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The Forgotten Epidemic in Poland (1918-1920)

By Grzegorz Litynski

Summary: In Poland, one of the most deadly epidemics caused as many as 100,000 - 200,000 deaths. The deadly virus of influenza showed up in the country at the end of WWI, around the declaration of independence in November 1918, as Poland was involved in several critical border wars. This epidemic was a part of the worldwide flu pandemic that killed between 20 and 50 million people.

As World War I, the Great War was a dramatic human disaster never seen before. It was the first industrial war: extensive use of old and new technologies killed millions of people. The repeated attacks and counter-attaches employed enormous artillery bombardments, machine guns, flamethrowers, and poison gases. They caused severe casualties with no significant advances, to mention the Verdun Battle (1916) with 700,000 casualties or the Battle of Somme (1916) with over 1,000,000 deaths.

In 1917, the United States joined WWI. In the coming months, the United States mobilized over four million military personnel. Before the troops were sent to Europe's battlefields, the soldiers were crowded in hundreds of military camps between the East and West coast. These were the ideal circumstances for the spread of infectious diseases. Indeed, on March 4, 1918, the first report of flu, later incorrectly known as Spanish influenza, was noted in the United States. A private Albert Gitchell of the U.S. Army reported fever, headache, and other symptoms in Fort Riley, Kansas. Within days hundreds of other soldiers complained about the same; many of them died very soon.

Unfortunately, the 1918 pandemic flu had a very high mortality rate among young adults, including soldiers. The disease's spread was not openly discussed, as military censors stopped any press publications about these topics to maintain morale. Despite the epidemic, the U.S. troops started to sail - in overcrowded conditions - across the Atlantic: 84,000 soldiers were sent to Europe in March and 120,000 in April of 1918. Later on, as many as 10,000 soldiers daily (sic!) traveled to Europe, and the deadly virus traveled with them. It is estimated that 30,000 soldiers passed away before they even reached the coast of France. Altogether, the army suffered around 57,000 deaths from influenza. More soldiers and military staff died due to this disease than on the European battlefields (50,000). By the summer of 1918, about 2 million US soldiers had arrived in France and changed the conflict's balance.

The American troops played a crucial role in defeating German forces and the final Allied offensive. In November 1918, WWI ended. But the scarcity of food and hunger, economic instability, poverty, and poor hygiene conditions among returning home soldiers and war refugees were other ideal conditions for further spreading the disease. Within months influenza spread very quickly over Europe. In France: approximately 300,000 people died due to this deadly disease; in Germany: 450,000; in Spain: 250,000: and in England and Wales: 250,000.

Influenza reached Poland in the Summer of 1918. The population was poorly prepared to handle the flu: the country was severely destroyed and in deplorable economic condition. It was still under foreign armies' occupation, so the Polish people's priority was getting its independence after 123 years of partition rather than taking care of medical issues. The first influenza cases appeared in Lwów (Lviv) in June 1918, and a few weeks later, in Cracow, in October, the epidemic reached Sosnowiec. On July 21, 1918, a Warsaw daily “Kurjer Warszawski” published an article “Hiszpańska gorączka” or “Spanish fever.” It is the oldest known written record of this disease in Poland. The first wave of influenza reached its peak in December 1918, only a month after the declaration of independence.

That month, about 100 reported deaths in Warsaw, among them Zofia Sosnkowska, 10 years old daughter of General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, one of the closest coworkers of Marshall Józef Piłsudski. A few weeks later, Sosnkowski (age 34) became severely sick himself as well. He survived, but his grief-stricken wife ended up in a psychiatry clinic in Tworki; the couple divorced a year later. Another wave of influenza attacked Poland's capital at the end of 1919 – Warsaw noted about 150 deaths weekly at the time.

Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, showing the many patients ill with the flu. Source Wikipedia/US Army photographer.

We need to consider that Poland was struggling with two other epidemics right after WWI. Estimated 320,000 people suffered from typhus; it is believed that almost 10 percent of them passed away. Another 5,000 people died from dysentery.

And how many casualties did Poland suffer from influenza? We have minimal sources about the pandemic in Poland of 1918-1920 as the records were not run - the medical health system was hardly existing - or became lost during the next war, 1939-1945. The reasons for the limited collection of the data are clear: Poland was busy with independence, and the ordinary people were concentrating on day-to-day life, getting jobs to survive, or rebuilding their destroyed houses. The newspapers were preoccupied with Polish border wars with Germans or Bolsheviks, the Versaille Treaty, or the daily food supply.

The Polish historians estimate that around 100,000 – 200,000 people died due to influenza. Compared with the current COVID-19 pandemic, it seems a lot, but we need to remember that there were around 20-50 million (sic!) deaths due to 1918 influenza worldwide. Still, for Poland, it was one of the most deadly epidemics of all time.


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