I’m avoiding the pandemic coverage. Once you understand what you can/should do, it seems needlessly depressing to continue to watch the coverage. But earlier today, I heard part of a radio interview with an epidemiologist, i.e., a person who studies disease. She said that most people in her field believe that there is a devastating pandemic about every 100 years and gave some frightening numbers that represent the worst case scenario.

She talked a little about the Spanish flu, and how the scale could be about the same with COVID-19. And it’s right on time: the Spanish Flu ravaged the earth from 1918-1920. It made me wonder about the parallels between then and now. I’d like to figure out a few categories (like socializing, working, etc.) and compare human behavior between then and now. There must be something we could reach back and seize to use today. Or some mistake that was made that we could examine and avoid.

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One hundred years ago this month, President Woodrow Wilson plunged the United States into World War One.

Wilson’s choice to push for war still baffles scholars and historians.  U.S. interests were not at risk, and the country still felt a strong aversion to dealings with other countries. Influential citizens like Henry Ford and feminist Jane Addams were vocally opposed to American participation. The war had been raging in Europe for three years already, at a terrific cost in human lives.

The atrocities of the war and the German torpedo attack on the Lusitania created an opening with the public. So Wilson, the scholar from Columbia, South Carolina, thrust America into the war at the eleventh hour.

The duration of the war, post-American entry, was 18 months. A year and a half is not a long time, in terms of world history. But it was obvious from the start that Wilson’s decision to urge Congress to declare war was momentous. 53,402 soldiers were killed. Americans were shocked when 63,000 soldiers returned home, with limbs missing, suffering the after-effects of mustard gas, and trembling from shell shock. Even those who managed to survive the war were not exactly the same when they returned home from the Western Front.

Library of Congress

Worldwide, over 17 million people died in the conflict. And as the war was ending, the Spanish flu pandemic was taking hold. The casualties inflicted by the Influenza Pandemic dwarfed those of the Great War. Estimates are broad, but between 25 million – 40 million people died of influenza between 1918 – 1919.

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During the latter half of the 1910s, the world was plunged into an era of misery.

World War I (1914 – 1918) destroyed life and property on a massive scale.

The Battle of the Somme, 1916, one of the largest battles
Battle of the Somme

65 million people joined the fight, despite grim survival odds. A World War I soldier stood a roughly 50/50 chance of returning home alive, with their physical health intact:

  • Est. 9.5 million troops killed (roughly the combined populations of present-day Denmark and Morocco)
  • Est. 21 million troops injured
  • Est. 6.5 million civilians killed during the war (roughly the combined populations of present-day Switzerland and Chile)
No Man's Land
No Man’s Land on the French front

Those lucky enough to survive the conflict and return home were rarely unscathed: missing eyes and limbs were very common, as were burns. Yet shell shock – the significant psychological reaction to the terrors of the front – was not considered to be an injury and is excluded from statistics.

 

gas mask
The gas mask, patent 1914, protected soldiers from mustard gas

Soldiers who suffered from shell shock often did not receive the treatment they needed because the problem was not understood – even by most doctors. This short, disturbing video highlights the plight of men returning from the front with this terrible problem.

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