Spanish Flu

Spanish Flu

As the Great War drew to an end, an even greater tragedy occurred worldwide – the Spanish flu epidemic. More people worldwide died of influenza than were killed in the First World War. Some fifty million are believed to have died of Spanish flu.

The first cases in West Lothian were noted in Bo’ness in June 1918; from there it spread to Linlithgow, Armadale, and Bathgate. Several people collapsed in the streets, and schools closed early for the summer because of such high rates of infection among both teachers and children. There were a number of deaths, but by the end of July the worst seemed to be over. Then a second wave of influenza appeared in October 1918, a more virulent strain.

On 1 November 1918, the Linlithgowshire Gazette commented:

It is not uncommon now to see one seemingly in the best of health to-day and hear of him being dead a few days later.

On 8 November 1918, the Linlithgowshire Gazette reported:

The number of deaths in the burgh and parish of Linlithgow from influenza, since 15th October when the first death was registered, number 55. In one home in Bridgend there have been four deaths – the father and three sons ... It is stated that the mortality in the burgh and parish from influenza has exceeded that from the cholera epidemic ... between 50 and 60 years ago.

In Armadale over 700 people went down with the flu, and there were dozens of deaths.

The strange thing about the Spanish flu was that it claimed not children and old people, but the young and fit, particularly those aged between 20 and 40. This was because it caused the immune system to go into overdrive; in young and fit people with strong immune systems, this could prove fatal. One of these young victims was R G Jude, captain of the Bathgate Volunteer Force (a sort of First World War Home Guard). Though a fit and active man of 28, he died within six days of contracting the illness.

By the end of December 1918, the worst of the flu was over, though deaths still occurred into the early months of 1919. The saddest cases were the soldiers: relieved that their loved ones had come safely through the war, their families must have felt bitter grief that flu should have claimed them just when peace had come.

©West Lothian Local History Library and ‘1914-18: Fauldhouse Remembers’ group

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John Wilson Meek, son of Meek the fruiterer in Sheephousehill, survived the fighting, but caught flu and died in March 1919.