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More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War

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A Washington Post Best Children’s Book of the Month, More Deadly Than War from New York Times bestselling author Kenneth C. Davis explores the hidden history of the Spanish influenza pandemic during World War I.

2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the worst disease outbreak in modern times: the Spanish flu, a story even more relevant today. This dramatic narrative, told through the stories and voices of the people caught in the deadly maelstrom, explores how this vast, global epidemic was intertwined with the horrors of World War I—and how it could happen again.

Complete with photographs, period documents, modern research, and firsthand reports by medical professionals and survivors, More Deadly Than War provides captivating insight into a catastrophe that transformed America in the early twentieth century.

A Junior Library Guild Selection!

“An important history—and an important reminder that we could very well face such a threat again.”—Deborah Blum, New York Times bestselling author of The Poison Guide: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

“In an age of Ebola and Zika, this vivid account is a cautionary tale that will have you rushing to wash your hands for protection.”—Karen Blumenthal, award-winning author of Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights

ISBN-13: 9781250145123

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)

Publication Date: 05-15-2018

Pages: 304

Product Dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

Age Range: 12 - 18 Years

Kenneth C. Davis is the New York Times–bestselling author of the America’s Hidden History and Don’t Know Much About® History books. He is also the author of the ALA Notable and YALSA finalist In the Shadow of Liberty. A frequent guest on national television and radio and a Ted-Ed Educator, Davis enjoys Skype visits with middle- and high-school classrooms to discuss history. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt



I gather that the epidemic of grippe which hit us rather hard in Flanders also hit the Boche [Germans] rather worse, and this may have caused the delay.

— Harvey Cushing, American army surgeon, June 1918

Russell and Walt were itching to fight. It was the summer of 1918, and for two sixteen-year-olds, getting into a uniform was all that mattered. The whole country was seized by war fever. Young men across America flocked to sign up.

A year after America had finally entered the Great War, a patriotic frenzy filled the air. Posters plastered around the country showed Uncle Sam declaring, "I Want You." Everyone was singing "The Yanks are coming" — the words to the hit tune "Over There" by America's most popular song-and-dance man, George M. Cohan. American soldiers had proudly marched into Paris. The navy promised adventure and a chance to beat back the Germans — who were disparaged as barbaric "Huns" in the American press and government posters.

Walt's older brother, Ray, had been drafted into the army and wrote how exciting life was in training camp. Another brother, Roy, had enlisted in the navy and was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago.

Like many young Americans, Walt saw going to war as a great quest — the stuff of heroes. He was fired up to do his part to defeat the dreaded Huns. He wasn't a slacker. Walt yearned to be "over there" in full army gear. Like many young Americans, Walt thought he would look "swell" in a uniform.

Russell and Walt lied about their ages, but the recruiters in their home city of Chicago took one look at the pair and sent them home disappointed. Then Russell learned that the American Red Cross Ambulance Service accepted seventeen-year-olds. Their job was to collect wounded men from the battlefield. Another teenager from nearby Oak Park, Illinois, eighteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway, had joined the ambulance service in May and was serving in Italy, where he was wounded in 1918. Hemingway would turn his wartime experience into his 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms, about an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. Some of his short stories also featured Nick Adams and other fictional characters who had been wounded in the war.

Still too young even for the ambulance service, sixteen-year-old Walt was desperate to get into action and needed only parental permission to join the Red Cross if he could prove he was seventeen. Convincing his mother to sign his enlistment papers, Walt altered his birth certificate, changing his birth date from 1901 to 1900. Soon he was in uniform.

In September 1918, Russell and Walt reported for training at the Red Cross facility in a former amusement park on Chicago's South Side. They would spend a week learning to drive ambulances, another on how to repair and assemble cars, and then two weeks on some basic military drills. Walt wouldn't carry a rifle, but after a month's training, he would be ready to head for Europe.

But before he completed his training, Walt got sick. Very sick.

He was taken home by ambulance. For more than three weeks, while his mother cared for him, Walt was flat on his back in bed. He had the flu. By then, Russell and the other young men in his ambulance company had completed their course and shipped out to France. When Walt finally got better, he completed his training, and eventually Walt Disney headed "over there."

* * *

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT was also eager to get into a uniform. A thirty-six-year-old assistant secretary of the navy, he was a distant cousin to Theodore Roosevelt. The former president had been one of America's biggest boosters of going to war against Germany.

In his navy post, Franklin had been working to modernize and upgrade America's warships as the United States prepared to join the British and French against Germany. Once America declared war in April 1917, Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that he wanted to fight.

His cousin, the former president, had fought earlier in the Spanish-American War, emerging as a national combat hero. Theodore Roosevelt went on to become America's youngest president. Franklin had political ambitions of his own. Wartime service, he knew, would be a valuable asset when the time came to run for office. But active service was not to be. In his navy position, Franklin went on a tour of American trenches in France in the late summer of 1918.

After touring battlefields in France and visiting his naval counterparts in Italy, Franklin boarded the Leviathan, a German passenger ship that had been seized and converted to an American troop carrier. While he may have fallen ill before sailing, Franklin D. Roosevelt got very sick during the ocean crossing. When the Leviathan docked, this son of a wealthy New York family was rushed by ambulance to his mother's East Sixty-Fifth Street townhouse and slowly nursed back to health. Ill for weeks, the future president of the United States nearly died. He had the flu.

Walt Disney and Franklin D. Roosevelt were among the lucky ones — the survivors. They lived through the Spanish flu. Franklin D. Roosevelt went on to lead the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, becoming the only American president elected four times. And sixteen-year-old Walt Disney survived the epidemic to become the genius behind Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom.

This pair had something else in common. Along with millions of Americans, they had been part of a massive mobilization to fight in Europe's Great War.

When the United States entered World War I, few Americans had ever fought on foreign soil. Protected by oceans, Americans had largely agreed with George Washington, who said in 1796, "Why ... entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition?"

Since Washington left office, there had been brief forays into North African ports, attacks on Canada during the War of 1812, and a short war with Mexico, and troops had gone to Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. American troops had also been deployed to the Caribbean, South America, and again to Mexico. But these had all been limited conflicts.

While Great Britain, France, and their allies slogged through the first few horrendous years of war against Germany and its allies, the United States had remained on the sidelines. Most Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson, were hopeful that diplomacy could keep American lives out of Europe's bloody mess. The Huns might be barbaric, but that was Europe's problem. Besides, there were millions of German Americans who were not eager to see the United States join the fight.

That quickly changed. Spurred by an intercepted German message, President Wilson asked Congress to take the nation into war on April 2, 1917. With an army numbering about 130,000 men, Wilson called for the immediate addition of 500,000 troops. He also wanted Congress to provide "the organization and mobilization of all the material resources of the country to supply the materials of war."

Stirred by Wilson's war call to arms, Americans like Walt Disney and Franklin Roosevelt charged into the conflict. Still largely a country of farmers, the nation rapidly shifted to a wartime footing that transformed American life and turned the nation into an industrial powerhouse. Almost overnight, factories and shipyards began humming in round-the-clock work shifts. Coal and steel production boomed to provide the tanks, planes, and battleships that America needed. Millions of soldiers heading to combat required guns, ammunition, uniforms, blankets, and boots. The millions of immigrants who had flooded into America by the early twentieth century would find plenty of work in these bustling factories and mines.

"Uncle Sam" also wanted Americans — including the newly arrived immigrants — to fill out an army. Six weeks after war was declared, a law was signed requiring men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty to register for military service. Conscription — a military draft — had never been a popular idea among Americans. The law was called the Selective Service Act to soften the fact that the United States was going to draft millions of men into the military.

To get all those men ready for war, thirty-six cantonments, or training camps, sprung up around the country. In these "military boomtowns of tents and barracks," soldiers quickly began preparing for combat, shuttling to other bases before shipping off to Europe.

It was in one of these camps that the Spanish flu emerged.

The first recorded American outbreak took place in early March 1918 at Camp Funston, part of Fort Riley, an old cavalry outpost in Kansas. When the United States entered the war a year earlier, Fort Riley had been expanded to house up to fifty thousand recruits in three thousand hastily constructed barracks and other buildings. Healthy young Americans, many of them fresh off the farm, were brought there to prepare to fight in a foreign war. Many of them thought it was going to be a grand and glorious adventure. But they quickly got a harsh dose of reality.

The camp was on the dusty Kansas prairie, where the Smoky Hill and Republican Rivers meet to form the Kansas River. As the trainees arrived in the middle of an especially cold Kansas winter of 1917–18, they soon learned what soldiers have always known — there was little that was romantic, glorious, or adventurous about life in boot camp.

Crowded into poorly heated, bare wooden barracks, sleeping on cots inches apart, the trainees were often nose-to-nose, with little privacy or breathing room. The barracks couldn't hold the waves of fresh recruits that continued to roll in. Some were forced to live in simple canvas army tents exposed to the cold. Seeking any warmth, the men often huddled together around woodstoves or open fires.

The first signs of trouble came in the morning on March 4, 1918. A young army private named Albert Gitchell, who served as a company cook, complained of a bad cold. The medical officer who examined him found that Albert's symptoms included fever, sore throat, headache, and muscle pains — all typical signs of the flu. The young Gitchell was immediately quarantined, or set apart from the other soldiers, in a contagion ward. Two minutes after Gitchell checked into the infirmary, Corporal Lee Drake arrived with similar complaints. Then a third soldier stumbled in with the same symptoms.

As a cook, Gitchell hadn't been sequestered from the other men in a storeroom or at a desk. He was dead center in the middle of the action, slinging the hash that would be served to hundreds of men in the chow line. With every plate he touched, and every time he coughed or sneezed, Gitchell was potentially infecting the men he served. Soon after he was quarantined, dozens of soldiers reported to the camp doctor with similar complaints. By lunchtime, 107 ailing soldiers had been added to the sick lists. By the end of the week, 522 similar cases had been reported. Within five weeks, more than 1,000 soldiers had fallen ill at Fort Riley, and 46 of them had died.

Military casualties — deaths and battle wounds — are part of the calculus of war. Army doctors prepare for combat injuries such as bullet wounds, bayonet slashes, and amputations in the field. They also know that measles and tuberculosis often hit men in military camps. The spate of deaths they were seeing in Camp Funston was not caused by battle, although they were just as sudden and violent. These sick men were suffering from something far worse than any illness the doctors had ever seen or studied. The flu at Camp Funston was also bringing on pneumonia, a serious infection of the lungs that can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi, which triggers the body's immune system to fight off the infection. In a healthy person, these natural defenses can overcome the pneumonia. But in someone with a weak immune system, the infection cannot be contained. In the lungs are tiny air sacs where oxygen passes into your blood — called the alveoli. As these become infected, they start to fill up with fluid and pus, making it more difficult to breathe. The loss of oxygen can be fatal.

The disease at Camp Funston attacked the lungs. But these cases were extreme — and deadly. Within hours, the men's lungs were filling rapidly with fluid; some were bleeding from their noses.

As young soldiers lay on cots, choking helplessly on their own body fluids, the scene was something out of an end-of-the-world horror movie. Fit when they arrived in camp, these new recruits were suddenly knocked flat on their backs. The contagion ward soon overflowed with new arrivals. The mysterious illness turned these healthy young men blue — a medical condition called cyanosis, in which the skin and membranes take on a blue or purple color from lack of oxygen in the blood. ("Cyanosis" comes from the Greek words kyanos for dark blue and -osis for disease or condition.)

Most people tend to think of blood as red in color. But if you look at the veins in your wrist, you can see they are blue. Blood without oxygen is blue; human blood turns red when it carries oxygen. The red blood cells receive the needed oxygen when they pass through the lungs. Red blood cells then carry oxygen to be used in the cells found in our bodies. When the lungs cannot transfer oxygen to the blood, cyanosis occurs and the victim turns blue.

In a typical flu outbreak, the illness is most dangerous for the elderly and the very young. These groups are most susceptible because they usually have the weakest immunesystem — the human body's natural defenses against disease and illness. But the vast majority of deaths at Camp Funston were of seemingly healthy young men who should have gotten over the flu with a few days of bed rest. Instead, they were falling like wheat before the scythe.

The unusual deaths of young men who might be expected to recover from a bout of the flu was one reason the illness hitting the camp seemed so different from typical influenza cases.

To many people, the difference between a bad cold and the flu is hard to tell. The words "cold" and "flu" are often used interchangeably. It is true that both illnesses have some things in common. Both often begin with similar symptoms: coughs, a runny or stuffy nose, chills, and maybe fever. But the flu usually hits a lot harder and drags on longer than the common cold, with fevers, painful body aches, and severe headaches.

Both are caused by viruses. Cold and flu viruses are typically spread by contact with people who are infected — sometimes through shaking hands or touching doorknobs and other objects covered with countless live viruses. But they are mostly shared through coughs and sneezes. And you don't have to kiss or touch, says the CDC. People with flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away.

About three thousand droplets of saliva are expelled in a single cough, and some of them fly out of the mouth at speedsof up to fifty miles per hour. A sick person's cough can contain two hundred million individual virus particles. Sneezing is even more impressive.

"It starts at the back of the throat and produces even more droplets — as many as 40,000 — some of which rocket out at speeds greater than 200 miles per hour," according to science writer Jason Socrates Bardi. "The vast majority of the droplets are less than 100 microns across — the width of a human hair."

It's like a video game with space invaders — only there are more of them, flying faster than any computer game can simulate. All those invisible viruses blasting through the air at fantastic high speeds are what spread colds and flu. While there is not yet a cure for either the common cold or the flu, there are now plenty of medicines available to help us deal with the symptoms. Pain and fever reducers may ease discomfort. Modern antiviral drugs may help us recover more quickly and keep the flu from becoming even more dangerous. There are also flu vaccines that may help prevent a serious, or even deadly, case of flu. No such medications existed in 1918. The violent illness that struck Camp Funston — "knock-me-down-fever" — was not only deadly but it was moving to other army and navy bases around the country. And it was moving fast.

Two weeks after the first cases of the mysterious outbreak in Kansas, a rash of illness hit hard at twenty-four of the army's largest camps in March and April. "Today such news would galvanize the Medical Corps," says historian Alfred Crosby, "but in 1918 it attracted only a modicum of attention. There were few similar civilian reports to put alongside the army's and create a picture of a nationwide epidemic."

Besides, there was a war to fight. Soldiers infected with the flu virus didn't have the luxury of staying in bed with cups of chicken soup. The rush to send them to the front lines meant that sick and infected men were jammed elbow to elbow on troop trains and arrived in port cities on crowded transport ships.


Excerpted from "More Deadly Than War"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Kenneth C. Davis.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents

Introduction The Purple Death 2

Chapter 1 "The Yanks are Coming" 20

Chapter 2 The Spanish Lady 48

Chapter 3 "Blue as Huckleberries and Spitting Blood" 66

Chapter 4 "Over the Top": A Brief History of World War I 88

Chapter 5 "Over There": The First Wave-Spring-Summer 1918 116

Chapter 6 "Obey the Laws and Wear the Gauze": The Second Wave-Autumn 1918 136

Chapter 7 The World Turned Upside Down 160

Chapter 8 Peace and Plague 174

Chapter 9 Back to Brevig Mission 192

Afterword Relapse? 210

Appendix 1 Miasmas, Microbes, and Mosquitoes: A Brief History and Time Line of Disease and Medicine 222

Appendix 2 Preventing the Flu: Advice from the CDC 264

Bibliography 266

Notes 270

Acknowledgments 280

Index 281