Pandemic Influenzas Impact on World War I

With the notable exceptions of Crosby, Byerly, and Bessel, medical historians have perpetuated the ignorance of the impact of influenza on the war effort, and certainly on the outcome of the war. The historians Byron Farwell, Jennifer Keene, and Robert Ziegler have argued that the pandemic compromised the effectiveness of military forces during the war to a certain extent, but they have not gone so far as to argue that it had any effect on the outcome of the conflict.73

Given that the waves of pandemic influenza (as determined by pathogen-induced mortality) struck Austrian and German society (and their military forces) before they struck British society, we might expect that influenza debilitated the war effort of the Central Powers more than that of the Allies. Thus, it is variation in mortality and (perhaps even more important) in timing that indicates that Crosby was premature in concluding that all combatants were affected in the same manner. The balance of evidence accumulated herein suggests that the pandemic affected the combatant' militaries, governments, and societies in rather






E3 Niederosterreich Land

■ Oberosterreich

K Vorarlberg



Figure 3.5

Pneumonia mortality, Austria, 1917-1919, by quarter. Source: Same as for figure 3.4.

different ways, and that it may have contributed to the defeat of the Central Powers.

As the data indicate, the contagion eroded the capacity and efficacy of affected militaries, diminishing their optimal functionality. The pandemic's infliction of such debilitation and death on all the protagonists in the war may have effectively brought the conflict to an early end, as military institutions became increasingly sclerotic and ineffective. Moreover, there is some evidence (borne out in the German mortality tables) that the pandemic greatly impeded the German offensive of the spring of 1918, which, if successful, would have resulted in victory for the Central Powers. The second and third waves also diminished German martial power throughout the summer and fall of 1918.

Thus, the epidemic may have prevented a German victory, extended the war, and ultimately assisted in forcing the Central Powers to the table to negotiate peace at Versailles. On October 6 and 7, 1918, at the height of the influenza pandemic in Central Europe, the governments of Germany and Austria sent notices to US president Wilson requesting an armistice and peace negotiations based on Wilson's proposed fourteen points. However, perhaps the most important (and previously unexplored) point is that the visitation of the final lethal viral wave on the immunologically naive population of Austria resulted in widespread death and debilitation and in sclerosis of governance, and ultimately contributed to the collapse of the empire. By articulating this hypothesis I hope to stimulate some debate as to the role of the influenza in the collapse of Austria-Hungary and in the demise of Imperial Germany.

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