Last Century’s Pandemic by Jeffrey K. Walker

To keep all you readers of A Writer of History enthralled, author Jeffrey K. Walker has contributed several posts for which I am very grateful. Today, he shares a timely perspective on pandemics.

Many thanks, Jeff.

I’ve written three novels all set during a pandemic. Okay, I advertise these books as “First World War and 1920s,” but that includes the time of what is known as the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918 to 1920. This particular strain of H1NI avian influenza didn’t originate in Spain, but even incorrect labels have a tendency to stick.

I didn’t prominently feature the flu pandemic in my books, but it does get a mention in two of them. In my third novel, No Hero’s Welcome, influenza explains why a young British officer who’d only come of age to join the fight in 1918 never made it to the front:

“His mother’s family had an ancestral heap in County Tyrone where he’d been dragooned into spending summers as a boy. As a result of this unenthusiastic connection to Ulster, he’d been commissioned in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in September 1918, just in time to contract the Spanish influenza. Out of consideration for his family’s feelings, he’d decided not to die, but instead endured a six-week convalescence, finally joining his battalion in France on the 14th day of November, 1918.”

In my second book, Truly Are the Free, the flu pandemic provided a convenient deus ex machina for killing off a supporting character. This was the oldest brother of my protagonist, a strapping and popular boxer within whose shadow the protagonist had long wilted.

Here’s what Ned Tobin thought about the flu and his big brother, Bobby:

“He couldn’t bear to imagine Bobby dying the way he saw those men in France, gasping and starving for air as they drowned in their own overflowing lungs. So the great Bobby Tobin, felled by no man in the ring, was carried away on the 12th of October, 1918 in an overcrowded New Jersey Army hospital by a little bug he couldn’t see, let alone fight.”

So a useful tool to deal with inconvenient minor characters. In hindsight, I should’ve made the Spanish flu a main character, given our current unpleasantness. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

But here’s something else I found out in my meanderings around last century’s pandemic. Besides the obvious similarities to our present coronavirus troubles, there was an eerily similar confluence of infectious disease and violence stoked by racism. 

With mass protests triggered by the on-camera murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, white America is getting an overdue history lesson, including for many a first encounter with the deadly 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

(Flashback scenes from this horrible event feature in the first season of the popular new HBO series, Watchmen.) In just over 24 hours of violence, triggered by a dubious allegation of assault by a white woman elevator operator against a black shoeshiner, as many as 200 black and 50 white Tulsans were killed and a prosperous African-American community was burned to the ground. However, Tulsa came two years after a much more widespread and deadly horror known as the Red Summer of 1919.

Let me set the scene—it seems impossible from our vantage point a century later. When the United States declared war on Germany in March 1917, there was debate within the African-American community whether or not to support the war effort. Some considered it a white man’s war fought for white men’s interests. But the majority, led by W.E.B. Du Bois and others, chose to support the war effort. The belief among most African-Americans was “if we fight a man’s war, we’ll be treated as men when we return.” They could not have been more wrong.

I based a pivotal scene in my second book on an actual event from the Red Summer. A main character, Chester Dawkins, returns to the United States after serving in a “colored” regiment in France.

Although the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, wouldn’t allow black troops to fight within his white infantry divisions, he did send four regiments to the French Army. And after four years of catastrophic losses, the French were ecstatic to have them. Since the rest of the American forces weren’t ready for combat when the Germans launched their final massive Spring Offensive of 1918, it was these “colored” Americans serving with the French Fourth Army who found themselves in combat longer than any other American troops.

It was with one of these regiments that my young Lieutenant Dawkins covers himself with glory, winning the Croix de guerre. When he finally returns home, he lands at the port of Norfolk, Virginia, and finds himself in a victory parade arranged by the black population of the city to welcome home their returning heroes. This hard-earned and well-deserved celebration is set upon by white Marines and sailors with clubs and rifle butts while the white police force looks on.

My young hero is rescued from this violence by a cook who pulls him into the safety of his café. He sits Chester down and pours him some coffee:

“Chester stared down into the blackness in his coffee cup. He was startled by the hot tears pushing against the back of his eyes. He’d seen men die, beat the Germans, made the world safe for democracy. And nothing had changed here. Nothing. He gave a sharp sniff, raising the coffee to his lips to camouflage his bitterness.”

The violence raged across the country from early spring to late summer. But it represented something new in the centuries-long oppression of black Americans — they fought back. With 350,000 African-American doughboys returning from France, they were in no mood to accept the subservient and servile roles assigned them previously.

In the end, more than 25 violent riots took the lives of hundreds of African-Americans and dozens of white Americans.

Just as these mass eruptions of violence were occurring, America was still struggling with an influenza pandemic. The Spanish flu ravaged America in three waves. The first hit the US from March through July 1918. This was the mildest wave, in a population of 100 million resulting in about 75,000 deaths (one of the more notable being a grandfather of the current President). The second and more deadly wave emerged in August 1918 and ran through January 1919, killing 200,000 more Americans. A third wave began two months later in March 1919 and flared into the summer, overlapping with about half the violence of the Red Summer.

There are of course significant differences between what America and the world faced during the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1920 and what we’re facing now. By the time the Spanish flu emerged in 1918, millions had been slaughtered in the carnage of the First World War.

The widespread deaths caused by the pandemic served to export some of the mass production of death from the battlefield to the home front. All people—both soldier and civilian—were exposed to death on a colossal scale.

Historically, these rapid and widespread moments of tragic death have had significant effects on social outlook, cultural norms, and even economic systems. In the 14th century, the Black Death (as the bubonic plague was known) killed somewhere between one-quarter and one-third the population of Europe in just a few years. Colossally tragic on a scale we can hardly imagine, the plague made an end of the perniciously unequal system of land ownership and wealth distribution known as feudalism. Labor is worth much more, after all, when they’re just not as many laborers. Although it was not the sole catalyst for the Renaissance, the Black Death was certainly a necessary factor. The omnipresence and capriciousness of death led to more interest in enjoying this life rather than worrying about what came after; many surrounded themselves with beauty.

Likewise, the widespread and unpredictable death from both the carnage on the Western Front and from the Spanish flu uncorked runaway innovation and breaking of all the rules in the artistic, musical, literary, design, and fashion worlds that would characterize the Roaring Twenties.

It may sound an odd thing to say, but history suggests we might not have had jazz or Art Deco or modern literature without the suffering and death of the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic.

It’s too soon to predict what will emerge from the suffering and death and confusion surrounding us now as we struggle with COVID-19. Certainly our short-term focus must remain flattening the curve and caring for the infected. But we can already see inklings of what may lie ahead in the Black Lives Matter protests, changing attitudes toward universal healthcare, and serious debate about income inequality in the United States.

It’s a curious thing with us humans. It often takes catastrophe to spur us into doing the right thing.

Originally posted June 28, 2020 on Jeffrey K Walker’s blog.

Check out Jeffrey’s Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy. You can find them on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Sweet Wine of Youth Trilogy by Jeffrey K. Walker

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Somewhere in Africa – 15th November 1918

Without any of your letters to acknowledge I am writing this on top of the news of the Armistice. Events of course had been leading up to it but it came, nonetheless, as a tremendously welcome piece of news. We are still at Ndanda, but under orders to proceed to Dar-es-Salaam. Our battalion is in sole possession of this post at present, but we made a determined effort to celebrate the occasion with the aid of the mission bell, of respectable dimensions, and much song and shouting. This despite the rather stiff-necked attitude of the C.O. (the fifth in my time and just arrived from Nairobi) who disapproved of it all and thought it necessary to warn us that is was only an armistice and not real peace, and that all rejoicing was unseemly. Well, chacun a son gout, as the native might say.

We learned the full terms of the armistice last night and if these do not amount to peace I don’t know what does. It seems to satisfy all the demands of the Allies and Germany knows that if she breaks the armistice she will be worse off than ever. There would be no lack of men willing to go on with the good work, under the able guidance of Monsieur Foch. One cannot help feeling that the Germans, as a people, have escaped punishment, escaped it for fifty years for that matter, and now that they have been brought to book they are getting off with little more than their claws being out. However everybody must be thankful it is over at last and one feels a good deal more about the occasion than one can write.

From Wikipedia: “The actual terms, largely written by the Allied Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, included the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of German forces to behind the Rhine, Allied occupation of the Rhinelandand bridgeheads further east, the preservation of infrastructure, the surrender of aircraft, warships, and military materiel, the release of Allied prisoners of war and interned civilians, and eventual reparations. No release of German prisoners and no relaxation of the naval blockade of Germany was agreed to.” The agreement was signed in this railway coach.

I have no doubt we will be chained to this country for some months yet. I understand von Lettow is marching in to surrender with all his force. He was promptly advised of the terms of the armistice and he has intimated his compliance therewith. We have all a sneaking admiration for the redoubtable von Lettow and it must be a bitter pill to him to know that it has all been in vain. He was too hard a nut for the local military talent, and there is no doubt some truth in the adage that he who runs away lives to fight another day. I believe he has played the game pretty squarely, although some of his subordinates have been brought to book for cruelty to prisoners and it may be that he will be on the mat too. The German policy in East Africa was to poison the native mind against the British and foment racial trouble. They were in this part of the world on level terms with ourselves and it was a bad thing to go back on the common policy of upholding the prestige of the white man. [Interesting perspective.]

I see the terms of the armistice have for Russia what she could never have done for herself, but these people have such queer ideas that I do not suppose we shall be thanked for our pains. I have not yet decided whether I shall return to that country, except to try and realize what I left there. [Henry worked in Russia before the war.]

I have certainly had enough of these tropical regions to last me some time, but the highlands of B.E.A. may eventually see me trying to get a living out of coffee or flax. Land is none too cheap except at the back of beyond, but there has been some talk of special terms for K.A.R. and other officers who have taken part in this campaign.  Big land corporations have been early on the scene there and grabbed up the tit-bits. There is plenty of room for everybody of course but at present there is only the Uganda Railway running through the country  and I do not expect there will be very much done in the near future in the way of further development. There may be the alternative of remaining in the K.A.R. for a further period but there does not seem much of a future in that direction, as the establishment is bound to be cut down to normal in time. Latterly the South African element have had it all their own way in this force as a political sop to these zealous patriots.

The Spanish “flu” is sweeping over the continent, having come up here from the south, where it has taken a terrific toll of the natives. It has already gone through our battalion and for a time we were under quarter strength. The death rate however has not been excessive – under ten percent – considering the susceptibility of the African to lung trouble. We are all impatient to get back to Nairobi and I hope to date my next letter from there. I trust all is well with Andy.

Henry has survived the war. I’ve come to appreciate his character through these letters: tough-minded, a good leader, pragmatic, brave, and with a good sense of humour. One more letter which I will post tomorrow.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.