When you have your flu jab this winter consider the effects of the flu one hundred years ago.[Image: VAD Nurses in Birmingham 1915 90,000 volunteers worked at home and abroad in World War One.]
Katherine Old writes:
Bertha Larner served as a nurse in world war one from 29th June 1918 until her death on 28th October 1918. Bertha died of influenza during the most serious epidemic of any disease in history.
The pandemic of 1918-19 effected every continent and killed over 50 million people worldwide; in Britain alone 228,000 people died. To put this into perspective, 16 million people died worldwide as a direct result of world war one, meaning that this influenza pandemic killed over three times the amount of people in just a single year. As an army nurse in 1918, it is likely that Bertha treated more patients with influenza than with injuries from battle. Unfortunately, antibiotics had not yet been invented and most of the ‘treatment’ of influenza was simply taking care of those who were ill until they recovered or passed away; one nurse reported that her duties for influenza patients included:
“fix ice packs, feed them at [meal] time, rub their back or chest with camphorated sweet oil, [and] make egg-nogs”
The pandemic was nicknamed ‘Spanish Influenza’ because the first reported cases were in Spain. Although historians largely debate where the pandemic actually originated from, with arguments ranging from China to America to France, the reporting of cases in Spanish media largely contributed to the nickname. During WW1, countries including Britain, France, Germany and the United States enforced ‘media blackouts’ on any news which could lower the morale of the country. This meant these countries did not report cases on influenza, whilst Spain – who remained neutral in WW1 – did not have a blackout and so regularly reported cases of influenza.
Although not directly caused by the war, the cramped and unhygienic conditions of the front line trenches allowed the disease to spread easily and quickly and it is believed that soldiers returning home from the front lines brought the outbreak to the UK, spreading it through the railways 4. The disease affected the young and the healthy, with those between 20 and 30 years old – like Bertha – particularly affected. Her position as nurse made Bertha even more vulnerable to contracting the deadly disease.
Bertha lived in Balsall Heath and died aged 25, buried in Lodge Hill Cemetery with a War Graves Commission grave stone.
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