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Was winning the war enough to fight the real enemy of 1918?

Dying and the Dead module

The first of a series of guest posts from students on 'Death, Dying and the Dead', an MA history module at the University of Leeds. This post, by Katie Cain, focuses on newspaper reactions to the flu pandemic of 1918-19.

It’s 1918, and whilst the country was on the cusp of victory, another deadly war was only beginning. This time, the enemy is invisible and spares nothing, and nobody, in its path of destruction.

Whilst the country was preoccupied with the pressing issue of the Great War, a silent killer was emerging on the shores of Spain. Its presence was trickling through towards the British Isles yet had scarcely been mentioned by the British media. The topic itself remained buried within bodies of text for some time, absent of concern or interest. This disinterest, disguised beneath a ‘brave face’ or the valiant stiff upper lip, is historically recognised to be catastrophic as it led to the subsequent unpreparedness of the country in the face of disease.

Image of nurse wearing face mask with instructions on preventing flu spreading

An article taken from the Illustrated Current News, in 1918, an America newspaper published in New Haven. British newspapers featured similar messages. From the US National Library of Medicine.

It is difficult, in hindsight, to imagine a time where British medical authorities were unfazed by what later emerged as a huge public health emergency. This is perhaps due to our own experience with the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year. Although circumstances appear similar, Britain was different in almost every way. During our own modern-day pandemic, we looked towards Public Health England for guidance, support and coordination. In 1918, however, the British government had not yet established this branch of government. To make matters worse, the country had been left depleted by the four-year long war. Remnants of the war, including economic hardship and the mourning of loved ones, continued despite its conclusion and presented further difficulties such as maintaining and replenishing national morale. Britain was credited with demonstrating strong home front morale throughout the war and attributed this as a key to their success.

As I described above, the disease’s descent on Britain was initially a slow burn, creeping up seemingly unsuspectingly through the spring, but by the autumn its effects, and the country’s subsequent complacency, had resulted in deadly consequences. By this point, the public were unable to remain purely positive in the face of such an extreme public health emergency. By the autumn of 1918, an estimated 250,000 deaths had occurred. At this point, the media had began to fulfil its duty in reporting on the pandemic’s progression:

At the worst peaks, bodies in Manchester went as much as two weeks without burial, and soldiers had to be pressed into service as grave diggers and coffin makers

The arrival, descent and eventual devastation of the pandemic’s journey was charted and recorded within British newspapers. Newspapers were the predominant form of media communication in a world before technological advancements occurred such as distribution of personal radios, television access or even further down the line, the creation of the internet. As sources, they are invaluable to us as historians. As a collection, they help identify specific places and technology used to fight back against the pandemic. We are also able to infer some understanding of how the public thought and felt through the analysis of language. However, some information isn’t as telling as we might have initially hoped. Initially, newspapers purposefully began a campaign of stoicism in order to maintain nationwide morale in the face of the pandemic. This was done in numerous ways including the control of information, the omission of information they believed to invoke unnecessarily negative responses, and the amplification of success stories. This began with newspapers’ supposed unbothered attitude at the beginning, and followed with positive, balanced periodic updates.

On Tuesday 22nd October, the Daily Mail’s medical correspondent began their routine entry into the newspaper with the conclusion “there is very little new to be said on the treatment of influenza”. This in itself is telling of the slow progress made in the understanding of influenza as the pandemic advanced. Advice remained firmly in the realm of prevention, with little pointing towards a cure. The only long-term advice hovered tentatively around prognosis, with a firm focus on hesitant positivism. This hesitant positivism can be explained a little better as stoicism. Stoicism is described as endurance through hardship without displaying feelings, suffering or without complaint. This was a practice adopted thoroughly within, and towards the end of the war, and ensured morale remained high. Not only was morale considered a vital weapon in winning the war, it was clearly viewed as one of the bravest forces against influenza.

The hesitant advice was also indicative of a lack of scientific knowledge or understanding, something journalists were keen to disguise. They did so by implementing tentative language, or confirming what they did know profusely to distract from what they did not. This is particularly evident in the following: “No one who can help it should go into crowds where people are coughing and sneezing. We know, now, that this is the way influenza is spread”. This short extract is actually important for a number of reasons. The first, is the way the inclusion of the word ‘now’. It indicates to us regret, or perhaps evidence of a lesson learnt in a difficult way. This we know to be true, as scientists grappled with understanding the way influenza was spreading so rapidly, lives were lost at an alarming rate. This leads us to the second important point, understanding the transmission of influenza was a groundbreaking discovery in itself. This made crucial progress into understanding what the causes of the disease may be. Understanding the origins of a disease, then and now, remains key to understanding and curtailing the destruction of viruses.

It is clear even the media reached a point during the pandemic whereby stoicism reached its expiration date. Its overly positive attitude had served an initial purpose, and their fierce refusal to panic or sensationalise was loyal to their original goal. Yet it is clear as the pandemic intensified, and the second wave captured more lives, that stringent advice and words of warning were finally required. Newspapers swiftly replaced falsified optimism with simple advice, packed with imperatives, urging serious precautions to be taken. They instructed the public to remain vigilant in crowds, cover their face and mouth and to take immediately to their bed at the immediate sign of illness to prevent transmission with others:

It is no exaggeration to say that half the people who die directly or indirectly from influenza owe their fate to the imprudence of fighting the disease

The influenza pandemic of 1918 shaped Britain in many ways and unknowingly prepared us for the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2019. As many argue, history is prone to repeating itself, so it will be interesting to see the way in which COVID-19 will be immortalised, and whether the media, in its many contemporary mediums, will echo these principles of the past.


For further academic reading on this subject area, I highly recommend you read the following:

Michael Bresalier – Uses of a Pandemic: Forging Identities of Influenza and Virus Research in Interwar Britain

Fred R. Van Hartesveldt – The Doctors and the ‘Flu’: The British Medical Profession’s Response to the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19

Mark Honigsbaum – Regulating the 1918-19 Pandemic: Flu, Stocisim and the Northcliffe Press

Sandra Tomkins – The Failure of Expertise: Public Health Policy in Britain During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic