Rugby in History

April 22 2020

The Great War 1914-1918

HISTORY: Rugby in BC and the Pandemic of 1918-19 - Part One

Near the end of the first world war in 1918 there was an outbreak of what was referred to at the time as "Spanish Influenza" not because it started in Spain but because awareness of it came through the Spanish press. The first wave was during the summer of 1918 but that didn't effect BC, it was the second wave in the fall of 1918 when the Spanish Influenza came to BC and caused most of the damage across the globe. It's estimated 17 to 50 million died worldwide and most of that was during the second wave in the fall of 1918.

We've seen a number of mentions of this time period in the press and on social media as it references a previous pandemic and people want reassurances but also to learn lessons from the past. Of course it's a different world now, travel is measured in hours not days, news travels at the speed of the internet not the speed of trains and ships.

In this series of articles we'll look at how the Spanish Influenza affected BC through the news reports from the Victoria newspaper, the Daily Colonist. We'll also look at how rugby, and other sports, fared at this time in BC.

The first mention of Spanish Influenza in the Daily Colonist newspaper in Victoria, BC was July 14th 1918. It was a little paragraph with the title "Disease Due to Hunger" and was dated from AMSTERDAM, July 13 - "The illness with which thousands of persons in German industrial districts are suffering and which has been described as Spanish Influenza, is really an illness due to hunger and consequent exhaustion, the Telegraaf says it has learned". The front page headline that day was "Allied Armies Make Assaults Against Positions of Enemy At Number of Points on Line - Substantial Success in Montdidier Sector". It would still be four months before the Great War ended on November 11th 1918.

The second mention of the Spanish Influenza came two months later, September 12th 1918, it had reached America. The article title read, "Disease That Infected German Army and Travelled Through Europe Reaches America". It was no longer just an illness of "hunger and exhaustion" but the newspaper reassured it was "shortlived and with practically no serious results". Still the news of the Spanish Influenza had moved from being buried in the middle of the paper to the front page in two months. The front page was still focused on Europe and the War, in particular what was happening in Russia. "Bolsheviki Fearing Downfall Promote Era of Bloodshed in Moscow and Petrograd".

Five days later, September 17th 1918, Spanish Influenza again appears in Victoria news, now 184 cases have appeared in New York City, still the article reports, "there was no cause for alarm over the presence of the disease". The front page headline was, "America Will Unconditionally Reject Overtures of Peace Made by Austria-Hungary".

Two days later on September 19th 1918, another mention, the first time deaths are mentioned, the reassurances become less convincing, "the disease... has appeared in only a mild form". Two deaths have been reported at Camp Devens, Massachusetts. The front page headline reports on the war, "British Advancing on 16-Mile Front, Take 6,000 Prisoners and Capture Many Villages".

September 24th 1918, there are two mentions of the Spanish Influenza in the Daily Colonist, one announces 500 American soldiers arrive at an "Atlantic port" suffering from Spanish Influenza. It's also the first mention of the Spanish Influenza in Canada, "An epidemic of what is supposed to be Spanish Influenza is raging in Victoriaville, Quebec where the 300 students at the college are reported to be sick... So far two of the teaching brothers have died. Morgue statistics today show that in the course of the last few days nine sailors have died on ships in the harbor of Quebec apparently from Spanish Influenza". There were no words of reassurance, it seems this is the date the newspaper editors in Victoria realized this is serious and used the term epidemic. The front page headline read, "Success Gained in Macedonia is Taking on Character of Decisive Allied Victory".

September 26th, the conspiracy theories start, "Spanish Influenza Suspected of Being Brought Across on German U-Boat". It's also the first multi-column article written on the subject where it's recognized as an "Epidemic Influenza" and a local health authority, Dr. Price is quoted. Also the Surgeon General of the United States Army is referenced in his directions on "how to strengthen the country's defence against the scourge". Some of the recommendations seem nonsensical now such as avoiding tight clothing or chewing your food well but several of the recommendations are being promoted today such as washing hands, avoid crowding, smother your coughs, keeping windows open for fresh air, don't share objects. Front page headline is "Enemy Retreats in Great Haste Through Siberia".

So how was rugby faring during this time, the end of the war was in sight, a time for optimism, but there was an epidemic looming and many were still blissfully unaware. The day after the Daily Colonist September 26th article that warned of the epidemic influenza that was beginning to ravage the east, the Island seemed to be focusing on happier thoughts. "Prospects of Rugby Appear to be Bright" the article boasted. There was to be a meeting of all interested to see how the season would unfold, rugby in Vancouver "was going strong again" so the article encouraged "it is certainly up to the Island to show that the game is by no means dead in this part of the world". Front page news that day, "New Offensive is Launched by Franco-American Troops on Long Front in Champagne".

In the next article we'll focus on how rugby, and other sports, fared during that fall 1918 to spring 1919 of the Spanish Influenza. Vancouver Coastal Health reports 4,000 people died in BC during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, projected to today's population size that would be 37,000. Their graph shows it peaked in October, November and again in January.

Below are various Daily Colonist snippets referenced in the above article.

July 14th 1918

September 12th 1918

September 17th 1918

September 19th 1918

September 24th 1918

September 26th 1918

September 27th 1918

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