Before Rossendale and the nation could think of getting back to ‘normal’ after the war, a new, deadly, silent threat appeared during 1918. It was a lethal virus that attacked soldiers both in the trenches and returning home and the population in Britain.

The new, deadly, silent threat was the ‘Spanish flu’ virus, a pandemic that lasted from 1918 to 1919. A pandemic is when a virus sweeps across the world. This pandemic was the deadliest in modern history.

Why was it called the ‘Spanish flu’?

The reason is not fully clear: yes, the virus had appeared in Spain, but most of Europe, and in the United States too. In order to maintain morale, wartime censors minimized reports of deaths from the virus in Germany, Britain, The United States and France. Because news was not censored in neutral Spain, reports of the outbreak of the virus and the large numbers of deaths spread around Europe and the virus became associated with Spain. This created to the pandemic’s nickname: ‘Spanish flu’.

How did the virus spread?

It came in three waves (Spring 1918, Autumn 1918, and Winter 1919) and the second wave was unusually deadly.

The first wave was a mild version of the flu virus; incidentally this coincided with the arrival in Britain of soldiers from the USA, where the first case of the virus was recorded early in 1918 in Kansas, USA.

However, with the second, highly contagious mutation of the virus victims often died within hours or days of their symptoms appearing, their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate.

How deadly was the ‘Spanish flu’?

It is estimated that between 10% and 20% of people infected with the virus died! The flu swiftly spread around the world. It infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide–about one-third of the world’s population at the time–and killed an estimated 20 million to 100 million people, which was one in 18 of the world’s population at the time!

What was surprising about the virus?

The surprisingly fact was many flu victims were young, otherwise healthy adults. Usually viruses attack the very young, very old and those in ill health. But this virus attacked young, seemingly healthy men, many of whom were soldiers. In 1918, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer virus and so, with little or no immunity, the flu spread quickly from person-to-person. It is ironic that many soldiers who survived the war fell to the deadly virus. It was estimated that more U.S. soldiers died from the 1918-19 flu virus than were killed during the war.

Why were soldiers vulnerable to the virus?

There have been many theories about why certain age groups were vulnerable to the virus and others weren’t. Some theories have suggested that the conditions the soldiers endured during the war years significantly aided the spread of the disease. British army medical reports suggest the virus could have been circulating in hospital camps in northern France as early as the winter of 1917, infecting soldiers weakened by years of fighting, malnourishment, and exposure to mustard gas, which increased their vulnerability to the virus. It was later discovered that what made the 1918 pandemic so deadly was the influenza virus had already invaded the lungs of many victims and caused pneumonia. By the end of 1919, the flu pandemic came to an end, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity.

How did the ‘Spanish flu’ affect the UK?

The outbreak hit the UK in a series of waves, with its peak at the end of World War One. Troops travelling home by train from the trenches of Northern France arrived at the railway stations in city centres, where they came into immediate contact with the civilians, so the flu spread from the cities to the suburbs and then out into the countryside, like a medieval plague. Nearly 8,000 people died in the first week of November alone. During the pandemic over a quarter of a million people in Britain died from the virus.

How did the ‘Spanish flu’ affect Rossendale?

Bacup and Rawtenstall were two of the earliest areas in England to be affected by the pandemic and were severely affected in the early stages. In the week ending 29 July 1918 Bacup suffered badly with 3.3% of the population dying. In Rawtenstall nearly 2% of the local population died after contracting the virus. These were the highest and third highest death rates n the country at that time. There was much speculation at the time that the severity of the epidemic was in part to the population being weakened by the war.

One report from The Guardian newspaper of 22nd June 1918 reported that a nationwide epidemic of influenza was most severe in Rochdale and the Rossendale Valley, ‘where hundreds of cases have occurred and schools and mills have been closed.’ Doctors, the report went on, at first had some difficulty in diagnosing it. Most of the children affected were nine and ten years of age. The Rochdale medical officer of health said, “The incubation period is very short, and one child suffering from the disease could easily transmit it to a hundred others in a very short time. The attack is short and sharp, lasting as a rule three or four days. With adults it is generally more virulent. I think it will be much more difficult for adults to get over an attack than for children.”

He believed that a soldier carried the flu infection to the area. “From the accounts of the recent influenza in Spain,” Dr. Anderson said, “there seems to be great similarity between that and the present outbreak.”

Why were Bacup and Rawtenstall so badly hit by the virus?

What caused Bacup and Rawtenstall to be so hard hit, while Haslingden was relatively lightly affected, is hard to work out. Although both towns had areas of malnutrition and overcrowding, they were not alone in manufacturing areas in having these conditions and it is unclear why they were so severely affected in the epidemic.