20 FEBRUARY, 1919: Coughs And Sneezes…

This has nothing to do with any particular anniversary, and I’ve got nothing particularly eye opening to say about it, but it really is time I talked about the flu.  The global influenza pandemic of 1918–19 is often referenced by popular history, but usually in the most general terms.  The estimated worldwide death toll of at least fifty million people, about one in ten of those infected, is bandied about anywhere you care to look, and the effects of the pandemic on developed civilian societies receive plenty of coverage.  As is the case concerning most major issues a century ago, the picture presented by our heritage history is far from complete, focusing on home populations and ignoring vast swathes of the planet, so some basic 101 on the subject seems to fit my brief.  Here we go.

The ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918–19, which came in three waves, killed more people than any single outbreak of disease in human history to date, reducing the global population by between three and four percent.  Contrary to much popular thinking at the time, and to anyone on the Internet still peddling the idea, the arrival of the sickness had nothing to do with the four years of world warfare in progress when it arrived, though its rapid spread across the planet would not have been possible without the unprecedented crowding together of belligerent populations (in trenches, factories, mass protests, etc.) or the simultaneous surge in long-range transportation of humans.

Relatively minor outbreaks of a flu virus had taken place all over the world during 1915 and 1916.  It is now generally accepted that a mutated version of the same virus was responsible for outbreaks of what is seen (with hindsight) as a milder precursor of ‘Spanish Flu’ in military camps at Étaples in France and Aldershot in England between late 1916 and the following March.  Neither of the latter spread further, but a similar, much more infectious virus struck in the US state of Kansas a year later.  It quickly spread through military camps all over the country, crossed the Atlantic aboard ships and had become an epidemic across much of Europe by the early summer of 1918.

This first epidemic was no killer and most people recovered within a month, though it often left victims tired and lethargic for weeks afterwards.  It was also very big news, but in the midst of a global propaganda war the news was distinctly partial.  Highly disruptive wherever it struck, influenza’s effects on the fighting strength of belligerent armies were, for instance, concealed from public view at the time and have received little attention since – but modern historians generally agree that the sick condition of the German Army, which was struck by the disease after it passed through the Allied trenches, was an important contributor to the failure of its spring offensives on the Western Front.

Meanwhile a relative flood of news about disruption in neutral Spain, which had an uncensored press, was creating the false impression (promoted by the world’s press) that the virus was Spanish in origin.  And so the outbreak of early 1918 became ‘Spanish Flu’, for posterity and for millions at the time, but not for everyone.  The Spanish called it Italian, black South Africans called it ‘white man’s sickness’, white South Africans called it ‘black man’s disease’, Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, and dozens of other names, not all of them politically inspired, were used by contemporaries to describe a mysterious, apparently unstoppable affliction that was about to turn very nasty.

In Spain they called it the ‘Neapolitan Soldier’, and it killed.

According to modern medical orthodoxy, epidemic conditions produced rapid adaption in a virus that had mutated several times during the previous three years.  From August 1918, a new strain emerged that attacked the human lungs quickly and with potentially lethal ferocity, leaving many victims prey to bacterial pneumonia and proving particularly dangerous to vigorous young adults, whose strong immune systems over-reacted to cause viral pneumonia and respiratory crisis.

Arriving at a time of unprecedented human traffic as the Great War reached its climax, the new killer made its first appearances in three busy ports during late August.  It quickly hitchhiked around the world in the populations of ships and penetrated inland trade routes. From Boston it spread rapidly through the Americas, from Brest through Europe and from Freetown in Sierra Leone to western and southern Africa.  This second wave was by far the most destructive, infecting an estimated 500–600 million people during the autumn and winter of 1918 and responsible for the great majority of deaths. Just as the pandemic seemed to be abating, in early 1919, a third wave struck and a fresh mutation of the virus swept across the world, killing another 3–4 million people before it finally subsided in mid-summer.

The killer virus wasn’t understood in 1918, but people knew something about how to avoid it. US public medical advice, late 1918.

The pattern of influenza deaths was by no means regular, but was broadly explicable.  Generally speaking, Europe and North America suffered the least, while the worst hit areas were sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, southern and eastern Asia, and the islands of the Pacific – in other words the world’s poorest and least medically aware societies.  Death rates could also vary dramatically between regions or even localities in the same country.  These apparently inexplicable anomalies encouraged a wide spectrum of homespun superstitions surrounding the disease, everything from intervention for wartime sins by a divinity of choice to the idea that a source of death with ‘germ’ in its profile must be a German secret weapon.  There were, again with hindsight, more rational explanations.  The imposition and success, or otherwise, of quarantine regulations was often a local matter, as was the prevalence or otherwise of the crowds that spread the disease like lightning.  There is also evidence that those places most affected by the first wave of influenza had developed some degree of immunity to the second.

Most photographic records of the pandemic come from the United Sates – but this was a Maori hospital in New Zealand.

The disease killed more males than females, a difference attributed to social mores that encouraged men to keep on fighting or working when the most effective treatment was complete rest, but the flu also proved particularly dangerous to pregnant women, and controversy has bubbled ever since about whether to add unborn or stillborn babies to the overall death toll.  Some surviving children born to infected mothers are thought to have suffered developmental damage in the womb, and a large (though incalculable) number of adult survivors were left with permanently damaged respiratory systems.  Overall, the pandemic’s long-term physical effects on human society are difficult to quantify, not least because vast swathes of the infected world were bureaucratically challenged in 1919.

The psychological effects of such a massive global catastrophe on the heels of such a terrible war are equally impossible to pin down, but it does seem to fair to say that grief, fear, bitterness, pessimism and partying like there was no tomorrow were all significant influences on human history during following decades, and were all promoted by the pandemic experience of 1918–19.  On the positive side, the evident failure of contemporary medicine to understand or combat influenza prompted a frenzy of analysis and research in its aftermath.  Along with a transformation of first-world attitudes to disease prevention through quarantine and sanitation, a worldwide effort eventually produced decisive breakthroughs in the field of virology, enabling final identification of the virus responsible for the pandemic in 1933.

Apart from the usual reminders about first-world perspectives on relatively recent history, the enduring power of wartime propaganda and the links between the First World War and pretty much everything since, all I’ve been trying to do here is wrap some context around a well-known catastrophe.  Apologies if there’s nothing new on offer, but it always seems a good idea for us white folks from rich countries to season our unsalted heritage with a little context.

8 FEBRUARY, 1919: Empire Games

During the last few years, I’ve been at pains to point out the part played by the First World War in spreading European imperial control through the Middle East, and in shaping the region for the conflicts it still endures.  I’ve tended to focus on the southern provinces of the Ottoman Empire and on the British, who planned and carried out wartime Allied invasions of the Middle East, and were the prime movers behind its reorganisation in the wake of Ottoman collapse – but it wouldn’t do toss around blame for the mess without giving the French Empire its fair share.

A century ago today, General Franchet d’Espèrey, the grizzled French firebrand latterly in command of Allied forces on the Salonika Front (15 September, 1918: Walkover), arrived in Constantinople to begin work as c-in-c of Allied occupation forces in the Ottoman Empire.  That sounds straightforward enough, albeit laden with symbolism as the Christian world once more took formal control of a region it had been invading in vain since the eleventh century, but in fact the general’s ceremonial entry into the city was both controversial and provocative.

Here comes the general… Franchet d’Espèrey hits Constantinople, 8 February 1919.

For one thing, no Allied occupation of Constantinople had been agreed or pre-arranged.  The Mudros Armistice, which halted fighting between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire from 30 October 1918, had made provisions for occupation of those areas where Allied forces might be under military threat, but the British didn’t waste much time on such niceties.  The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet steamed into Constantinople on 12 November, accompanied by French, Italian, Greek, US and Japanese vessels, and substantial (predominantly British) ground forces began landing the following day, cheered through the streets by the city’s Christian population while its Moslem folk stayed quietly indoors.  The Allies did not occupy the capitals of the other wartime Central Powers – Berlin, Vienna and Sofia – and exactly why British foreign minister Lord Curzon decided to seize Constantinople has never been established, but plausible motives aren’t too hard to find.

Control of the Bosphorus provided the Allies with a valuable conduit for support of anti-Bolshevik forces scattered around the Caucasus, while control of the Ottoman administrative hub offered the most efficient means of speeding up disarmament of an empire long since marked for dismemberment in the event of an Allied victory.  Other, less tangible motives ascribed to British imperial strategists included a desire to expunge the public embarrassment of the Gallipoli campaign by occupying its ultimate target, and a broad concern to discourage pan-Islamic movements in India and elsewhere in the Middle East by controlling one of the faith’s major seats of power.

Whatever the precise mix of motives behind it, the British move on Constantinople triggered a minor stampede.  A few French troops had actually been the first Allied units to reach the city on 12 November, and more soon followed, while Italian forces landed at Galata, the district on the opposite bank of the Golden Horn, on 7 February.  By way of giving the occupation a formal connection with the peace process underway in Paris, token US, Greek and Japanese forces also arrived in the Ottoman capital.  The city was divided into British, French and Italian occupation zones, and high commissioners from each of the six occupying countries formed the new administration’s highest authority, though in practice power rested with the British and French representatives.  Beneath that level, administration was strictly military, with a committee of generals controlling commissions responsible for various departments concerned with disarmament, public order or requisition.

The British were clearly in charge.  The commissioners were led by the British representative – c-in-c of the Mediterranean fleet, Admiral Gough-Calthorpe – and military command on the ground rested with General Milne, whose force from the Salonika front had been the first to enter the city and who had been named by the British in September 1918 as commander-in-chief of ‘Black Sea operations’.  The arrival of Franchet d’Espèrey, Milne’s c-in-c at Salonika and still claiming seniority, sent a loud message to the contrary that complicated the administrative command structure, annoyed the British and generated high-level arguments between London and Paris until the Frenchman’s eventual departure in March 1920.  So why did the French bother?

French influence pre-dated British in the Middle East, which had begun with the expulsion of French revolutionary forces from Egypt at the start of the nineteenth century.  The two empires had squabbled over their competing ambitions for the next hundred years, until entente between them taught each to treat the other’s Middle Eastern interests with some respect, albeit a grudging, narrow-eyed respect riddled with mutual suspicion.  Once a great war for survival was underway, the two empires had entered into mutually dependent alliance, and once the Middle East had become a battleground both Britain and France were ready to cut a definitive deal.

That deal was the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, and I’ve discussed its details before, as well as its incompatibility with promises of independence made to leaders of the Arab Revolt (9 May, 1916: Big Deal).  Now is a good time to take another look at the map it sought to create, because by early 1919, long before the signing of any formal agreements made in Paris, it was being turned into reality.

One more time – this was the Anglo-French blueprint for carving up the Middle East after the First World War.

Sykes-Picot was out of date by the start of 1919, because the British and French were no longer required to consider Russian ambitions. One Ottoman zone designated for Russian control had been the area around the Bosphorus Strait and Constantinople, opening the door for occupation of the capital.  The land between the Black Sea and the Persian frontier, also designated for Russian imperial control, was now being claimed as sovereign by Caucasian states on the frontline of the battle between the old ways and bolshevism, a position that made independence for Georgia, Azerbaijan and above all Armenia worth promoting from an allied point of view.

The British were already in effective control of their planned area of dominance in the south of the former Ottoman heartlands. France had neither a major army in position nor the resources to send one, so the British had agreed to mind the southern section of the area marked in blue while the French used what resources they could muster to take control of the northern section.

Some 15,000 French troops had landed in the province then known in Western Europe as Cilicia (the part of Anatolia north and northeast of Cyprus now called Cukurova) on 17 November 1918. They had spread out to occupy the region by the end of the year, and moved into towns further east in early 1919.  To the apparent surprise of the French, who seem to have decided the British had already subdued any potential opposition in Cilicia, regional nationalists immediately began organising resistance (in collaboration with Arab elements), and resistance quickly matured into guerilla warfare, becoming part of a wider nationalist struggle for an independent, largely intact Turkey.

Cilicia in 1919, since you ask…

It’s hard to believe that French authorities weren’t ready for trouble in Cilicia.  In order to field such a large force, they had cashed in on their wartime support for Armenian nationalists, and most of the occupying troops in Cilicia were Armenian volunteers with the French Legion of the East (which was rebranded as the French Armenian Legion on 1 February 1919).  With Turks and Armenians in a state of virtual civil war, and the French openly in support of Armenian separatism, civil unrest in Cilicia was inevitable and predictable.  The conflict, known as the Franco-Turkish War, would escalate and splutter on until March 1921, but the failure of a first treaty to halt nationalist violence meant that French troops did not finally withdraw from the region until the following January.

So France had military reasons to install a senior general at Constantinople, but Franchet d’Espèrey’s presence was also a means of keeping an eye on British adherence to the Sykes-Picot terms and of maintaining international pressure for Armenian independence, a cause promoted to the max by wartime propaganda and correspondingly important to the French public.  The British behaved themselves, and at the end of 1919 handed over those regions they were holding for the French, but Armenian independence, while logical in the context of western anti-Bolshevik plans, was both difficult to achieve (and another story) and anathema to most Turks.  Along with the generally harsh and overtly anti-Moslem nature of the occupation, Allied support for the Armenian cause helped spur Constantinople’s Turkish population to active resistance.

The occupation was administered under the notional umbrella of the Sultan, his grand vizier and cabinet, and the Ottoman parliament.  Grand viziers, some more apparently collaborative than others, came and went in rapid succession, but none of them made much effort to prevent the smuggling of weapons to nationalists in Anatolia from the stores of arms confiscated as part of the disarmament programme.  Meanwhile underground organisations were springing up all over the city’s Turkish quarters, and parliamentary deputies kept up a barrage of nationalist rhetoric.  To further complicate matters for the Allies, a steady inflow of ‘White Russian’ refugees evacuated from the Crimea (eventually some 200,000 of them) added to the stress on both an administration terrified of Bolshevik infiltrators and a population that, apart from its (largely Greek) Christian element, treated the occupiers with sullen hostility.

In Constantinople, though not among nationalist leaders in the provinces, official hostility to the occupiers was deliberately muted in early 1919, because the Sultan’s government and parliamentary politicians were hoping to convince the Allies that they were the good guys in Turkey.  The Turkish press, public and politicians all agreed that the criminal wartime leadership of Enver Pasha and his Young Turk colleagues (who had done a David Cameron and fled the disaster they had caused) was entirely to blame for any Ottoman disagreements with the Allies.  If the Allies could be persuaded of the same, the argument ran, Turkey might yet secure a relatively lenient peace.

Even without hindsight this seemed a faint hope, and it quickly achieved unicorn status.  Once the second phase of peace talks in Paris got underway, from mid-March 1919, it was clear to anyone paying attention that the European Allies were set on a punitive peace, because their political constituencies demanded revenge and because their wartime diplomacy demanded a carve-up of Ottoman territories to be shared among the victors.  Long before the spring of 1920, when final Allied demands presented to the Sultan’s regime triggered its collapse and replacement by a nationalist assembly in Ankara, nationalist leaders away from Constantinople were operating in the belief that only armed defence of the frontiers could prevent Turkey’s dismemberment.

The Allied occupation of Constantinople strikes me as interesting in itself, and as a fairly major example of important stuff either forgotten or deliberately left out of Western Europe’s historical narrative, but it was only one facet of a much bigger story.  In Cilicia, for instance, the French might have been driven out more quickly if Turkish nationalist leaders hadn’t prioritised another war that kicked off in May 1919, when Greece invaded at Smyrna (Izmir) in a doomed attempt to secure territories promised by the Allies. Meanwhile nationalists were competing with Bolshevik Russia and independence campaigners in Armenia and the rest of the Caucasus for control of Turkey’s eastern heartlands… but these were all long stories and they’ll have to wait, as will an overall picture of the national struggle led by Kemal Ataturk.

I can’t claim that this particularly long and unstructured ramble has much of a point to make.  Think of it as a reminder that the British and French didn’t let an outbreak of peace interrupt the business of empire building, and that any sense of mistrust emanating from modern Turkey has a basis in Anglo-French mistreatment a century ago.