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From the Trenches of Europe to the World, The Spanish Flu

Updated: Jan 29

Written by Ardil Ulucay

The year 1918 witnessed two catastrophic forces that changed the course of history - the end of World War I and the emergence of the Spanish flu. This pandemic was caused by the influenza A H1N1 virus and had a devastating impact on the world, surpassing even the death toll of the war. It was truly the first modern pandemic humanity had to deal with. In the end, over 21 million people lost their lives, some sources even say it’s higher than 100 million.

Chapter I: What is the Spanish Flu?

Influenza, a viral infection caused by various strains of the influenza virus, has perennially haunted humanity. The Spanish flu, a strain caused by the H1N1 virus, likely originated in birds, utilizing them as hosts before making its leap to humans. The airborne transmission mechanism enabled the virus to swiftly traverse the globe, culminating in a pandemic that gripped the world. The novel nature of the H1N1 virus left populations vulnerable, devoid of any pre-existing immunity to the disease. As soldiers on the front lines of World War I were living in cramped and unsanitary conditions, they unwittingly became carriers, propelling the virus across continents. The crowded military camps acted as crucibles, where the virus mutated and gained potency, setting the stage for a global catastrophe [2, 5].

Chapter ll: Why Did The Virus Spread So Rapidly?

The Spanish flu's assault unfolded in waves, with the first wave appearing seemingly mild in early March 1918. However, as soldiers returned home, a more lethal strain emerged, with August 1918 marking the full-blown onset of the pandemic. Pneumonia, a swift and often fatal consequence, manifested quickly, leading to death within days of the flu's first indications. The third wave struck in the subsequent winter, with an unusual mortality age pattern – about half the deaths occurred among individuals aged 20 to 40. As the virus swept across the globe, outbreaks occurred in almost every inhabited part of the world. From densely populated urban areas to the remote reaches of Alaska, no corner remained untouched. In India alone, an estimated 12.5 million succumbed to the virus, while the United States witnessed a staggering 550,000 deaths. The flu, in its second and third waves, unleashed a brutality that overwhelmed healthcare systems, creating shortages of coffins, morticians, and gravediggers [6, 2].

Chapter III: Symptoms

The symptoms of the Spanish flu mirrored those of typical influenza but with a deadly twist. Victims experienced a sudden, sometimes high fever, dry cough, headache, body aches, sore throat, chills, runny nose, loss of appetite, and extreme fatigue. However, the virus's exceptional ability to copy itself and infect the lungs set it apart. Healthy adults, usually resilient to influenza, found themselves at the mercy of this ruthless strain. Beyond the physical symptoms, the pandemic plunged communities into despair. Healthy adults, often the backbone of societies, succumbed alongside the vulnerable. Pregnant women faced disproportionate risks, leaving orphaned children in their wake. The healthcare system, already strained by the war, buckled under the weight of the pandemic. Nurses, many with minimal experience, faced the heart-wrenching task of caring for the afflicted, sometimes finding a husband dead in the same room where his wife lay with newborn twins.

The Spanish flu of 1918, like any bad dream, was forgotten. One percent of the world succumbed to this pandemic, and yet nobody talks about it anymore. But it’s still out there, lurking in the annals of history, reminding us of the fragility of human existence and the resilience required to face unforeseen adversaries [3, 2}.



  1. Purple death: The great flu of 1918. (n.d.). PAHO/WHO | Pan American Health Organization.

  2. Spanish flu: What is it, causes, symptoms & pandemic. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic.

  3. Influenza pandemic of 1918–19 | Cause, origin, & spread. (1998, July 20). Encyclopedia Britannica.

  4. The influenza epidemic of 1918. (n.d.). National Archives |.

  5. The 1918 influenza pandemic. (n.d.). virus.

  6. Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. (2023, December 12). Historic UK.


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