“And Then Came Devens”….. la grande guerre et la grande grippe: War and Influenza

Camp Devens Massachusetts:  The Great War and The Great Influenza

Camp Devens Massachusetts

“And then came Devens”, Chapter 16, in “The Great Influenza”, by John M. Barry.

A blog about the Great Influenza pandemic came to mind while I was participating in planning about how to respond to a scheduled exhibit in Lewiston, ME, about Franco-American entrepreneurs, that was unexpectedly caught up in the coronavirus epidemic. Unfortunately, the wonderful exhibit opening, planned by the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College (USM LAC), scheduled for Thursday March 19, has been postponed as the community response to the virus includes social distancing.  The program, with the wine and cheese reception will be rescheduled for another time.  But, protecting the public is rightfully first and foremost on the mind of everyone who has been involved, especially the planners led by Doris Bonneau, a member of the Franco-American Collection Board of Directors.

The current pandemic brought to mind the blog I posted in 2018, about William L’Heureux, my father in law, who was stationed at Camp Devens, Massachusetts in 1918, during the Great Influenza described by Barry.

A century ago, the world did not know how to respond to viral epidemics because the infectious organism had not yet been specifically identified.  On November 9, 2018, I wrote about how my father in law was an Army recruit at Camp Devens, when influenza infected the camp.  Here is a link to that blog: November 9, 2018 Franco-American News and Culture 73rd Infantry Regiment.

Camp Devens 1918

William L’Heureux center front row in 1918, at Camp Devens.

In his book, “The Great Influenza- The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History“, the author John M. Barry wrote an entire chapter about the devastation caused by influenza in 1918, at Camp Devens.  My father in law was there.  Although he never spoke much about the devastation, he acknowledged that his deployment to fight in France with the 73rd Infantry was delayed and then cancelled because, “too many were sick”, he said.  My husband’s family knew nothing about their father’s experience until I happened to read about it in Barry’s book. What my father in law witnessed in 1918, was a an immersion in the greatest pandemic of the 20th century when 50 million people died, one fifth of the world’s population at that time.

Here is how Barry described the situation that my father in law witnessed, reported in a few excerpts published in Chapter sixteen:

On September 3, a civilian suffering from influenza was admitted to Boston City Hospital. On September 4, students at the Navy Radio School at Harvard, in Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston, fell ill.

“And then came Devens” (p. 184-187)

Camp Devens sat on five thousand acres in rolling hills thirty-five miles northwest of Boston.  Like most other camps, it had suffered from measles and pneumonia. The medical staff was first rate. In fact, the Devens medical staff was so good that preparations were being made to rely on it to launch major new medical investigations, like trying to determine an explanation for the far higher morbidity rates of pneumonia among blacks over whites.

But, a week before any reported illness was reported in Boston, the public health authorities were worried.  “A sudden and very significant increase was reported in the third week of August in the cases presenting with pneumonia at Camp Devens.  In just a few days, organizations began reporting cases of influenza-like disease.  The medical staff, as good as it was, did not at first connect these various cases to each other or to the outbreak in Boston.  However, the influenza cases suddenly exploded.  In a single day, 1,543 Camp Devens soldiers reported ill with influenza.  On September 22, 1918, 19.6 percent of the entire camp was on sick report and almost 75 percent of those had been hospitalized. The Red Cross became overwhelmed.  This was no ordinary pneumonia.  Dr. Roy Grist, one of the army physicians, wrote, “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.”

Dr. William Henry Welch wrote, “This must be some new kind of infection or plague”.

Camp Devens had been struck by surprise (page 210-211). The physicians quickly learned that preventing the disease from spreading was helped by having the patients and staff wear surgical masks.  They also determined that crowding increased the spread and they recommended increasing the space between beds in the barracks.

Eventually, training for war at the military camp ceased and, instead, the men were consumed with attending, in one way or another, with the care for the sick.

Obviously, my father-in-law survived the epidemic.  He was a few years older than most of the young recruits who suffered the very high mortality rate. He was born in 1892, and perhaps he had developed some immunity to influenza during another, less reported outbreak, during the late 19th century.

What The Great Influenza teaches us, especially when family histories are attached to the pandemic, is that infectious diseases continue to plague the human condition and we must always be diligent about how to prevent them from spreading.

Assuredly, medical scientists are going to learn a lot about the coronavirus as the infection will be studied and a vaccine will eventually be developed to prevent another pandemic.  Nevertheless, recall how the French proverb has survived generations:  plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Those who deny medical science and pandemic history are doomed to repeat it.

Protecting the public is rightfully the first and foremost consideration on everyone’s mind when the planning committee for Notre Pain Quotidien: Franco-American Entrepreneurs Sustaining Community exhibit made the decision to postpone the March 19, opening reception.  Another program with wine and cheese reception will be scheduled at a later date, at USM LAC.

USM LAC Notre Pain Quotidien: Franco-American Entrepreneurs Sustaining Community

Notre Pain Quotidien: Franco-American Entrepreneurs Sustaining Community exhibit invitation. The progarm and opening reception is postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic preparedness.

Meanwhile, the exhibit is free and open to the public in the USM LAC atrium, through September, 2020.

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.