I had a little bird, It’s name was Enza, I opened the window, and in-flu-enza

This little ditty was a skipping song chanted  by children during 1918 and 1919.

Although WWI ended on the 11th November 1918, deaths continued into the following year and beyond.   Why?  Firstly, there was the second wave of Spanish Flu (some historians believe the first wave shortened WWI by several months if not years) the virulence of which killed up to 50 million globally  – nobody knows the accurate figure.  And secondly, many young men who returned injured from the front died a protracted death from wounds. However today I’m writing about Spanish Flu.

This virulent pandemic seriously misrepresents Spain. It got its name when the virus migrated from France to Spain where, without the censorship of war, it was more widely reported.

Because of the different policies, some areas were particularly badly hit; Leicester and Coventry suffered high casualties – one in four deaths in 1918 were from influenza – but Manchester (over 2000 deaths in 1918 rising to 3143 by 1919) got off relatively lightly.  Here, James Niven, Manchester’s Medical Officer of Health, realising the virus attacked the lungs, recommended personal sanitation and isolation if ill.  He suggested closing dance halls, theatres and schools but his exhortations to avoid crowded places were ignored during celebrations for Armistice Day and Manchester deaths peaked in late 1918 and early 1919.     Overall 228,000 people in Britain were to die a particularly gruelling death for both patient and those nursing them.

Unlike other epidemics, victims were generally younger and fitter; the majority of afflicted were aged between 20 and 45.  It attacked all classes not just the poor and was a particularly upsetting death starting with ‘la grippe’ before quickly developing into pneumonia or, more distressingly, heliotrope cyanosis when the skin turned lavender, mahogany coloured spots appeared on cheekbones and ears (indicating a shortage of oxygen) and a person who was well in the morning suffocated and could be dead by dinnertime.

How do you know if an ancestor was a casualty of the Spanish Flu?    Few doctors wrote influenza on a death certificate.  The key clue is the timing – 1918 and early 1919.  If an ancestor died during this period  aged under, say, 50 and you read pneumonia or septicaemia on the death certificate, they probably died of Spanish flu.  And yes, I have spotted it on death certificates in my family….

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