Egon Schiele’s unfinished family portrait. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A third of the world’s population were infected: here's how the diarists recorded 1918 Spanish flu

Extracts from Virginia Woolf to Guillaume Apollinaire
February 20, 2018
It wasn’t particularly Spanish, but the name stuck when in May 1918 the Spanish king, the prime minister and his entire cabinet came down with it. To maintain morale, wartime censorship minimised early reports in belligerent countries, but newspapers were free to report on neutral Spain. It came in two phases. In late spring it appeared without warning. Few deaths were reported and most victims recovered after a few days. When it resurfaced in autumn, it was far more severe. A third of the world’s population, 500m, were estimated to have been infected, with 50-100m deaths (the four years of the First World War had killed 16m).

Virginia Woolf

On 20th October 1918, Virginia Woolf writes in her diary:

“Pain is abhorrent to all Stracheys, but making all allowances for the exaggerations and terrors of the poor creature, Lytton has had a sufficient dose of horror, I imagine, and the doctor privately warns Carrington that shingles may last months. However, Lytton, is probably... avoiding London, because of the influenza (we are, by the way, in the midst of a plague unmatched since The Black Death, according to the Times, who seem to tremble lest it may seize upon Lord Northcliffe & thus precipitate us into peace.)

Egon Schiele

In mid-October 1918, Edith, the wife of the Viennese painter Egon Schiele, falls ill with the flu. He writes to his mother:

“Edith fell ill with the Spanish flu eight days ago yesterday and is now also suffering from pneumonia. She is six months pregnant. The illness is exceptionally severe and critical; I am preparing myself for the worst.”

She and their unborn child died on 28th October. Schiele died three days later.


The poet Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the great avant-garde figures of pre-war Paris, coined the terms Cubism and Surrealism and introduced Braque to Picasso. A volunteer in 1914 he was wounded in the head two years later. The poet Blaise Cendrars, who had lost an arm in combat, bumped into his friend Apollinaire in Paris on Sunday 3rd November 1918. They discussed “the subject of the day,” the flu epidemic. He succumbed and died on 9th November. Cendrars described the burial which took place on 13th November:

“The final absolution having been given, the casket of Apollinaire left the church of St Thomas Aquinas, draped in a flag, Guillaume’s lieutenant helmet on the tricolor, among the flowers and wreaths. A guard of honour, a squad of soldiers, arms at their sides, led the slow convoy, the family behind the carriage, his mother, his wife, in their mourning veils, the poor Jacqueline, who had escaped the epidemic which had taken Guillaume, but who was still weak, the intimate friends of Apollinaire, Picasso, all the other great friends of Guillaume, all of literary Paris, Paris of the arts, the press. But as it reached the corner of Saint-Germain, the cortege was besieged by a crowd of noisy celebrants of the Armistice, men and women with arms waving, singing, dancing, kissing, shouting deliriously...

“It was fantastic, Paris celebrating. Apollinaire lost. I was full of melancholy. It was absurd.”

Nurse Catherine Macfie

Catherine Macfie, a nurse at a casualty clearing-station outside Lille, recorded her thoughts at the Armistice on 11th November:

“We couldn’t send these young men on my ward down the line because they were too ill to move, and we had ever so many deaths. We were kept busy and it was a most depressing time—worse, in a way, when all the good news was coming through. The boys were coming in with colds and a headache and they were dead within two or three days. Great big, handsome fellows, just came in and died. There was no rejoicing in Lille on the night of the Armistice. There was no rejoicing.”

Anthony Burgess

The novelist Anthony Burgess recorded in his autobiography:

“One’s first memories are often vicarious: one is told that one did something: one dramatises it and folds the image falsely into the annals of the truly remembered. So, less than two years old, I am sitting on a shoulder in Manchester’s Piccadilly while a flag-waving crowd cheers the Armistice. Then the lights go out. In early 1919 my father, not yet demobilised, came on one of his regular, probably irregular, furloughs to Carisbrook Street to find both my mother and sister dead. The Spanish influenza pandemic had struck Harpurley. There was no doubt of the existence of a God: only the supreme being could contrive so brilliant an afterpiece to four years of unprecedented suffering and devastation. I, apparently, was chuckling in my cot while my mother and sister lay dead on a bed in the same room.

I should not have been chuckling; I should have been howling for food; perhaps the visiting neighbour who had been herself just been stricken had provided me with a bottle of Glaxo. My father’s attitude to his son must now have become too complicated for articulation. It would have been neater if all three in that room had been obliterated. When I was old enough to appreciate his mingled resentment and factitious gratitude at my survival, I was able to understand his qualified affection, his lack of interest in any future I might have...

Of my sister Muriel he passed on no memories. My mother survived briefly in  the vague reminiscences of the Manchester music hall—a voice that could ride over a restive audience, the shining abundant hair, the neat ankles... She took to Guinness and boiled puddings. It would be easier to recreate her in fiction, relating her to Molly Bloom and Rosie Driffield, than to wrestle with a virtually non-existent reality. It is difficult to know how far we have an obligation to the dead. I sometimes resent my father’s failure to introduce me even to her insubstantial after-image, but he spoke little of her. She joined the great boneyard of the war and its aftermath.”