“Some of the battles we fought with General Flu were as tough as anything the real game could have had in store for us.” –John Remick, 401st Ponton Park
Over 100 thousand American soldiers died during World War I. Of those fatalities, about half (an estimated 43 to 57 thousand) were the result not of battle but of Spanish influenza, a deadly form of the flu that killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1920.
World War I made the Spanish flu more widespread and virulent than it might have otherwise been, because of the huge movement of troops and because of the close proximity of the soldiers to each other. Plus, the soldiers’ immune systems were often weakened due to malnutrition and the stress of war.
In many cases, the flu struck troops before they even got to Europe, with many contracting the illness while still onboard the transport ships. In the close confines of a ship, the flu would spread so rapidly that the sick bay, filled past capacity with men “in tiers as high as the ceiling,” couldn’t contain all the patients. So the hundreds of infected soldiers were placed on the promenade deck or, when the weather was too rough for that, anywhere there was spare room—including stair landings.
Many soldiers who contracted the flu on the ships recovered from their battle against General Flu, but burials at sea were sadly still a common sight. The following is 2nd Lieut. August Barreau’s account of the flu epidemic onboard a ship:
Find more first-hand accounts of the World War I Spanish flu epidemic in Fold3’s WWI Officer Experience Reports-AEF.