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Armistice 100: ‘Death and misery’ at home as the war guns fall silent

PUBLISHED: 07:30 10 November 2018

Hannah Mawdsley. Pic: Tim Stubbings/AHRC

Hannah Mawdsley. Pic: Tim Stubbings/AHRC

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On Armistice Day, 1918, men, women and children united to celebrate the war’s end, but the relieved crowds without meaning to helped spread a deadly disease.

A monster representing an influenza virus hitting a man over the head as he sits in his armchair. Pen and ink drawing by Ernest Noble, c. 1918. Pic: WELLCOME COLLECTIONA monster representing an influenza virus hitting a man over the head as he sits in his armchair. Pen and ink drawing by Ernest Noble, c. 1918. Pic: WELLCOME COLLECTION

The influenza pandemic of 1918 – known as the Spanish flu – infected about 500 million people around the world and is considered by some as one of the greatest medical catastrophes of the last century.

In Britain, 228,000 are believed to have died of it – according to the Wellcome Library – with an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide.

In east London, newspapers told story after story of families devastated by the disease, including that of Emily Partridge. The 40-year-old passed away at her brother John’s house in Butts Green, Hornchurch. He had already lost his 30-year-old wife to Spanish flu, according to the Barking, East Ham and Ilford Advertiser of November 16, 1918.

The November 9, 1918, edition of the Stratford Gazette reported 240 deaths that week alone in the old county of West Ham, risen from 100 for the previous seven days. In the former borough of East Ham, 134 people died, up from 67 the week before.

Hannah Mawdsley. Pic: Tim Stubbings/AHRCHannah Mawdsley. Pic: Tim Stubbings/AHRC

The case of Charles Daniels – an unemployed man who lived in lodgings in London Road, Plaistow – illustrates the speed with which the disease could kill.

His landlady told the inquest into his death that “a few days ago he seemed to have a slight cold” but by the weekend he was discovered dead in his room.

The gruesome symptoms saw some victims’ lungs fill with fluid, starving them of oxygen.

This was shown by a creeping blue colour starting at the toes, fingers, nose, ears or lips before spreading across the body. This was often a sign of a fatal case.

Advertisements for Oxo and Sanatogen which promote their products as a resistance to the influenza epidemic of 1918.Advertisements for Oxo and Sanatogen which promote their products as a resistance to the influenza epidemic of 1918.

Historians believe the disease spread to Britain from northern France, where it was known as “le grippe”, carried, some say, by returning soldiers.

Its peak in Britain came at the end of the war. By all accounts it was a hugely devastating disease.

But outside medical circles, it has largely been forgotten.

Hannah Mawdsley – a PhD history student at Queen Mary University of London – said: “The Spanish flu is particularly fascinating since people know relatively little about it, despite this worldwide impact and its profound impact on so many families.

“There are heartrending accounts of soldiers who had survived four years of war, only to be heading home and receiving the news their wives or family members had died before they could get back.”

And there were the soldiers who stayed in France to help demobilise troops, only to catch the flu and die before they could get home.

For her studies, Ms Mawdsley has been looking at a collection of letters held by the Imperial War Museum’s archives.

They were collected in the 1970s by the journalist and historian Richard Collier who placed newspaper adverts asking for readers’ memories of the Spanish flu. He received more than 1,700 responses.

One letter, sent by a Mrs E. McDonald, describes the deaths of her grandfather and cousin.

She watched in horror as they “died like flies” seeing victims taken in plain coffins to the cemetery by the lorryload. She was about 8-years-old at the time.

On its legacy, Ms Mawdsley said memory of the flu has been overshadowed by the First World War. However, it has never been forgotten in medical circles with public health reform following in the decades after its outbreak.

But as we remember those who died in the war, it is important not to forget this devastating disease.

“The armistice celebrations themselves helped spread the flu. Many places had closed schools and public venues to limit the disease’s spread,” 32-year-old Ms Mawdsley said.

“But when the peace was declared, people celebrated in mass crowds allowing the virus to spread easily.

“I found the contrast between the armistice – which should have been a time of relief and celebration – and the death and misery of the Spanish flu particularly striking.”

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