Wednesday, April 10, 2019

It's the Flu

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic has been described as “World War I’s darker twin.”* The outbreak of Spanish flu began in 1918, and by the time the world-wide plague had ended, it had become the deadliest pandemic in human history, claiming an estimated 50 - 100 million victims** – vastly exceeding even the millions of war deaths.  Researchers believe that as many as “one third of the world’s population were infected,” and the fatality rate was exceptionally high: at least 2.5% of those infected died.*** The disease was most deadly among the young and healthy, as their robust immune systems violently overreacted to the virus.  Those affected “coughed blood and bled from the nose. Death was usually caused as bacteria invaded the lungs, turning … [them] into sacks of fluid and thus effectively drowning the patient.”

While the origins of the pandemic are disputed, “no one disagrees about its path: it followed the war.”†† An anonymous poem published (curiously) in Nice Poems by Nice War Workers (1919) uses dark humor to comment on pervasive menace of the illness.  Influenza was the answer to every medical question – too often, the final answer. 

It’s the Flu

When your head is blazing, burning
And your brain is turning,
Unto buttermilk from churning,
            It’s the Flu.
When your joints are creaking, cracking,
As if all the fiends were racking,
All the devils were attacking,
            It’s the Flu.
It’s the Flu, Flu, Flu
Which has you, you, you,
It has caught you and has got you
And it sticks like glue.
It’s the very latest fashion,
It’s the doctor’s pet and passion,
So sneeze a bit and sneeze a bit—
Ka-chew, chew chew.
When the stomach grows uneasy,
Quaking, querulous or queasy,
All dyspeptic and diseasy,
            It’s the Flu.

When you have appendicitis,
Par-enchy-ma and ne-phri-tis,
Laryngitis or gastritis,
            It’s the Flu.
When you have a corn or pimple,
Complicated ill or simple,
Broken bone or fading dimple,
            It’s the Flu.
When, no matter what assails you,
If no doctor knows what ails you,
Then the answer never fails you,
            It’s the Flu. 

* Jane Elizabeth Fisher, “Teaching the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as Part of a World War I Curriculum,” in Teaching Representations of the First World War, edited by Debra Rae Cohen and Douglas Higbee, MLA, 2017.
** Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens, “1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics,” CDC Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 2006.
*** Taubenberger and Morens, “1918 Influenza.”
† Howard Phillips and David Killingray, The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19: New Perspectives, Routledge, 2003.
†† Fisher, “Teaching.”

Thanks to Lucy London for help with "ciseasy/diseasy" and for finding an alternative version of this poem published in the Jan. 1919 Coal Mining Review. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Where do we go from here?

Women war workers, Lorraine Ohio (May 1917)

“What a good time the women are having in the war! And, in a way, they really are. For into that somewhat drab thing called every-day life has come the call of duty that makes every one, man, woman, and child, who has red blood, get up and do whatever duty bids.”
                        Cleveland Plain Dealer, Oct. 28, 1917*

In 1919, the Souvenir Publishing Company printed two books within one binding: Nice Poems by Nice War Workers and Naughty Poems by Naughty War Workers, compiled by Jean of the A.G.O. Each half of the book had its own title page and thirty-two pages of poetry, with titles such as “Buy a Bond” (from Nice Poems) and “Me for the Cave-Man Stuff” (from Naughty Poems). The Nice Poems section of the book also included a poem that parodied a popular song of the day:

Where Do We Go from Here

Where do we go from here, girls?
Where do we go from here?
The war is won,
Our work is done,
And we’ve not shed a tear.
We’ll pack our trunks
And say good-bye
And leave by the first of the year,
But Oh, girls, Oh, girls,
Where do we go from here?
            —Composed Friday, December 13, 1918
                 by Ollie Parnell

The poem would have been immediately familiar to most as a variation on the popular tune “Where Do We Go from Here [Boys],” published in 1917.  That song follows the adventures of Paddy Mack, a cab driver from New York who joins the American Expeditionary Force (you can listen to it here):

First of all, at the call
When the war began
Pat enlisted in the army
As a fighting man
When the drills began,
They’d walk a hundred miles a day
Tho’ the rest got tired,
Paddy always used to say:
Where do we go from here, boys,
Where do we go from here?
Slip a pill to Kaiser Bill
And make him shed a tear;
And when we see the enemy
We’ll shoot them in the rear,
Oh joy, Oh boy,
Where do we go from here?**

Ollie Parnell’s variation on the tune reminds readers of women’s contributions to the war and the uncertainty they faced in the post-war world.  Historian Lynn Dumenil notes,
During World War I, observers routinely described women workers, especially those who were breaking down barriers that had limited their work opportunities, as the second line of defense," whose service in the nation’s interest paralleled that of male soldiers.***
During the war, women workers were needed to fill jobs that had previously been open only to men. They completed the work professionally and competently, whether working in munitions factories, on subways and tram cars, or at agricultural and forestry positions.  After the war, these women “presented themselves as competent individuals who contributed significantly to the winning of the war. They insisted that they had thus earned equal citizenship, a claim that became an important part of the final drive for woman suffrage and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.****
Women picket White House, 1917

* Cited in Lynn Dumenil’s The Second Line of Defense: American Woman and World War I, University of North Carolina Press, 2017, p. 1.
** Song by Howard Johnson and Percy Wenrich, Leo Feist, Inc., 1917.
*** Dumenil, The Second Line of Defense, pp. 1-2.
**** Dumenil, The Second Line of Defense, p. 2.

Saturday, February 23, 2019


David Erskine Boyle, from Bond of Sacrifice

The First World War began on July 28, 1914, lasted 1,568 days, and ended on November 11, 1918. But while international conflicts and combat can be marked on timelines, the human experience of war is not as neatly circumscribed.  Well before the war was over, in 1916 Scottish writer Mary Elizabeth Boyle published a collection of thirty sonnets, dedicated “To David, my brother, killed at Le Cateau, August 26th, 1914.”  Her book of poems was titled Aftermath.

Do you remember one September night
We watched the summer lightning scar the sky,
The while Aurora flickered? You asked “Why?”
Is this the world’s end, this unearthly light,
Shall we go home?” “No, stay and see the sight,
Better to die outside,” was my reply.
And as we watched an owl gave one long cry,
A shriek, as of a soul gone mad with fright.
“End of the world,” to us meant nursery tales,
Dramatic, fearsome, so our old Nurse said,
An overwhelming sea in which souls toss.
A soldier’s death, Fate weighed you in her scales,
Then growing weary, on my shoulders laid
The paralysing sense of daily loss.

Sometimes I hear your footstep on the stair,
A curious way you scuffled slippered feet,
And am inclined to run halfway and meet
You on my threshold. Waiting in my chair,
Grow cold, whilst thinking you were really there,
There were no pause before you came to greet.
A laugh, an extra scuffle, movement fleet
To silence protest, light pull of my hair
To tilt my face, so eyes could laugh at eyes,
The mirror would reflect two faces gay.
Instead it shows a woman staring, blank,
Whose ears are traitors, telling wished for lies,
Whose eyes are blinded, looking far away
Unto last August, when her youth’s sun sank.
            —Mary Elizabeth Boyle

La Ferte sous Joarre Memorial
Bond of Sacrifice, a book commemorating British officers who fell early in the war, reports that Mary’s brother David Erskine Boyle had attended Malvern College “where he was a school prefect, head of his house, in the cricket XXII, the football XI, and in the Officers’ Training Corps....When he was killed, he was in the act of summoning aid for a fellow officer who had just been wounded. He was buried by his own men close to where he fell.” By the war’s end, Lt. David Boyle’s body could not be located; he is commemorated on the memorial to the missing at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre. 

Mary Elizabeth Boyle spent the war in Glasgow, and for a time, managed a home for fifty Belgian refugees.  After the war, she became the life-long assistant to French archaeologist Abbé Henri Breuil, and together they pioneered the discovery and interpretation of prehistoric cave paintings.

In her Introduction to Aftermath, Mary Boyle wrote,
My brother gave his life. I have so little to offer, my thirty tiny songs. I give them to those who need them.  Let the stones of literary criticism fall from your hands, or use them to build a cairn, as we do in the north, to the memory of a very gallant young soldier, and a great mutual love.
David and Mary Boyle (center, locking arms)