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'Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the World'

Above: Improvised Infirmary in Camp Funston, Kansas 1918 for victims of 'Spanish Flu'

A Book Review of 'Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the World' by Laura Spinney (2018)

With the COVID 19 pandemic gaining momentum and many of us entering uncharted territory it is always worth reflecting on what has gone before to see how echoes of the past can resonate for the future. It was with this in mind I decided to re-read a book released in 2018 on centenary of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 by Laura Spinney. ‘Pale Rider’, a title inspired by the work of Katherine Porter ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ about the relationship between a newspaper woman, Miranda, and a soldier, Adam, during the Spanish flu pandemic but could equally be drawn from the Biblical quote in Revelations 6:8 ‘I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him’.

The 1918 Pandemic possibly killed up to 100 million people in three waves from 1918 to 1920 but is scarcely remembered in a Century dominated by two World Wars but ‘Pale Rider’ gives a balanced and thoughtful overview on its origin, spread, eventual decline and legacy. For this review I do not intend to look at the epidemiological aspects of the Pandemic, many of which are eerily resonant today and absolutely fascinating, but rather the impact on the War and the military responses and its relevance today.

The book’s main focus is not on the War itself but inevitably draws much of its context from it, not least its origins. From where it started the author concludes there was no definitive Patient 0 for the Spanish Flu Pandemic and in fact the only consensus would seem to be that it wasn’t in Spain nor had any special Hispanic origin . The name 'Spanish Flu' was in fact a complete misnomer but that did not make it any less deadly.

One of the first links in the chain occurred when Albert Gitchell, a mess cook at Camp Funston, Kansas [pictured at top] reported sick on 4 March 1918. Whilst it was unlikely he was the first to catch it, over 500 million more people were to follow him to infection and he was certainly one of the first documented cases.

Discussing how it emerged in Kansas Spinney highlights the differing views but two key theories seem to coalesce around the British base depot at Etaples to the rear of the British Sector of the Western Front. Notorious for a mutiny amongst British and Australian troops in 1917 Etaples and its infamous ’Bullring’ training grounds held thousands of troops going up to the frontline as well as a dozen hospitals with 23,000 beds for casualties returning from the Ypres salient. Alongside were troops of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) recruited from rural China for labour support activities on the front. Spinney argues believably that either the virus originated in China, where waterfowl borne viruses have mutated in the years since as Bird Flu, and travelled with the CLC across the US to Europe, potentially drifting into Kansas on the way. An alternative theory is that gas victims in the base hospitals mutated avian flu within their lungs from the waterfowl living in the wetlands around Etaples. Mustard gas victims with compromised lungs certainly became extremely susceptible to the new strain possibly as early as 1916 but never identified as such at the time. This strain then possibly drifted across the Atlantic as America joined the war eventually surfacing in Camp Funston in Kansas.

Regardless of its origins its impact on the war has been rarely discussed but Spinney convincingly draws upon sources that show the depleted strength of the German Army by the time of the March 1918 offensive and how it contributed to its failure. The fact that Spanish Flu now known as H1N1 disproportionately hit men of fighting age for a variety of reasons inevitably impacted upon both sides ability to wage war but the malnutrition of German forces made them particularly susceptible. This was even exploited by Allied propaganda who air dropped leaflets that translated as ‘Say your prayers nicely, because in 2 months time you will be ours; then you will have good meat and bacon and the flu will leave you alone’. While not enough on its own to cause German agreement to an Armistice it was certainly a contributory factor. It is believed that Russian Prisoners released after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 spread the flu eastwards whilst returning Doughboys on crowded ships returning home after the Armistice unleashed the flu again with a vengeance on the continental US creating a global pandemic.

Why might the military aspects of the Spanish Flu be relevant today? Fear of a pandemic taps into the raw emotional ‘lizard’ brain and it is something that evolved over millenia within the countless generations of survivors of plague and pestilence. It is impossible to suppress but easy to provoke and it is a leverage that has military utility adversaries can exploit to create chaos. Pandemics like the COVID 19 strain tap into that emotion even within the most rational thinker and it is a vulnerability that is impossible to eliminate but we must at least be aware to build resilience to its effects. There are already cases where state actors have weaponised the pandemic against NATO in Europe in the information space echoing what the Allies were doing in 1918 as well as further afield.

Spinney’s book gives an echo of the past that resonates today within all aspects of society, including the defence and security sphere and shows that Pandemics are far more than just a public health issue. It cuts to the heart of human consciousness.

Cognitive Warfare goes so far but often sticks at the level of apparent rationality whilst events like pandemics tap into something more ancient and emotive and it is a space we need to understand better and be able to operate in. Civil Affairs forces need to understand these deep seated fears in their areas of operations and highlight vulnerabilities within our own populations that could be exploited by adversaries. It is the space of apparent irrationality but it exists and is unpredictable; it is a dimension we need to get better at. Spinney's book shows how the world changed after 1918 and how it changed so many things we scarcely notice now. The emotional aspects of a pandemic are a security issue and one defence professionals need to understand to provide security in its widest sense. Spinney's excellent summation of a world changing event is a thought provoking work I would recommend to security professionals who might shy away from what would seem to be a purely public health issue.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the World by Laura Pinney Paperback: 352 pages Publisher: Vintage (7 Jun. 2018) Language: English ISBN-10: 1784702404 ISBN-13: 978-1784702403


Lieutenant Colonel Dave Allen is the doctrine focus for the full spectrum of Stability Operations including sub-threshold activity in the British Army's Land Warfare Centre at Warminster in the UK

1 comment

1 Comment

Arnel David
Arnel David
Mar 17, 2020

Great book review! Thanks for the contribution, mate. What a timely topic.

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