In the winter of 1917, rumors began to reach Whitehall. Communiques from field hospitals all across the Western Front converged on the desks of the war office. Surgeons were reporting a strange new disease already ravaging recovery wards in the rear, precipitating strings of deaths from recovering casualties, whom the royal army medical corps had previously classified as ‘recovering’ or ‘non-critical’. At Etaples, twenty miles from the front, thousands of men were treated each week, sent rear following the spike in enemy chemical attacks. The most common and disproportionately present injuries at Etaples were respiratory-related, owing to the lack of effective standard issue field respirators or gas masks.
In one sector two years prior, German artillery had fired over 140 tons of chlorine gas shells into the allied line, causing thousands of casualties to infantry and non-infantry types with no mitigatory measures in place. Many critical aid stations were processing troops with fluid-filled lungs and then sending them to overcrowded recovery wards in the rear at places like Etaples. Evacuation to British hospitals with better care and sanitation proved perilous owing to undiscriminating U-boat patrols in the channel, known to fire upon hospital ships (famously the HMHS Britannic in 1916). As the war entered terminal stages, casualties in the rear only grew and this strange new disease, still relatively unaddressed by military cadre was beginning to spread. The Poultry slaughterhouses and Piggeries of Ypres, still supplying the withdrawing British forces, have been pointed to as the most likely possible source, and the crowded recovery wards of the rear, ripe with respiratory injuries provided the ideal environment for the beginnings of one of the worlds’ worst pandemics.
In the spring of 1919, troop transports, crowded far beyond recommended capacity, set off from France. Aboard were American soldiers, seeking passage 3000 miles to the Eastern seaboard. Unknowingly, men who had endured the horrors and disgust of the trenches now became paramount in aiding a new silent enemy. As over one million men now state-side, began to return home to their homes all across America, The Spanish Flu began to kill.
The killing was as merciless as the machine-gun fire at Vimy ridge, as gruesome as the persistent slaughter at Gallipoli, as senseless as the killing fields of the Somme. In the United States, 675,000 men, women and children perished, more than the entirety of the Civil War sixty years prior. Worldwide, from London, to Berlin, to Bombay, over 50 million people would die, murdered by a pandemic ignored from the outset.
As I look at COVID-19, I cannot help but don my historical pince-nez. I hear with great frequency that we are in the midst of ‘unprecedented’ times, insinuating that there is no protocol or instruction manual for how to prevail in these circumstances.
In honesty, I see this as not only untrue but ultimately detrimental to the driving impetus of society. History has proven that through hardship, humanity finds a way to redirect toward the path of progress. Our ability to survive tragedy is one of the many reasons we have continued to advance in all respects as ‘intelligent’ life. The ‘Spanish’ Flu as it was known then, ravaged communities world-wide, took loved ones indiscriminately, many already condemned to life-long hardship, many who had already been forced to grapple with loss in the Great War.
I imagine that in 1920, the world felt much the same as we do now. Perhaps the worst mechanized conflict man had ever conceived had just ended at an unfathomable cost, and now as it appeared as though ‘greener pastures’ were in sight, a new, biological war beckoned on a truly global battlefield.
And yet in spite of this, the roaring twenties; progress, cultural development and economic recovery (albeit retrospectively short-lived) testified to humanity’s willingness to endure.
For a while now, I have been fascinated with Franklin Roosevelt. Here was a bright, on-the-rise politician who already breached the political sphere as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the same office held by his cousin (Theodore Roosevelt) 25 years earlier. The word in Washington was that Franklin was destined to reach the same presidential heights as Theodore.
Then, one evening in the summer of 1921 at his vacation home in Campobello, he goes to bed early with a headache and fever. By the evening of the next day he is fully paralyzed beneath the chest. In those days no one was really familiar with Infantile Paralysis (Polio as we now know it), and this energetic outdoorsman, a man who sought peace in sailing and walking in the woods, would be forced to grapple with the prospect of indefinite paralysis with no foreseeable cure.
And yet, he never relinquishes hope. He convinces himself that he will be able to walk again one day and claws his way back to his trajectory of greatness. For the entirety of his life, he saw the loss of his mobility as a purposeful exercise in order to humble him from his position of privilege.
In solidarity with others, he established the famous camp Warm Springs and gave hope to thousands of other polio patients all while simultaneously becoming a household name revered by Republicans and Democrats alike, synonymous with hope in the face of uncertainty. Roosevelt always maintained that he would not have been able to deal with the hardship of a depression and a war without first confronting personal hardship, personal struggle.
Out of history we can derive fundamental truths. Perhaps they are individual or perhaps they relate to our behaviors as a wider society. Whatever facet we choose to focus on, we can definitively say that out of hardship comes suffering but out of hardship also comes strength, and out of strength comes self betterment. Imagine living in London in 1666 and the entire city has been eradicated by a fire out of Dante’s inferno the year after this terrifying resurgence of the black plague. Londoners should have seen this as the end of life as they knew it, disease, loss of property, loss of infrastructure.
And yet by 1670, everyone had their eyes set on making a better city, a modern metropolis to last generations, inspired by loss and hardship. The locality of the analogy of London is important because it testifies to the very ground we walk on every day, the very places we call home were all effectively formed out of a tragedy. Let our fundamental historical truth reflect that of generations of ancestors. Existence is fragile and spontaneous but our legacy need not be. Whatever historical analogy we choose to look to we must remember that destruction may exist in ample quantity but so, ultimately does perseverance.