The Dragon’s Voice

In this issue, we have an article on the pandemic that affected all the armies and civilians – the Spanish flu. In addition, we have two book reviews. As ever, we owe many thanks to Jim Morris for allowing us to use his WWI day by day material on the Facebook page.


The Programme for 2018

Apr 7 :  Dr Simon House - A Lost Opportunity: the French Ardennes Offensive 22 Aug 1914

May 5 : Rob Thompson -  Wombles of the Western Front: Salvage operations

Jun 2 : Greg Baughen - From Flying Dreadnoughts to Dogfighter,

            The troubled birth of the British Fighter

July 7 :  Steve Erskine - Prisoners of Conscience: Richmond Castle during the Great War

Sept 1 : TBC

Oct 6 : Jeremy Gordon-Smith - Photographing the Fallen, a War Graves Photographer on the Western Front 1915 - 1919

Nov 3 : Trevor Adams: What Happened Next? The Aftermath of WWI

Dec 1 : Christmas Meal

The “Spanish Influenza” Pandemic, 1918-1919

Caroline Adams

This year is the centenary of the so-called “Spanish” ‘flu pandemic.

Ludendorff cited the first wave of the ‘flu pandemic as one of the causes of the failure of the Spring Offensive. The USA cancelled the draft in October 1918 because of the number of recruits dying from ‘flu during training, but it is unlikely the pandemic had a significant effect on the overall outcome of the war. While it certainly affected military manpower, both sides were affected. Significant individuals were lost, though. For example, Mark Sykes (of the Sykes-Picot Agreement) died of ‘flu during the Paris Peace Conference. This added credibility to the claim that President Woodrow Wilson’s illness at the conference was due to ‘flu, a cover for the more likely diagnosis of a mild stroke.

War conditions, however, undoubtedly had a major influence on the spread of the disease, and war conditions were also responsible for its name. Although authorities in many countries realised there was a serious infection spreading through their populations, war restrictions on reporting meant that it was not publicised. Spain, however, was not involved in WW1 and normal news reporting meant it was the first country to acknowledge the problem. Spain therefore got the blame in the public mind! (In fact, the Spanish call it “French” flu, as it came to Spain from France.)

The first wave appeared in spring 1918 and was unremarkable, both in severity and number of cases, often being referred to as a ‘three day fever’. It spread around the world in the usual way, peaking first in the northern hemisphere and later in the southern. It was no worse than the average ‘flu outbreak. But from July 1918 to the end of the year, the second phase raged. A third phase in 1919 was milder than the second but still severe.

Although the second phase started in the northern hemisphere as usual, its spread around the world was unusually rapid and comprehensive. Exact numbers of cases and deaths world-wide are impossible to ascertain. Apart from anything else, medical services were so overwhelmed by the number of patients and the high rate of illness among staff, that statistics recording cannot have been accurate. In addition, many deaths were recorded as due to their terminal event, “pneumonia”, rather than as influenza. It is estimated, however, that about a third of the world’s population were infected and that up to 20% of these died. Estimates of absolute figures for the death toll vary between 20 and 100 million for the 1918/19 pandemic. For comparison, it is estimated that HIV/AIDS has caused around 30 million deaths in 30 years.

So, why were there so many deaths and such rapid spread? The virus is spread by coughs and sneezes and by touching objects that have been hit by coughs and sneezes (droplet transmission). Throughout WW1, and as troops were repatriated and demobbed, men were living in confined areas in barracks and trenches and being transported in crowded troop ships and trains, ideal conditions for the infection to spread between individuals and to be introduced to new areas through stations and ports. It is now known that the ‘flu virus mutates rapidly, sometimes becoming more virulent, sometimes less. One theory is that the severe strain of virus originated in China and was carried by Chinese labourers who worked behind the British and French lines on the Western Front, but other theories implicate various training camps in USA and the Western Front trenches. Probably the most scientifically convincing explanation is that it was a hybrid of (a) an unusually severe strain that had occurred in Austria in 1916 and (b) a strain of bird ‘flu that had been rampant in a Kansas training camp before and during transport of recruits to Europe. With the movement of troops and PoWs, the two strains are assumed to have come together in France and hybridised to a strain with the worst elements of both parents, highly infectious and potentially fatal. Wherever it started, however, the war conditions undoubtedly helped it spread.

In most ‘flu outbreaks, there is a high incidence of deaths in the very young and the very old. In 1918, there was an additional peak of deaths in young, fit adults, some dying within hours of their first symptoms. Pregnant women were particularly at risk, with 25% dying and 25% having stillbirths, due to bleeding into the uterus. Some communities also had very much higher death rates than neighbouring ones. For example, some, but not all, groups of Native Americans and Maoris were badly affected. There are probably multiple reasons for these asymmetric death rates, including a community’s lack of previous exposure to a closely related strain of ‘flu. The ‘flu virus is easily killed by sunlight so ‘flu outbreaks are uncommon in hot countries and their populations therefore have a very low rate of immunity to ‘flu. Indian and African troops in Europe would have been at particular risk. After the Armistice, troops carried infection home to parts of the world where ‘flu is seldom seen.

By 1917, Bayer’s patent on aspirin expired and by 1918 large amounts of cheap (and not always pure) aspirin were becoming available. Aspirin is an effective analgesic and also reduces fever but the risks of overdose were not understood in 1918. In the absence of any other effective drugs, massive doses of aspirin were sometimes given. These could be seven or eight times the maximum currently recommended and could cause serious over-dosage effects. Experts disagree, however, as to whether this had any significant effect on the mortality figures as the immediate causes of death were not significantly different in areas where aspirin was widely used and areas where it was not.

Death could be due to the effects of overwhelming viral infection on the whole body, bleeding into the lungs (or uterus if pregnant) or to secondary bacterial infection especially pneumonia. It is thought that one of the issues was “cytokine storm”, an excessive immune response which damaged the body as well as the infecting agent. Severe post-influenza depression also occurred and could lead to suicide. Cases were recorded where a parent murdered their family before committing suicide, to save them from what he or she perceived as an intolerable world. With such a pandemic in the course of such a brutal world war, it is easy to see how hopeless the world could seem to someone in deep depression.

There was, of course, research into the cause of the pandemic and attempts to develop a vaccine. A military research laboratory was set up in Abbeville, France, and equipment, baboons, monkeys and mice were shipped to France, along with other war supplies. The influenza research team was headed by Major H Graeme Gibson, RAMC who had previous experience in researching infectious diseases for the army. He worked with a Canadian, Major F B Bowman, and an Australian, Capt. J L Connor. Building on work done on the common cold by Major G B Foster, an American, and on influenza research by two French scientists, Charles Nicolle and Charles Lebailly, they showed that ‘flu was caused by a virus, not a bacterium. Unfortunately, Major Gibson died of ‘flu in February 1919. An obituary includes:

‘(he) completed the discovery of what is very probably indeed the causative germ of this influenza pandemic. A preliminary note regarding this germ was published by these doctors on 14th December 1914 in the British Medical Journal, and thus Major Graeme Gibson’s work takes precedence over later publications. At the time, however, the proof of the discovery was not complete. It has now been completed, as we understand; and Major Gibson’s death furnishes a part of the evidence. His eagerness and enthusiasm led him to work so hard that he finally fell victim to the very virulent strains of the germ with which he was experimenting.’

Major Gibson was just one of the millions lost in the pandemic. Even at the lowest estimate of death toll, the 1918/19 ‘flu pandemic accounted for more deaths than WW1 and should be remembered as a co-existing global catastrophe.


Multiple internet sources

BMJ Archives

Talk by Dr Jane Orr, at Lancs & Cheshire WFA 


Book Reviews

The Flag:

The story of Revd David Railton MC and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

 Andrew Richards

2017 Casemate Publishers

250 pages plus appendix, end notes

ISBN 978-1-61200-447-1


 At our branch meeting in November 2012, Martin Hornby give a talk “The Unknown Warrior and a Rose”. This sparked an interest in the subject and in Westminster Abbey. After visiting the Abbey to see the tomb, I made contact with the Abbey's library with reference to other memorials in the Abbey. (See my article in the December 2013 edition of our newsletter.)

 Now a new book has been published. The book’s dust jacket states:-

The Reverend David Railton M.C served as a Chaplin on the Western Front during World War One. Attached to three divisions from 1916 to 1918, Railton supported the soldiers in their worst moments; he buried the fallen, comforted the wounded, wrote to the families of the missing and killed, and helped the survivors to remember and mark the loss of their comrades so that they were able to carry on. He was with his men at many battles, including High Wood, the Aisne and Passchendaele. He received the Military Cross for rescuing an officer and two men under heavy fire on the Somme.

 It was Railton's idea to bring home the body of an unidentified fallen comrade from the battlefield to be buried in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day 1920, his flag covered the coffin as the Unknown Warrior was laid to rest with full honours.

 Although suffering from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he returned to work as a parish priest in Margate, where he took particular interest in supporting ex-servicemen who had returned home to the aftermath of a terrible war and crippling unemployment.

 While the story of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior has been told before, this is the first book to explain David Railton's life and war and the padre’s flag he used as an altar cloth and shroud throughout the war. The flag was consecrated a year after the burial of the Unknown Warrior and hangs in Westminster Abbey to this day. The book explains how the idea came out of Railton's traumatic experiences on the Western Front and how he made his idea become a reality, drawing on his letters and unpublished papers.”

 To me, the book is much more than this. The author Andrew Richards was a former soldier who served in the Household Cavalry for twenty three years. He saw action in the Gulf War as a tank commander. In Railton’s papers, he has found some gems of information which help us understand the stress and strains the priest must have felt in that war.

 David Railton MC MA (b 13th November 1884, d 30th June 1955) was born in London. His father was George Scott Railton and was the first Commissioner of the Salvation Army. He was second in command to William Booth. His mother was Mariann Deborah Lydia Ellen Parkyn.

 David Railton was educated at Keble College Oxford where he gained his MA. He further studied at Liverpool under Bishop Francis Chavasse and it was from Bishop Chavasse that he leant his religious pluralism which was of a great help to him in the war. He was ordained into the Church of England in 1908. During this time, David Railton became friends with the bishop’s twin sons Noel and Christopher Chavasse.

 On the 11th December 1911, David Railton was appointed Fourth Class Chaplin to the Territorial Forces. When war broke out in 1914, David Railton expected to be sent to France but he was not allowed to go until January 1916. When he arrived in France he realised there were no flags or regimental colours on the parades. So he asked his mother-in-law to send him a large Union Jack. He said he needed it as “a symbol of our national life a radiant colour in the midst of all the horrors in France”. The flag became the centre piece of all his services which he conducted in France and Belgium.

 He received the flag two weeks after his arrival in France. It was soon called into use. On the 15th February 1916, David Railton preformed his first of many burials. The day before, 14th February 1916, Private Wallace Henry Travis s/n 18/31 of the Northumberland Fusiliers was KIA. David Railton buried him with the flag as a shroud in what is now X Farm Cemetery, La Chapelle-d'Armentieres plot A-15.

 Another sad and emotional task the priest had to preform was to attend a soldier who had been condemned to death, to be shot at dawn. David Railton was with the condemned soldier, Private Denis Blakemore s/n 40435 of the 8th Bn North Staffs, during the night before he was executed by firing squad at dawn on the 9th July 1917. David Railton was at the execution and later that day buried Private Denis Blakemore at Locre Hospice Cemetery Belgium plot 1-A-22.

Note: Private D Blakemore was charged with desertion at his court-martial on the 27th June 1917. The previous November 1916 he was court martialled for the same offence and was condemned to death. The sentence was commuted to 15 years penal servitude which was suspended by General Haig.

These are just two examples of which had a profound effect on David Railton. David Railton also used the flag as an altar cloth at his communion services. The book describes the events and the emotion that David Railton felt, from the letters he sent home to his wife. Also in the Railton papers, is an unpublished manuscript written by David Railton of the story of the flag written in the voice of the flag. Maybe he could express himself better through that voice.

 After the war, David Railton returned home and became the vicar of Margate in Kent. He immersed himself in the community but he could not get out of his mind the grave he saw in France marked “Unknown British Soldier” and his idea to repatriate an unidentified serviceman. He wrote to the Dean of Westminster Abbey with this idea of bringing home an unidentified serviceman and burying him in Westminster Abbey.

 The story of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is fairly well known. But what is not commonly known is the part that David Railton’s flag played. When all the arrangements were made for the burial on Armistice Day 1920. The flag was taken with the coffin by the two undertakers to France. It was draped over the coffin for its journey from France to England. It was on the rail journey to Victoria station and on the parade to the Cenotaph and then finally to Westminster Abbey. After the burial service it was placed across the tomb. After one year, it was consecrated and placed on a pillar of the Abbey overlooking the tomb.

 It stayed there until 1953 when the BBC asked for it to be moved so that they had a clear camera shot of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It was placed in the St George's chapel where it is still on display as “The Padre's Flag”.

 I have only one criticism of the book, in that the author uses in some parts a fictional narrative putting words and thoughts in David Railton’s mouth and mind. If taken out of context these may be purported to be the truth. Other than that, it is a very well researched book by an author who certainly understands the army and its ways. It is very welcomed by anybody who is interested in WW1, the Tomb, Westminster Abbey and the role of the priests in that war. It is recommended reading.

 Keith Walker

The Eastern Front 1914-1917

Norman Stone

 Penguin History £12.99

This book was recommended to me by Prof John Derry when I asked him for a pointer for a book on the Eastern Front in World War I. Prof Derry is, of course, an established authority on World War I. Norman Stone’s book dates from 1975 but in many ways it has not been superseded. After all, World War I was more than a hundred years ago! There is a succinct summary of the book on the dust cover which reads as follows:

Norman Stone’s ground-breaking book was the very first authoritative account of the Russian front in the First World War to be published in the West. In this now classic history, he dispels the myths surrounding a still relatively little known aspect of the war, showing how inefficiency rather than economic shortage led to Russia’s desperate privations and eventual retreat. He also reinterprets the connection between the war and the chaos that followed, arguing that although fighting had almost ceased by the end of 1916, Russia was still in turmoil – undergoing a period of change that would inexorably lead towards revolution.

To start at the beginning, the author deals with the situation pertaining in Europe leading up to 1914, in particular, that all the generals in all the armies, including the British, did not comprehend properly that the balance of power between attack and defence had changed radically. This was as a result of quick firing infantry rifles, the modern machine-gun, and quick firing artillery. Indeed, had the German high command realised this, they would not have been driven to invade France and Belgium so as to avoid a two-front war. Instead, they could have sat within their own borders and adequately defended themselves against both Russia and France. Stone points out the obsolescence of cavalry which was incapable of breaking through modern defences, and the inadequacy of the internal combustion engine in 1914. By the later stages of the war, the internal combustion engine had improved to allow the development of the first tanks. On the Western front, we think of the battle of Cambrai in 1917 as being a “modern” attack using armoured vehicles. All of the author’s comments apply equally to the situation in the West as to the East. This indicates the level of profound analysis and research which was undertaken in producing this book.

 Another more general aspect of the analysis of World War I in this book is the sheer amount of resources consumed by the cavalry. Their horses had to be fed, watered and looked after seven days a week, whether or not they were going to be used in any military action. The huge quantities of fodder and bedding needing to be transported fouled up the transportation of other more essential war materiel for the infantry and for the artillery. Indeed, a further problem with the Russian army was the divide and mutual antagonism between the infantry and the artillery.

 A key problem with the Russian conduct of war was the incredible inefficiency which pervaded the whole system. For example, even though Russia had a considerable length of railway track, they lacked the ability to use their railway system efficiently. It took weeks to move a Russian army division, where the Germans could accomplish the same task in a matter of days.

 The production of war materiel was managed incompetently, and indeed for much of the war the Russian government preferred to buy in supplies from foreign countries. The domestic production of artillery shells only really took off in 1916, perversely resulting in a stockpile which was used by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War.

 All this is not to deny the Russian successes in World War I. The initial invasion of East Prussia took the Germans rather by surprise, and occurred 48 hours before any German troops had entered Belgium. Similarly, the Brusilov offensive in 1916 on the South West of the front was a major success that crippled the Austro-Hungarian army and effectively knocked it out of the war as an independent fighting machine. Indeed, Austro Hungary proved itself to be the sick man of the Central Powers, if not of Europe, and required to be propped up by the Germans from 1916. Austro Hungary was involved in the Italian campaign and was also fighting against the Russians in Galicia. In Italy, after striking initial success, things rather fell apart and, as we have said, required German input.

 One big issue with the Eastern Front is that it never became bogged down in the way that the Western Front did. This was due (a) to the considerable length of the Eastern Front which, if transposed to the west, would have resulted in a front running from Ypres to Morocco, and (b) to the smaller forces involved in the east. In other words, there simply wasn’t the manpower to have a fixed defensive line over such a vast area, so movement was the order of the day.

 Russia, like the other Entente powers, had territorial targets as part of their war aims. Thus, Russia envisaged a range of satellite states in Eastern Europe, and chunks of the Ottoman Empire, including the Dardanelles which would allow them to exit and enter the Black Sea with warships which they had not previously been allowed to do. The British were happy to offer Constantinople to the Russians, though they themselves were intent on making off with the oil rich areas of the Ottoman Empire, which they largely did after the war.

 Indicative of the Russian problems, even quite far into the war, was the statement by the head of the army that he had 1.7 million soldiers with 1.4 million rifles. It does not take a genius to realise this is not a happy situation for an army trying to fight any war.

 A complication in August 1916 was Romania entering the war on the side of the Entente. While this in theory should have made life easier for the Russians, the Romanians were well and truly eliminated by a German and Austro-Hungarian force led by Falkenhayn and, by December 1916, Bucharest was taken by the Germans.

 However, by the start of 1917 social conditions were breaking down inside Russia. After the March revolution, the Kerenski government continued the war and Bolshevik leaders Kamenev and Stalin appealed for order in the army and the factories. It was not until the arrival of Lenin in April that the Bolsheviks adopted an out and out revolutionary programme.

 During the period of 1915 to 1916, there had been considerable economic growth in Russia, with more jobs and higher wages. However, this industrialisation hit the 11 million Russian peasant households who made their living not from agriculture but rather from cottage industries, such as weaving or rope making. The number was down to 4 ½ million by 1917. In other words, there was a burst of economic activity between 1914 and 1917 that brought as much change to Russia in three years as had occurred in the whole of the previous generation. After the October Revolution, which of course actually happened in November 1917 because of the Russians using the antiquated Julian calendar, there was an armistice in December 1917 and the Treaty of Brest Litovsk was signed with the Germans in March 1918. By this stage, the Russian army was in a state of total disintegration. Supply problems had been a key issue. The soldiers had been receiving poor rations, irregularly delivered and erratic pay. This resulted in indiscipline, illicit stills, mutinies and attacking their own officers.

 It’s important to remember that the collapse of Russia and the Treaty did not result in the Germans being able to send all their troops from the East to the Western Front. Whilst some troops were freed to go to the West, the Germans had to retain one million men in the East, not least to deal with the harvest, as starvation of the civilian population was a major problem in Germany and Austro Hungary because of the Royal Navy blockade.

 The difficult part of this book is the sketch maps which are quite hard to follow. In reading this book, it is useful to have access to either a paper atlas or a computer where one can find appropriate maps online. That makes understanding the geography of the various phases of the campaign easier. Having said that, I would heartily agree with John Derry that this is a most excellent book that stands up to the test of time very well. Another book on the Eastern front which has been recommended to me by a Polish historian is that written by an American author, David R Stone “The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917”, 2015, University Press of Kansas. This is a more recent work and I hope to be able to review it in the near future. It only seems to be available in the UK on Kindle at the moment.

 Trevor Adams