John's real-time WW1 blog: Killer flu virus arrives in Market Harborough under the cloak of a news blackout

Patients being treated for flu during the pandemic
Patients being treated for flu during the pandemic

October 15, 1918...

By October 1918 millions of people had died from a flu pandemic ravaging the world – but you would never have realised as a reader of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

A cartoon commenting on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire's (Turkey's) war efforts in October 1918

A cartoon commenting on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire's (Turkey's) war efforts in October 1918

Like so many newspapers around the country – both local and national – no-one was talking about the world’s most deadly illness which eventually went on to take the lives of an estimated 50 million people.

However, there is a clue in the October 15, 1918, edition of the Advertiser that the killer virus has come to Market Harborough.

Suspicions are raised, not in the editorial columns or public service notices, but in the classified death notices. Normally there is only one, or perhaps two, listings of people who have passed away: this week there are six.

A sneak look at the next couple of issues sees a similar number dying each week. Although there is still no mention they have died of flu it is reasonable to assume the spike in deaths is because of the pandemic.

John Dilley

John Dilley

When the Armistice is announced in mid-November the number of names in the classified death notices balloons to more than 20: it is only then that the Advertiser carries editorial stories about the virus.

The reason for the silence is explained in a brilliant documentary currently available on BBC iPlayer called The Flu that Killed 50 Million. It is also succinctly summarised by The History Press website which says ‘censors minimised reports of illness and mortality to maintain morale during wartime’.

The news blackout did not stop people knowing about the general threat although they would not have known the details.

The ‘bird flu’ is thought to have begun on March 4, 1918, at a farm in Kansas, USA, where a soon-to-be conscripted teenager contracts the virus from livestock.

He passes on the virus to fellow soldiers at a huge training camp in his home state and by the end of the month 1,100 have come down with the flu: 38 of them die.

Infected soldiers carry the virus on troop ships to France and by April thousands of soldiers are falling ill. By the middle of the month 20,000,000 are infected and 20,000 have died.

Inevitably the flu is carried by infected soldiers going home on leave – to England and other warring countries including Germany – and by June it is estimated 130 million are suffering in America and Western Europe and 200,000 have died.

Its deadly effects are felt in neutral Spain where it is openly reported in newspapers, unlike the clampdown on journalists in those countries involved in the war. This leads to the virus being erroneously dubbed the Spanish Flu.

It appears that tiny Market Harborough escapes the ravages of the illness – until October.

The vice-like grip of the censor is relaxed elsewhere in the Advertiser with news that Private W Robinson of Market Harborough ‘is having a fairly decent time’ as a German prisoner of war.

His family had been worried as Robinson was initially reported as ‘missing’, but the welcome news of his capture is announced in a letter.

He says: “No doubt by the time this reaches you, you will have heard that ‘I’m missing’ and will be feeling anxious. Well you have no cause to worry about me in the least as I am a prisoner of war and up to now am having a fairly decent time, I shall want a few things sending out but not until I send for them.”

There is not such good news for the family of Second Lieutenant A P Baldwin who had also been reported ‘missing’. He has now been officially declared as ‘killed in action’.

The now customary two-page War Supplement adds weight to the Advertiser and there is once again a cartoon poking fun at Kaiser Wilhelm – this time lauding the success of General Allenby in capturing Palestine from the Turks.

And there is also one amazing story about two RAF pilots who were saved from certain death – by a pigeon!

Apparently, their plane ran into trouble just five miles off the northern coast of Scotland as it searched for German submarines.

The story says: “Realising their peril the officer released a pigeon at four o’ clock. The bird carried an urgent message asking for help. At 4.22pm it reached its loft having travelled 22 miles in 22 minutes.

“Assistance was sent immediately. When the relief party arrived the airmen were clinging to the wreckage of the machine which was rapidly breaking up.”

Caption: This is the emergency hospital at Camp Funston training camp in Kansas, where the flu pandemic was first triggered

- This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.

- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.

- Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.