La grande guerre et la grande grippe: War and Influenza

The Great War and the great flu of 1918.

It was supposed to be the “war to end all wars”.

“The Great War, as it was initially known, was indeed global, involving 20 countries on five continents. Yet today, among most Americans, the war is only vaguely recalled…obscured by a war that preceded it and one that followed it, the Civil War and World War II.”  Quote from the Dedication to Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour, by Joseph E. Persico.

Dedicated to all those who lost their lives…..

Armistice Day 1918

Armistice Day 1918

The Great War (1914-1918) bought devastation to all who were impacted by the battles in France and the enormous carnage that ensued. Contributing to the devastation was the pandemic influenza of 1918 where more people around the world died from the Great Influenza (la grande grippe) than those who were casualties of The Great War’s battles. In 1918, millions of people were sick with what we now know was an influenza virus.  The great influenza pandemic of 1918-19, often called the Spanish flu, caused about 50 million deaths worldwide; far more than the deaths from combat casualties in World War One (1914-18). In fact, it may have killed between 3% and 6% of the global population.

73rd Infantry at Camp Devens 1918

My father in law William L’Heureux is in the front row 3rd soldier left of center in the 73rd Infantry Regiment. (L’Heureux photograph)

My father in law’s life was impacted by both the war and the influenza. In fact, William L’Heureux was drafted under the Selective Service Act of 1917 and went to Camp Devens, Massachusetts, where he prepared to be sent to France to fight with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Due to the influenza, his unit, the 73rd Infantry in 1918, was prevented from being deployed because too many soldiers were ill and dying from influenza.  At the time, little was known about this disease. It was described as a being a fierce pneumonia.

I learned about this historic convergence of The Great War and The Great Influenza, after reading the book, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” by John M. Barry. My father in law hardly spoke about his experiences when he was at Camp Devens, except to say “a lot of men were sick”.  But the number of deaths at the Camp, in 1918, were extraordinary. A letter reprinted in the March 15, 2009,Bangor Daily News from Pvt. Clifton H. Skillings of Ripley, Maine, provided a first person description of  the men who were sick. Pvt. Skillings of Ripley B Company 73rd Infantry, 12th division wrote to his family, “Lots of the boys are sick and in the hospital. It is a disease. Some [thing] like the Gripp. Some have been pretty sick.”

Perry reported, in his history of the pandemic, how the infection was certainly no ordinary pneumonia.

In fact, the epidemic at Camp Devens exploded. Notes from a physician named Dr. Roy Grist, one of many that were reported in Barry’s history, is quoted, “These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of LaGrippe or Influenza, and when brought to the (hospital) they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen.” Tragically, men began to die at the rate of 100 per day.

Obviously, my father in law was spared in this devastating mortality rate. By the time the 73rd was ready to leave for France, the Armistice was declared. Church bells rang throughout France, Europe and around the world on the eleventh  day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour, when the Treaty of Versailles, titled the “Treaty of Peace”, was signed.  Yes, peace was supposed to be restored. Nevertheless, as we know today, that was not to be long lasting because, in 1939, the aggression resumed when the Nazi government launched a Second World War.

Certainly, my family’s destiny was tied to William’s survival during his enlistment in the 73rd and, obviously, because he somehow survived from among the many men who were sick.

Bells of Peace World War I

Bells of Peace will ring on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour to remember the Centennial of the end of World War I.

This November 11, 2018 is a very special Veterans Day. Many places will be ringing “Bells of Peace” on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour to mark the Centennial of the day when the world believed there would be no more wars.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.