The Pandemic and the War

A ship sailing on rough seas

Troopships: The Vessels of Infection 

The Great War was a conflict which gripped the globe like none before it, the global empires clashed internationally with their armies and navies traversing the continents and seas all in the name of victory. The large number of troops and materials needed to wage this global war were transported chiefly by the sea aboard large vessels, either dedicated transports or converted ocean liners. The conditions aboard these vessels were by no means comfortable, the large amount of military personnel and equipment aboard often meant that the vessels were quite cramped. These conditions along with the movement of these ships across the seas meant that the troopships became key breeding and spreading grounds for Spanish Influenza near the end of the war. 

Image: Olympic with Returned Soldiers by Arthur Lismer, retrieved:

The ravaging spread of the virus aboard the globetrotting military vessels is documented in one instance by a soldier aboard the New Zealand transport, HMNZT Tahiti which had made port in several locations including Australia and South Africa later joining a convoy in Sierra Leone which had an outbreak of the flu aboard the ship. Aboard the vessel a rifleman recorded much of the events which transpired within his diary here is a excerpt which provides some insight to the spread and effects of the virus aboard military transports: 

Fine day and sea like glass. Quite a gloom was cast round the cabin as soon as we were up when three deaths were reported on board. The burials took place at 11am and there were 4 burials. The Colonel read the service and it was quite a touching scene. This afternoon two more burials took place and there is another death. The other ships are also busy with burials. One of the deaths is our Clarionette player in the band and a beautiful player he was too. The strange thing about this sickness is that the big strong men seem to get it the worst and are the ones that die. One of the deaths is namesake of myself I hear. Today was mess orderly again. Was also able to eat a bit today and feel much better.” (Source: Jennifer A. Summers, “Pandemic Influenza Outbreak on a Troopship–Diary of a Soldier in 1918.” Emerging infectious diseases 18, no. 11 (2012): 1900–1903.)

The HMNZT Tahiti had an estimated cumulative morbidity rate of 90% and a cumulative death rate of 68.9 cases per 1000. This instance of outbreak illustrates the wildfire effect of the virus aboard troopships, the very same troopships which were offloading sick or infected personnel across the globe.

Image: Diary of a soldier of the 40th reinforcements NZEF aboard the HMNZT Tahiti, Source: Jennifer A. Summers, “Pandemic Influenza Outbreak on a Troopship–Diary of a Soldier in 1918.” Emerging infectious diseases 18, no. 11 (2012): 1900–1903.

Image: Interior of a Hospital Tent, John Singer Sargent, 1918. Accessed:

The Outbreak of the Flu at War’s End

The outbreak of the Spanish Flu coincided with the final years of the Great War, as such the flu affected and was affected by many of the key events within the latter stages of the conflict. The rapid global spread of the flu can be chiefly attributed to the vast movements of military personnel and labourers across the globe in support of their respective countries’ war efforts. The aforementioned troopships were a primary vessel of global spread, transporting infected soldiers across the seas and dispatching them into foreign lands, exacerbating the spread of the influenza. However, the spread of the virus was by no means limited to just military personnel, the movement of labour further played a central role in the spread of the disease. The advent of war meant that many nations had devoted much of their young male populations to soldiering, labour power was still required on the front so many nations, including Great Britain and France began importing temporary workers, many of these workers came from China as part of the Chinese Labour Corp.

While it remains debated whether or not the flu originated from the Asian continent it is undoubted that the vast movement of labour movement during the latter stages of the war played a central role in the spread of the virus across the globe. 

The Flu, which was spread in a large part by the war would further have an effect upon the conflict itself. For example the German Kaiserschlacht offensive in the spring of 1918 was plagued with a multitude of issues, however one of these issues was the sickness which had spread through the ranks of the Imperial German Army, this meant that many troops which partook in the offensive were knocked out for weeks on end due to infection. This affected the effectiveness of the German offensive. 

The entrance of the United States into the war in April of 1917 meant that over the last year of the conflict AEF troops would be arriving in mainland Europe by the thousands.  During this time, an estimated 20% to 40% of American soldiers were infected with the Spanish flu, this, along with the virus’s high mortality rate lead to over 45,000 deaths. This greatly affected the war effort, even those who survived the Flu were still unable to fight, thousands of soldiers were kept in military treatment facilities.

Overall the interaction between the Great War and the Spanish Flu outbreak cannot be understated, both events were impacted by each other the flu played a key role in the effectiveness of units and the War exacerbated the infection rates and range of the flu. 

Image: American Infantry Advancing with Tanks by George Matthews Harding, Retrieved:

Image: Newspaper clipping from October 5, 1918. “Not Getting any Worse”. Retrieved:

War and the Spanish Flu Locally

There were many cases of the Spanish Flu within the military bases in the Niagara Region and surrounding areas. Camp Niagara was a military base in Niagara that got hit with the disease. An article, “Few New Cases at Niagara Camp”, talks about the slow growth of cases, along with a bit of info about the quarantine put in place (See Figure 1). Other newspaper articles from the 1918-1919 show cases of the disease not only in Camp Niagara but throughout Toronto and Hamilton as well. In Toronto the R.A.F.  had to deal with illness in its ranks as well. In one such newspaper, health officials thought that cases were getting better, when in reality people were not reporting themselves ill (See Figure 2). It also talked about the rate of recovery, and preventative measures to help stay safe from the disease. All of this local news had an effect on both the warfront and the homefront. The ill soldiers, as well as the quarantine affected the warfront in that the soldiers who could be fighting the war were ill with the Flu. The homefront was affected by the paper publishing articles about the ill soldiers. The articles are meant to quell the fear from the masses, by letting them know that soldiers were recovering and the number of cases was not increasing.

Image: Victims of the Spanish flu, Fort Collins, Colorado, 1918. Retrieved:

World War 1 played a big role in the spread of the Spanish Flu, the U.S. military was moving thousands of troops onto the battlefield, often in very crowded conditions, it’s no wonder that a deadly virus would thrive in these conditions. Due to these circumstances, the Spanish Flu was able to spread all across Europe, soldiers on every side were affected the exact same way. Because of limited resources and medical knowledge, no one was able to contain the spread effectively. Although the statistics vary from source to source, there is one statistic everybody agrees on, more soldiers died from the Spanish flu than they did from combat.

War and the Spanish Flu Globally

World War One was affected by the Spanish Flu pandemic globally as well. There was an overall  lack of media coverage for the pandemic, leaving people scared and confused. The Spanish Flu was actually given its name for the reason that Spain was neutral, and had publications about the virus early on in the pandemic. Many medical journals from other countries, including the British Medical Journal, wrote articles about the disease. Most of these played down the real deadliness of the virus, brushing it off as nothing to worry about. Newspapers also played a role in letting people know what was really happening. As well wartime and pandemic propaganda played a role in the publication and news of the Spanish Flu, both on the homefront and the warfront. An example of this was used for the product Bovril. They depicted the disease as the wartime enemy attacking homeland soldiers in these posters to attempt to sell the product. This along with the publication of newspapers and medical journals can all be seen as a type of biopolitics surrounding both the war and the pandemic.  

Worldwide, the disease affected many, spreading through 3 phases. These waves were caused by the movement of troops as well as other goods. This spread globally, and affected the warfront. The close proximity of men in trenches only exacerbated the rapid spread of the virus. There were camps in Britain, Poland and Germany with reports of rising numbers in the newspapers. With death in these camps, there were power shifts and exchanges within their ranks. For example, a newspaper described the struggle to fill the role of a captain who fell ill in a Polish camp. These struggles led to leadership issues and confusion with lower ranking soldiers. As well, in German forces were completely crippled by the disease. The lack of leadership and overall manpower led to an abandonment on the front. This, at least in part, led to Germany’s eventual loss of the war.   

HIST1P50 is grateful to Co-Operative Education and Work Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada for its support of this project. We are also indebted to our community partners, the St. Catharines and Welland Canal Museum, The Niagara Falls History Museum, the Lincoln Museum, and the Nelles Manor Museum. Thanks also to the Co-Op Office at Brock University.

All content created by the students of HIST1P50, "Co-Operative Historical Projects" at Brock University.

All images sourced from Library and Archives Canada, the Archives of Ontario, and Defining Moments Canada.