Not so long ago a letter came into my possession which continues last Sunday’s Weekly Postcard story. You might find it of interest.
Note the date, and don’t be fooled as I nearly was; this letter was sent from Camp Funston, a training camp at Fort Riley in Kansas, on 5th October 1918. The camp, built in the summer of 1917, comprised 1,400 buildings on a 2,000 acre site, and was still in operation into the 21st Century – the Military Transition Teams that operated in Iraq & Afghanistan were trained there – but its early history is a dark one, and perhaps casts a shadow across the next hundred years of its existence.
Historians will presumably continue to argue exactly where the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 first emerged – in France in 1916, Southeast Asia, perhaps, the following year, but a serious branch of research suggests that it originated on the wind-blown prairies of Haskell County in Kansas, where, in late January 1918, the County doctor first noted that the coughing, sneezing, illness that was infecting fit young Kansas farmers was ‘influenza of the severe type’ and appeared to affect young, strong and seemingly healthy people the worst. So concerned was he that he contacted the U.S. Public Health Service on the matter, a document that is now accepted to be the first recorded report in 1918 of unusual flu activity from anywhere in the world.
With America gearing up for war and the local Santa Fe newspaper reporting families and soldiers travelling to and from Haskell County and nearby Camp Funston, the largest training camp in America with some 50,000 soldiers undergoing training at any one time, on 4th March 1918 the first soldier reported ill with flu symptoms at the camp. Within a fortnight this had risen to over a thousand, necessitating the creation of temporary hospital wards (above) to deal with the influx, with many more sick confined to their barracks. Nonetheless, men still came and went, spreading the disease across most of the Army camps throughout the country, from where it spread through the local civilian populations and from there into the towns and cities……and yet by the end of April this wave of flu across the United States had apparently peaked and seemed to be on the wane, and across the seas there was an enemy to defeat, so let’s get on with it! At which point nobody was taking much notice of the soldiers still with flu-like symptoms who were being packed onto trains taking them not only to other camps, but to the major U. S. ports from where they, and the flu, would cram aboard ships heading for Europe. And once in Europe, well, to paraphrase the guy who runs the current museum at Fort Riley, ‘we gave the flu to our allies who gave it to our enemies’. And it’s interesting that the main French port used by the Americans arriving in France happened to be Brest. And which French port saw the first outbreaks of influenza in 1918? Brest. Coincidence? I think not.
But by autumn – sorry, fall – the flu had returned (with tragic irony, brought back to America by returning soldiers) and mutated, the strain now sweeping the United States, and the world, a far more virulent beast than that from earlier in the year. The above photographs show the memorial (and its creator) to flu victims of the 10th Sanitary Train at Fort Funston; I would guess the sanitary teams had a particularly hard time of it. Which brings us, at last, to the contents of the envelope, a letter documenting a brief moment in time during the outbreak:
Eight hundred hospitalised in a day, and the deaths of thirty seven men in one night. The Spanish Flu would mutate once again, the 1919 version so malevolent that initial symptoms and death could occur in a twenty-four hour period, or even less. And then it would disappear (or did it mutate yet again, and become that yearly thing that still claims lives each winter?*), leaving an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide. One wonders if Dan was among the 45,000 U.S. servicemen who had died from the flu by the end of 1918 – by comparison, 53,402 Americans were killed or died of wounds during the Great War.
*The current strain of influenza known as A/H1N1 that appeared in America, once again, in 2009, is so close, just eight amino-acids different, which I gather is minuscule, to the 1918 strain, that it’s scary. 99% of those 50 million deaths a hundred years ago were people under 65 years of age. I suggest we could do without a new flu pandemic at the current time.
And finally, if there are any scientists out there among you who know about such things, and if mass is finite, and if a dead virus still has mass, might this letter of mine have dead Spanish Flu virus on it? I think I should be told.