In March 1918, some of the first recorded American cases of what became a worldwide influenza epidemic, also known as "Spanish flu", were reported at Camp Funston.
The 1918 influenza pandemic, usually set as January 1918 up to December 1920, was an unusually deadly flu epidemic. It infected 500 million people around the world. Probably 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million died, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. It has not really been determined with certainty the pandemic's geographic origin.
Many sources place the start in Kansas, and particularly Camp Funston, on the United States Army base of Fort Riley.
To maintain morale, wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Papers were free to report the epidemic's effects in neutral Spain, such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII. These stories created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit and gave rise to the pandemic's nickname, "Spanish flu".
A major troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples, France, was identified by researchers in 1999 as being at the center of the Spanish flu. The overcrowded camp and hospital was an ideal site for the spreading of a respiratory virus. The hospital treated thousands of victims of chemical attacks, and other casualties of war. 100,000 soldiers were in transit through the camp every day. It also was home to a live piggery, and poultry was regularly brought in for food supplies from surrounding villages. It was postulated that a significant precursor virus, harbored in birds, mutated and then migrated to pigs kept near this camp.
A large factor in the worldwide occurrence of this flu was increased travel. Modern transportation systems made it easier for soldiers, sailors, and civilian travelers to spread the disease.
In the United States, the disease was first observed in Haskell County, Kansas, in January 1918, prompting local doctor Loring Miner to warn the U.S. Public Health Service's academic journal. On 4 March 1918, company cook Albert Gitchell reported sick at Fort Riley that at the time was training American troops during World War I, making him the first recorded victim of the flu. Within days, 522 men at Camp Funston had reported sick. By 11 March 1918, the virus had reached Queens, New York.
In August 1918, a more virulent strain appeared simultaneously in Brest, France; in Freetown, Sierra Leone; and in the U.S. in Boston, Massachusetts. The Spanish flu also spread through Ireland, carried there by returning Irish soldiers.
The Meuse-Argonne offensive was a decisive battle during the First World War between allied American and French forces and German troops in Northern France. Over the course of 47 days, the allied campaign, which began on September 26, 1918, contributed to the Armistice of November 11, 1918. Involving some million U.S. troops, the Meuse-Argonne battle is the largest frontline commitment in American military history.
There were over 26,000 deaths among American soldiers. It is also considered one of the worst battles for Americans. The largest number of U.S. military casualties in Europe, over 14,000 soldiers, rest within the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. However, more Americans were buried in France because of the 1918 pandemic influenza than of enemy fire. As influenza killed almost 30,000 men in U.S. Army training camps before they could even be sent to France, the overall death toll from 1918 pandemic influenza in the U.S. Army by far exceeds the number of deaths resulting from the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Pandemic influenza struck all the armies, but the highest death rate was found among the Americans as the disease sickened over one million men. In comparison, the German Army recorded over 700,000 cases of influenza, while the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) listed 313,000 cases in 1918 in France.
I had the privilege to serve at Fort Riley often during my enlistments in the Kansas Army National Guard. We performed field artillery training there in the firing areas. During those periods I was fortunate to make note of some of the history of the fort and the people who had served there at various times, including George A. Custer, commanding the 7th Cavalry Regiment which became part of the 1st Cavalry Division in the 1920s.
Camp Funston was created on Fort Riley specifically for the purpose of training troops to be sent to the war in Europe. The illustration fo this short musing is a monument created to memorialize the 10th Sanitary Train soldiers who died in the epidemic while training at that camp.
It seems more than fitting that we remember not only those who fought in the trenches of the conflict but also those thousands who died simply because they answered the call and became infected with the terror that was the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.