new virus struck down those in the prime of their lives: a disproportionate amount of the influenza victims were between the ages of 18 and 35 years old.

Between March and May 1918, fourteen of the largest American military training camps reported outbreaks of influenza. Some of the infected soldiers carried the virus on troop transports to France. By September 1918 influenza had spread to all training camps in the United States before mutating into its deadlier version. In Europe, influenza attacked both sides of soldiers on the Western Front. The “Spanish Influenza,” or the “Spanish Lady,” abruptly misnamed due to accounts of the disease that appeared in newspapers in neutral and uncensored Spain, resulted in the untimely deaths of an estimated fifty million people worldwide. Public health reports from the Surgeon General of the Army revealed that while 227,000 soldiers were hospitalized from wounds received in battle, almost half a million suffered from deadly influenza. The worst part of the epidemic struck during the height of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the fall of 1918 and compromised the combat capabilities of the American and German armies. During the war more soldiers died from influenza than combat. The pandemic continued to spread after the Armistice before finally fading in the early 1920s. To date, no cure exists for the H1N1 influenza virus.