“The battle,” Rommel famously observed, “is fought and decided by the quartermasters before the shooting begins.” The shooting had begun months before in northwest Africa, but now the quartermasters truly came into their own. The prodigies of American industrial muscle and organizational acumen began to tell. In Oran, engineers built an assembly plant near the port and taught local workers in English, French, and Spanish how to put together a jeep from a box of parts in nine minutes. That plant turned out more than 20,000 vehicles. Another new factory nearby assembled 1,200 railcars, which were among 4,500 cars and 250 locomotives ultimately added to North African rolling stock.
In late January, Eisenhower had pleaded with Washington for more trucks. Less than three weeks later, a special convoy of twenty ships sailed from Norfolk, New York, and Baltimore with 5,000 two-and-a-half-ton trucks, 2,000 cargo trailers, 400 dump trucks, 80 fighter planes, and, for ballast, 12,000 tons of coal, 16,000 tons of flour, 9,000 tons of sugar, 1,000 tons of soap, and 4,000 submachine guns, all of which arrived in Africa on March 6. “It was,” an Army account noted with justifiable pride, “a brilliant performance.”
In World War I, more than half of all supplies for American forces were obtained abroad, including nearly all artillery and airplanes. In this war, almost everything would be shipped from the United States, including immense tonnages sent to the Russians, British, French, and other allies. The demands of modern combat were unprecedented. Although a latter-day infantry division was half the size of its Great War predecessor, it typically used more than twice as much ammunition—111 tons on an average fighting day. In Africa, total supply requirements amounted to thirteen tons per soldier each month.
Can do. From late February to late March, 130 ships sailed from the United States for Africa with 84,000 soldiers, 24,000 vehicles, and a million tons of cargo. Although the U.S. II Corps lost more armor at Kasserine than the Germans had massed at the beginning of the battle, those losses were replaced immediately. Other matériel appeared just as fast, including 500 miles of extra communications wire shipped to the front from Algiers less than a day after it was requested. When Patton requested—no, demanded—new shoes for his entire corps, 80,000 pairs arrived almost overnight. So much ammunition arrived in Tunisia that it was stacked in pyramids and thatched with branches to simulate an Arab village.
The Americans’ “genius lay in creating resources rather than in using them economically,” a British study observed astutely.
25 April 2020
From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 7950ff:
24 April 2020
From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 7906ff:
On Friday, March 12, as Rommel lamented his plight, Eisenhower wrote his own son at West Point: “I have observed very frequently that it is not the man who is so brilliant [who] delivers in time of stress and strain, but rather the man who can keep on going indefinitely, doing a good straightforward job.”
A “good straightforward job” was now called for, and in this homely requisite the Americans found their genius. If the winter campaign in North Africa had revealed Eisenhower’s infirmities, just as it revealed those of his army, spring would elicit strengths of character and competence in both the man and the host he commanded. Eisenhower had been naive, sycophantic, unsure of his judgment, insufficiently vigorous, and a more titular than actual commander. The U.S. Army had been sloppy, undisciplined, cavalier, insufficiently vigorous, and a more titular than actual army. These traits did not abruptly slough away, molting into brilliances of generalship and élan. But new martial lineaments emerged, and they became the stuff of victory and liberation.
After months of sailing with the wind in his face, Eisenhower now found a fresh breeze at his back. His health returned. Alexander and Patton shouldered many of his battlefield burdens. Axis weakness and the weight of Allied material strength became increasingly evident. The praise he craved was forthcoming—from Churchill, who publicly extolled his “selflessness of character and disdain of purely personal advancement,” and from President Roosevelt, who sent word: “Tell Ike that not only I, but the whole country is proud of the job he has done. We have every confidence in his success.” With his equilibrium restored and his job apparently secure, Eisenhower’s leadership ripened with the season.
“I have caught up with myself and have things on a fairly even keel,” he assured Marshall in early March. He sensed the power of a few fixed ideas compellingly preached, and these became tenets of the armies he commanded, even if sometimes practiced more in the breach than the observance. Foremost was Allied unity. “German propaganda is trying to convince the world that [the] British and Americans are at each other’s throats in this theater,” he told Alexander in a handwritten note. “We’ll show them.” He also radiated certitude of victory, which he saw in raw terms: good triumphing over evil after a struggle to rival the primordial brawl of angels. “We have bitter battling ahead, even in Tunisia,” he wrote an old friend on March 21. “Beyond this is the more serious, long-termed prospect of getting at the guts of the enemy and tearing them out.” To his brother Edgar he asserted, “We’re going to clear the Axis out of Africa—and that’s something!”
He was busier than ever, but more focused. “Political questions are not plaguing me as much as formerly,” he told Edgar. He announced that visitors to Algiers were unwelcome unless vital to victory. “American Legion commanders, princes, and others of that stripe are nothing but a deadly bore,” he wrote Marshall. “I am cutting everybody off my list [who] has not something specific to do with winning the war.” He took a personal interest in fielding better mine detectors, better tank sights, even better colored smoke for battlefield signaling.
Endearingly modest, he retained the homespun authenticity that was part of his charisma; men would do much to evoke that remarkable grin. “Eisenhower’s genius seems to be that of a good chairman,” the reporter Philip Jordan, once a harsh critic, told his diary in the weeks after Kasserine. “I have changed my views of this man: he has something.”
20 April 2020
From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 3830ff:
A few days before leaving Gibraltar, Eisenhower had proposed limiting his headquarters to 150 officers. “Am particularly anxious that we strip down to a working basis and cut down on all of the folderol,” he told Clark. Algiers was to be a temporary billet, with Allied Forces Headquarters moving closer to the battlefield in a couple of months. But already AFHQ was expanding wildly. Within a fortnight, the headquarters would occupy nearly 400 offices scattered through eleven buildings. Three hundred officers now devoured as much meat as rationing allocated to 15,000 French civilians. Eisenhower’s signal officer proposed that the formula for staffing a headquarters should be “a reasonable estimate, multiplied by five.” AFHQ would remain in Algiers for years, expanding into a “huge, chairborne force” of more than 1,000 officers and 15,000 enlisted troops occupying 2,000 pieces of real estate. A popular aphorism soon circulated among frontline troops: “Never were so few commanded by so many from so far.” Asked why the Germans failed to bomb AFHQ headquarters, a cynical American major replied, “Because it’s worth fifty divisions to them.”
Algiers already showed the strains of occupation. So many electric razors buzzed in the morning that they interfered with radio transmissions. Prostitutes working the Aletti Hotel now charged £10 sterling per trick. A French newspaper began printing English-language lessons, including the sentence: “No, sir, I am married, and I am hurrying home where my husband is awaiting me.” In Oran, officers in their pinks-and-greens ate in a mess with green leather chairs while musicians in evening dress played Big Band melodies. A supply major proposed creating a medal inscribed “Valor, Patience, Indigestion,” which would be awarded for exemplary “paperwork connected with the social struggle.”
Oranges that had been fifteen cents a bushel in Algiers jumped to fifteen cents a dozen. Beer went from two cents a schooner to a dollar. Nightclubs with names like La Belle Rose and Bucket of Blood were always jammed, while battalion sergeant majors inspected various brothels and chose several of the least odious for licensing. Discovering huge wine barrels awaiting export on the wharves, soldiers tapped them with rifle fire and caught the drainage in their canteen cups; a drunken brawl led to a waterfront firefight suppressed by military policemen who then disarmed all dockworkers. Indiscipline overwhelmed the military justice system: in Oran alone, hundreds of American soldiers had been arrested for various infractions in the two weeks after the invasion, but less than 2 percent of them were prosecuted. A summary court was established to restore order; nearly 300 soldiers would be tried in the first part of December, with a total of 9 acquittals. A third of the cases involved drunkenness. Serious offenses drew harsh sentences: four years for a self-inflicted gunshot to the big toe to avoid combat; eight years at hard labor for kicking a superior officer; life in prison for a soldier who shot and killed an Algerian woman with his rifle.
There was folderol aplenty, despite Eisenhower’s wishes, and it all rested on the commander-in-chief’s squared shoulders. Many of the distractions were fatuous. A rumor in Arab neighborhoods that Eisenhower was a Jew sent by the Jew Roosevelt to establish a Jewish state in North Africa required a leaflet campaign stressing the general’s German Protestant ancestry. The War Department tried to inflate his dignity by urging reporters not to refer to him as “Ike,” and thus ensured that the nickname would stick forever. Ever eager to see his own name in headlines, Clark gave an interview full of breezy predictions about the imminent fall of Tunis and Bizerte; Eisenhower had killed the story just before leaving Gibraltar. Draconian censorship was soon imposed, with correspondents advised that no dispatches would be allowed that made people at home feel unhappy. Equally rigorous censorship of letters home inspired one soldier to write his parents:
After leaving where we were before we left for here, not knowing we were coming here from there, we couldn’t tell whether we had arrived here or not. Nevertheless, we now are here and not there. The weather here is just as it always is at this season. The people here are just like they look.On this page a censor scribbled simply, “Amen.”
19 April 2020
From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 351ff:
In September 1939, the U.S. Army had ranked seventeenth in the world in size and combat power, just behind Romania. When those 136 German divisions conquered western Europe nine months later, the War Department reported that it could field just five divisions. Even the homeland was vulnerable: some coastal defense guns had not been test-fired in twenty years, and the Army lacked enough anti-aircraft guns to protect even a single American city. The building of the armed forces was likened to “the reconstruction of a dinosaur around an ulna and three vertebrae.”
That task had started with the 16 million men who registered for the draft in the fall of 1940, and who would expand Regular Army and National Guard divisions. By law, however, the draftees and newly federalized Guard units were restricted to twelve months of service—and only in the western hemisphere or U.S. territories. Physical standards remained fairly rigorous; soon enough, the day would come when new recruits claimed the Army no longer examined eyes, just counted them. A conscript had to stand at least five feet tall and weigh 105 pounds; possess twelve or more of his natural thirty-two teeth; and be free of flat feet, venereal disease, and hernias. More than forty of every hundred men were rejected, a grim testament to the toll taken on the nation’s health by the Great Depression. Under the rules of conscription, the Army drafted no fathers, no felons, and no eighteen-year-olds; those standards, too, would fall away. Nearly two million men had been rejected for psychiatric reasons, although screening sessions sometimes went no further than questions such as “Do you like girls?” The rejection rate, one wit suggested, was high because “the Army doesn’t want maladjusted soldiers, at least below the rank of major.”
Jeremiads frequently derided the nation’s martial potential. A Gallup poll of October 1940 found a prevailing view of American youth as “a flabby, pacifistic, yellow, cynical, discouraged, and leftist lot.” A social scientist concluded that “to make a soldier out of the average free American citizen is not unlike domesticating a very wild species of animal,” and many a drill sergeant agreed. Certainly no hate yet lodged in the bones of American troops, no urge to close with an enemy who before December 7, 1941, seemed abstract and far away. Time magazine reported on the eve of Pearl Harbor that soldiers were booing newsreel shots of Roosevelt and General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, while cheering outspoken isolationists.
Equipment and weaponry were pathetic. Soldiers trained with drain-pipes for antitank guns, stovepipes for mortar tubes, and brooms for rifles. Money was short, and little guns were cheaper than big ones; no guns were cheapest of all. Only six medium tanks had been built in 1939. A sardonic ditty observed: “Tanks are tanks and tanks are dear / There will be no tanks again this year.” That in part reflected an enduring loyalty to the horse. “The idea of huge armies rolling along roads at a fast pace is a dream,” Cavalry Journal warned in 1940, even after the German blitzkrieg signaled the arrival of mechanized warfare. “Oil and tires cannot like forage be obtained locally.” The Army’s cavalry chief assured Congress in 1941 that four well-spaced horsemen could charge half a mile across an open field to destroy an enemy machine-gun nest without sustaining a scratch. “The motor-mad advocates are obsessed with a mania for excluding the horse from war,” he told the Horse and Mule Association of America, four days before Pearl Harbor. The last Regular Army cavalry regiment would slaughter its mounts to feed the starving garrison on Bataan in the Philippines, ending the cavalry era not with a bang but with a dinner bell.
To lead the eventual host of 8 million men, the Army had only 14,000 professional officers when mobilization began in 1940. The interwar officer corps was so thick with deadwood that one authority called it a fire hazard; swagger sticks, talisman of the Old Army, could serve for kindling. Secret War Department committees known as plucking boards began purging hundreds of officers who were too old, too tired, too inept. Not a single officer on duty in 1941 had commanded a unit as large as a division in World War I; the average age of majors was forty-eight. The National Guard was even more ossified, with nearly one-quarter of Guard first lieutenants over forty, and senior ranks dominated by political hacks of certifiable military incompetence. Moreover, Guard units in eighteen states were stained with scandal—embezzlement, forgery, kick-backs, and nepotism.
18 April 2020
From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 301ff:
Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun in World War I and now a laconic, enigmatic eighty-four-year-old, had once asserted, “They call me only in catastrophes.” Even Pétain had never seen a catastrophe like this one, and he sued for terms. Berlin obliged. Rather than risk having the French fight on from their colonies in North Africa, Hitler devised a clever armistice: the southern 40 percent of France—excluding Paris—would remain under the sovereignty of the Pétain government and unoccupied by German troops. From a new capital in the resort town of Vichy, France would also continue to administer her overseas empire, including the colonies of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, which together covered a million square miles and included 17 million people, mostly Arab or Berber. France could keep her substantial fleet and an army of 120,000 men in North Africa by pledging to fight all invaders, particularly the British. To enforce the agreement, Germany would keep 1½ million French prisoners-of-war as collateral.
Pétain so pledged. He was supported by most of France’s senior military officers and civil servants, who swore oaths of fidelity to him. A few refused, including a forty-nine-year-old maverick brigadier general named Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle, who took refuge in London, denounced all deals with the devil, and declared, in the name of Free France: “Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.” Hitler now controlled Europe from the North Cape to the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic Ocean to the River Bug. In September, Germany and Italy signed a tripartite pact with Japan, which had been prosecuting its own murderous campaign in Asia. The Axis assumed a global span. “The war is won,” the Führer told Mussolini. “The rest is only a question of time.”
That seemed a fair boast. Britain battled on, alone. “We are fighting for life, and survive from day to day and hour to hour,” Churchill told the House of Commons. But German plans to invade across the English Channel were postponed, repeatedly, after the Luftwaffe failed to subdue the Royal Air Force. Instead, the bombardment known as the Blitz continued through 1940 and beyond, slaughtering thousands and then tens of thousands of British civilians, even as RAF pilots shot down nearly 2,500 German planes in three months, killing 6,000 Luftwaffe crewmen and saving the nation.
15 April 2020
From A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell (Penguin, 2019), Kindle pp. 138-139:
SOE had decided it was time to hit the Free Zone, while it still existed: to move on from the niggling small-scale attacks they had so far organized to detonate carefully selected “big bangs.” Virginia was soon ordered to dispatch Cowburn to sabotage the entire railway network around Lothiers in central France, using the specially equipped groups of men they had spent months training. She also took delivery of two hundred thousand francs to arm and instruct teams for, when the time came, taking control of Lyon’s Perrache station and a nearby airfield, as well as blowing up a power station.
Parachute drops of arms and explosives were generally being stepped up, when clear skies and light winds permitted. New agents came in with dozens of false-bottomed suitcases with warm clothing for the forthcoming winter on top, hiding explosives below. SOE “boffins” (or scientific blue-sky inventors) based at the Thatched Barn, a former hotel on the Barnet bypass in north London, had secretly designed a range of ingenious explosive devices to cause maximum impact in the most challenging situations. These real-life forerunners of James Bond’s Q had come up with milk bottles that exploded if the cap was removed, loaves of bread that would “cause devastation” when cut in half, and fountain pens that squirted poison. Perhaps the most popular was fake horse dung that exploded if driven over—but there were also tiny but lethal charges that could be inserted into cigarettes, matchboxes, bicycle pumps, fountain pens, or hair brushes, and perhaps most usefully railway engines or fuel tanks. On a larger scale, for the first time there was even talk of moving on from sabotaging industrial sites to identifying “A-class” or military targets to hinder the German counterattack in a future Allied invasion. Virginia’s months of slog and preparation appeared to be leading to real action. Finally, it seemed as if SOE had the critical mass and the direction needed to do something truly significant, and she wanted more than anything to see it through.
14 April 2020
From A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell (Penguin, 2019), Kindle pp. 127-128:
Virginia’s daring breakout of the Mauzac “terrorists” caused uproar at Nazi High Command and led Hitler to unleash a brutal crackdown in France. It made clear that the Resistance was now a significant threat and that French semiautonomous rule in the southern zone was no longer sustainable. Repeated attacks on factories, railway trucks, German cars, power lines, and a Lyon recruitment office also proved to Berlin that Pétain’s administration, for all its promises, could not be trusted to destroy the enemy within. So the Third Reich would now lay the groundwork for a full occupation, ordering Vichy to issue five hundred French identity cards to the Gestapo to help them infiltrate secret Allied networks across the Free Zone. Under Operation Donar, named after the Germanic god of thunder, the Nazis planned to honeycomb the cities of the south with double agents to root out and eliminate the remaining terrorist cells. The terms of the 1940 armistice stated that the Gestapo were to intervene only in the presence of French police, but the Germans now just arrested and tortured virtually at will. Lyon was their primary target. “The pot was simmering,” as one SOE historian has put it, “and it would soon boil over.”
They made it an urgent priority to track down those responsible for Mauzac as well as the notable recent upswing in the effectiveness and frequency of sabotage. Both the Gestapo and the Abwehr now harbored suspicions about the American consulate in Lyon, where Virginia was still a frequent visitor, and kept it under close surveillance. The two security services of the Reich were bitter rivals, however, and competed against each other in pursuit of the greatest prizes. For now its success with breaking SOE codes—thanks to Sergeant Bleicher and La Chatte—put the Abwehr in pole position. It had deduced that the target was either English or Canadian and a woman; a woman with a limp—la dame qui boite or Die Frau die hinkt—called Marie Monin. But the Abwehr favored a methodical approach over the Gestapo’s preference for wholesale arrest. Bleicher would not move in until he was sure who she was and who she was working with. He would also wait until he could get his hands on one of her wireless transmitters, so that he could play Funkspiel with London in her name. By the beginning of August he had a plan to bring her down—and disrupt the British war effort—and just the man to carry it out. It was to be a pivotal month.
Meanwhile, the Gestapo’s most notorious investigator—who would within a year be awarded the Iron Cross (reputedly by Hitler himself) for torturing and slaughtering thousands of résistants—was also taking a personal interest in Virginia. Hauptsturmführer Klaus Barbie, reared by an abusive father who had been severely mentally and physically damaged in fighting the French at Verdun in 1916, was not yet based full-time in Lyon. But he was already consumed by an obsessive desire to crush SOE, seen by the Germans as the backbone of the whole underground threat. Dozens of Gestapo officers were intercepting suspect signals coming out of Lyon and conducting waves of arrests and constant day and night raids from a plushly carpeted suite of offices on the third floor of the cavernous Hôtel Terminus next to Perrache station. They knew they were fast moving in on the center of the terrorist cell. Someone would break down under torture; Barbie would make sure of it. The Limping Lady of Lyon was becoming the Nazis’ most wanted Allied agent in the whole of France.
13 April 2020
From A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell (Penguin, 2019), Kindle pp. 95-96:
Morel deliberately stopped eating and his health rapidly worsened, almost certainly with help from SOE’s famous sickness tablets smuggled in by Virginia (which caused symptoms similar to typhoid such as stomach cramps and a high fever). Friendly wardens were able to have him moved to a prison hospital near Guth’s offices in Limoges for an abdominal procedure. After the operation, Morel was transferred from a cell patrolled by heavily armed military guards to an annex monitored by a single policeman. The surgeon, also a recruit, signed a statement that it would be impossible for Morel to walk in his postoperative condition and the sole officer outside his room also obligingly dozed off. A prewarned Morel crept out of his bed, slipped on a doctor’s white coat, and, with the aid of a sympathetic nurse, scaled the hospital perimeter wall. Yet another helper was waiting on the other side to provide him with a suit, shoes, sugar, and some rum. Morel then traveled through a snowstorm to one of Virginia’s safe houses, where he gathered his strength before pushing on to her apartment in Lyon. To spring one of Vichy’s most prized prisoners was, by any measure, a spectacular coup. It showed what Virginia could now do.
After a few days nursing him back to health, she escorted Morel down to Marseille despite the dangers of accompanying the subject of a major national manhunt on a train rife with Gestapo. They were then to pick up the escape line that she had helped to set up, which left from Perpignan to cross over the eastern edge of the Pyrenees to Barcelona in northern Spain. Code-named the Vic Line—in honor of its chief, Victor Gerson—it would see hundreds of agents and airmen to safety thanks to guides, or passeurs, supplied by a general from the remnants of the rebel Catalan Republican Army. Gerson was a Jew, as were most of his lieutenants—all taking a greater risk in the field but also driven by great personal anti-Nazi motivation. Against the odds, the Vic Line shepherded the still unwell Morel over the mountains into Spain. Back in London there was “stupefaction” at Virginia’s success and Morel also marveled at what she had done for him. “Her amazing personality, integrity and enthusiasm was an example and inspiration for us all,” he reported. “No task was too great or too small for her; and whatever she undertook she put into it all her energy, sparing herself nothing.” For Virginia the escape was really the first time that she was not preparing, helping, or supporting others but directing an operation herself. She had proved she could take charge in spectacular style. Morel, though, was merely the warm-up.
09 April 2020
From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 79-83, 87:
The Spanish city of Zamora–known as la bien cercada, or well enclosed, due to its impressive fortifications–straddles the River Duero in the north-western region of Castile and León. Deeply religious, it is famous even today for its sombre processions of hooded, barefoot penitents in Holy Week. In 1914, when its citizens learned that they were about to receive a new bishop, the bells rang out for three days. The man himself arrived a few months later, stepping down from a specially chartered train to a railway station packed with well-wishers. Fireworks were let off, and a joyful crowd accompanied him to the cathedral where he took his oath of office. The church-sanctioned newspaper, El Correo de Zamora, promised obedience to the new bishop, and praised his eloquence and youth.
The bishop’s name was Antonio Álvaro y Ballano, and at thirty-eight he already had a glittering career behind him. As a student at a seminary in Guadalajara, he had shone in every subject he had turned his hand to. At twenty-three he had taken up the chair in metaphysics, and after winning a hard-fought contest for the magistral canonry of Toledo, the most important archdiocese in Spain, he had come to the attention of Cardinal Sancha, Primate of Spain. He had been named a bishop in 1913, and prior to his arrival in Zamora, had held the post of prefect of studies at the seminary in Toledo.
When the Naples Soldier [the Spanish name for the flu] returned to Spain in the autumn of 1918, it appeared first in the east of the country, but it soon followed the bishop along the train tracks to Zamora. September is a month of gatherings in Spain. The crops are harvested, the army takes on new recruits, and weddings and religious feasts are held–not to mention that most popular of Spanish pastimes, the bullfight. Young army recruits, some from distant provinces, converged on Zamora to take part in routine artillery exercises, and in the middle of the month, the Correo reported nonchalantly that ‘There is cholera at the frontier, flu in Spain and in this tiny corner of the peninsula, fiestas.’ Then the recruits began to fall ill.
Attempts to quarantine the sick soldiers in barracks on the site of the city’s eleventh-century castle failed, and the number of civilian casualties began to rise. As it did so, the shortage of manpower began to interfere with the harvest, exacerbating pre-existing food restrictions. The press began to sound less sanguine. On 21 September, the Heraldo de Zamora–a newspaper that was nominally independent of the church–rued the unsanitary state of the city. Zamora resembled a ‘pigsty’ in which, shamefully, people still shared living space with animals, and many houses lacked their own lavatory or water supply. The paper repeated an old hobbyhorse, that the Moors had bequeathed to Spain an aversion to cleanliness. ‘There are Spaniards who only use soap for washing their clothes,’ it noted severely.
During the first wave of the pandemic, the country’s inspector general of health, Martín Salazar, had lamented the inability of a bureaucratic and underfunded health system to prevent the disease from spreading. Though provincial health committees took their lead from his directorate, they had no powers of enforcement, and they quickly came up against what he described as the ‘terrible ignorance’ of the populace–the failure to grasp, for example, that an infected person on the move would transmit the disease. Now that the Naples Soldier had returned, one national newspaper, El Liberal, called for a sanitary dictatorship–a containment programme imposed from the top down–and as the epidemic wore on, the call was picked up and echoed by other papers.
On 30 September, Bishop Álvaro y Ballano defied the health authorities by ordering a novena–evening prayers on nine consecutive days–in honour of St Rocco, the patron saint of plague and pestilence, because the evil that had befallen Zamoranos was ‘due to our sins and ingratitude, for which the avenging arm of eternal justice has been brought down upon us’. On the first day of the novena, in the presence of the mayor and other notables, he dispensed Holy Communion to a large crowd at the Church of San Esteban. At another church, the congregation was asked to adore relics of St Rocco, which meant lining up to kiss them.
Also on 30 September, it was reported that Sister Dositea Andrés of the Servants of Mary had died while tending soldiers at the barracks. Sister Dositea was described as a ‘virtuous and exemplary nun’ who had accepted her martyrdom with equanimity and even enthusiasm, who had slept no more than four hours a day, and who had spent much of her time coaxing sick soldiers to eat. The Mother Superior of her order asked for a good turnout at her funeral, and the papers passed on her request. In accordance with tradition, readers were informed, the bishop would grant sixty days’ indulgence to those who complied. Apparently the turnout was not as good as the Mother Superior had hoped, because the day after the funeral the Correo lambasted the citizenry for its ingratitude. The bishop, on the other hand, was satisfied with attendance at the novena, which he described as ‘one of the most significant victories Catholicism has obtained’.
By mid-November, the worst was over. ... Zamora had suffered worse than any other Spanish city. But its residents do not seem to have held their bishop responsible. Perhaps it helped that they had grown up with the legend of Atilano, the first Bishop of Zamora, who in the tenth century had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to repent of his sins and free his city of plague. There are even those who defend Álvaro y Ballano, claiming that he did what he could to console his flock in the face of inertia at the town hall, the real problem being an ineffectual health system and poor education in matters of hygiene. Before 1919 was out, the city had awarded him the Cross of Beneficence, in recognition of his heroic efforts to end the suffering of its citizens during the epidemic, and he remained Bishop of Zamora until his death in 1927.
08 April 2020
From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 116-120:
Mashed was still medieval in 1918, but its mud walls were crumbling. It was a city of graveyards where pilgrims who came to die had been buried on top of each other for centuries, and where, from time to time, old graves simply gave out, dissolving into the water supply. This took the form of man-made channels called qanats, that brought the water into the city from the nearby mountains. The water flowed uncovered down the middle of the main street–a permanent throng of pilgrims, merchants, camels and mules–and in the absence of a separate and enclosed sewage system, was easily contaminated. Germ theory had made its mark in Persia by 1918, but only in the literate 5 per cent. When it came to water, most people were guided by a religious prescription according to which water was clean if it was flowing, and if its volume exceeded one korr (350 litres). They therefore washed their pots and pans, their donkeys and themselves, very close to the open qanats.
Because Mashed was a holy city, the shrine managers wielded great power–not only spiritually, but also financially, since the shrine owned large amounts of real estate. In 1918, Islamic thinking was still based on ninth-century teaching when it came to epidemics. It accommodated the concept of contagion, but only up to a point. The general rule was that those inside a plague-stricken area should not flee, while those outside it, who were still healthy, should keep away. But there was also a fatalistic element to the prescriptions: plague was a martyrdom for believers and an agonising punishment for infidels. When sick, the vast majority of Persians turned to hakims or herb doctors, who followed two apparently complementary systems of medicine: the Galenic, and one that held that the Quran offered the best protection against disease. They might put an illness down to a humoral imbalance and recommend a change in diet, in line with the first; or they might identify the cause of the illness to be the sting of a jinn, and recommend strapping a prayer to the arm, in line with the second.
Qavam wrote to the shrine managers on 18 September, asking them to implement the recommendations. He was asking them to suspend centuries-old traditions, potentially even challenging sacred texts, and he must have anticipated the possibility of a rebuff, but his famous powers of persuasion saw him through. ... Graves, he ordered, should be at least one metre deep. After the corpse had been placed inside, it should be covered with a thick layer of earth and lime, ‘to eliminate the risk of noxious air rising from the corpse’. Anyone who failed to obey the new rules would be severely punished.
It was a breakthrough, of sorts, though not one that was likely to rein in an illness of winds–and certainly not at that late stage. The epidemic ran its natural course in Mashed. The worst was over by 21 September, by which time Khorasan and neighbouring Sistan provinces were thoroughly infected, and the flu was travelling west to Tehran at the speed of a ‘prairie schooner’–the American nickname for a diligence. [Americans call the diligence a stagecoach, not a prairie schooner.--J] From Mashed, it rippled out with pilgrims, merchants and soldiers to the four corners of the country. By the end of September it was almost gone from the city, though it was still depleting outlying areas. At that point, life for Mashedis eased in one way and one way only: raids and attacks on pilgrims became rare. Qavam’s policy of zero tolerance towards bandits may have begun to bite, but the hiatus was probably also an ominous sign of the havoc the flu had wrought in the mountains.
In a city with fewer than a hundred hospital beds, some 45,000 people, or two-thirds of the population, had come down with flu. An insight into the state of mind of the survivors–not only in Mashed, but in Persia as a whole–is provided by the words of the city’s chief astrologer, spoken at a public meeting towards the end of September. Astrologers were essentially mystics to whom Persians turned in times of crisis, and whose credibility was bolstered by the Islamic belief in predestiny. The chief astrologer relayed prophecies made a few days earlier by his counterpart in Tehran, to the effect that the British government would be annihilated the following year, 1920 would see the return to Persia of the current shah’s father, who had been deposed in 1909, and 1921 the return of the Mahdi, the long-awaited Twelfth Imam, who would rid the world of evil.
Qavam survived the turbulence of General Reza Khan’s British-backed coup in 1921, and finding favour with the new shah, went on to serve five terms as the country’s prime minister. The shah eventually rebuilt Mashed on a rectilinear plan, linked it to Tehran by a modern road, and demolished its graveyards. Hoffman, who stayed on there until 1947, witnessed the transformation: ‘The bones of centuries were shovelled into wheelbarrows and dumped into unmarked pits, the gravestones being used for street curbs and sidewalks.’
03 April 2020
From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 93-94:
Australia saw the epidemic coming from a long way off, both in time and space. Its authorities first heard about a flu epidemic in Europe in the northern hemisphere summer of 1918, and in September they became aware of the horrifying reports of the lethal second wave. Having watched it advance through Africa and Asia, they finally introduced quarantine procedures at all Australian ports on 18 October (New Zealand did not follow suit). When jubilant crowds gathered in Sydney’s Martin Place to celebrate the armistice in November, therefore, they enjoyed the privilege–almost unique in the world–of having nothing to fear from the virus. Though the country did receive the third wave in early 1919, its losses would have been far greater had it let the autumn wave in.
The Philippines were not protected by their island status. When flu broke out there, it didn’t occur to the occupying Americans that it might have come from outside, even though the first casualties were longshoremen toiling in the ports of Manila. They assumed its origins were indigenous–they called it by the local name for flu, trancazo–and made no attempt to protect the local population, which numbered 10 million. The only exception was the camp on the outskirts of Manila where Filipinos were being trained to join the US war effort, around which they created a quarantine zone. In some remote parts of the archipelago, 95 per cent of communities fell ill during the epidemic, and 80,000 Filipinos died.
The starkly contrasting fates of American and Western Samoa–two neighbouring groups of islands in the South Pacific–show what happened when the authorities got the direction of travel right, and when they got it wrong. The American authorities who occupied American Samoa realised not only that the threat came from outside the territory, but also that indigenous Samoans were more vulnerable to the disease than white-skinned settlers, due to their history of isolation, and they deployed strict quarantine measures to keep it out. American Samoa got off scot-free, but Western Samoa, under the control of New Zealand, was not so lucky. After infection reached the islands via a steamer out of Auckland, local authorities made the same error as the occupiers of the Philippines, and assumed that it was of indigenous origin. One in four Western Samoans died in the ensuing tragedy which, as we’ll see, would dramatically shape the islands’ future.
02 April 2020
From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 52-54:
At the time that Nava fell sick, Rio was the capital of a young republic. A military coup had brought the reign of Emperor Dom Pedro II to an end in 1889, and with the abolition of slavery the previous year, it had seen a massive influx of freed black and ‘mulatto’ slaves. The poorest moved into cortiços or slums in the city centre. The cortiços–the Portuguese word for ‘beehives’–often lacked running water, sewers and proper ventilation. Living conditions were better there than in the subúrbios, the shanty towns expanding on the outskirts of the city, but the cortiços were more visible. White, middle-class cariocas saw them as parasitising the city proper. Aluísio Azevedo conveyed the fear that they inspired in his novel O Cortiço:
For two years the slum grew from day to day, gaining strength and devouring newcomers. And next door, Miranda grew more and more alarmed and appalled by that brutal and exuberant world, that implacable jungle growing beneath his windows with roots thicker and more treacherous than serpents, undermining everything, threatening to break through the soil in his yard and shake his house to its very foundations.When President Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves came to power in 1902, he launched an ambitious programme of urban renewal with the goal of turning Rio into a showcase of modern, republican civilisation. In his vision of the cidade maravilhosa, the marvellous city, there was no place for the cortiços, those nests of disease whose inhabitants, condemned by their biology, were ‘locked into a vicious cycle of malnutrition and infection’. They were razed and their inhabitants forced out. Six hundred homes were destroyed to make way for the magnificent Avenida Rio Branco, so that by the time the American travel writer Harriet Chalmers Adams described the city in 1920, she could write that ‘This portion of the city has been cooler ever since, as the breezes sweep through the wide avenue from waterfront to waterfront.’
But the easy mixing of the different classes that had once characterised Rio, their coming together in the seeking of pleasure–especially when it came to music and dancing–had gone. Now there was no area of carioca life in which rich and poor were not divided by an impenetrable gulf. The president also set out to rid the city of infectious diseases, and in this he was aided by a doctor, Oswaldo Cruz, who in 1904, as head of the General Board of Public Health, had ordered a campaign of compulsory vaccination against smallpox. At the time, the vast majority of Brazilians had no grasp of germ theory. For many it was their first experience of state intervention in public health, hence something extraordinary, and poor cariocas rioted. The ‘Vaccine Revolt’, as it was called, was about more than one perceived violation, however. It was an expression of a broader class struggle over whom the city should serve–the Brazilian masses, or the European elite.
A decade later, vaccination had been accepted by most Brazilians, but Cruz’s unpopularity survived his death in 1917, and it was this legacy that shaped cariocas’ response to the new disease threat in 1918. On 12 October, the day that the flu spread through the elegant guests at the Club dos Diàrios, the satirical magazine Careta (Grimace) expressed a fear that the authorities would exaggerate the danger posed by this mere limpa-velhos–killer of old people–to justify imposing a ‘scientific dictatorship’ and violating people’s civil rights. The press portrayed the director of public health, Carlos Seidl, as a dithering bureaucrat, and politicians rubbished his talk of microbes travelling through the air, insisting instead that ‘dust from Dakar could come this far’. The epidemic was even nicknamed ‘Seidl’s evil’. By the end of October, when half a million cariocas–more than half the population–were sick, there were still those among Rio’s opinion-makers who doubted the disease was flu.
By then, so many corpses lay unburied in the city that people began to fear they posed a sanitary risk. ‘On my street,’ recalled one carioca, ‘you could see an ocean of corpses from the window. People would prop the feet of the dead up on the window ledges so that public assistance agencies would come to take them away. But the service was slow, and there came a time when the air grew filthy; the bodies began to swell and rot. Many began throwing corpses out on the streets.’
01 April 2020
From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 63-65:
When the flu arrived in Spain in May, most Spanish people, like most people in general, assumed that it had come from beyond their own borders. In their case, they were right. It had been in America for two months already, and France for a matter of weeks at least. Spaniards didn’t know that, however, because news of the flu was censored in the warring nations, to avoid damaging morale (French military doctors referred to it cryptically as maladie onze, ‘disease eleven’). As late as 29 June, the Spanish inspector general of health, Martín Salazar, was able to announce to the Royal Academy of Medicine in Madrid that he had received no reports of a similar disease elsewhere in Europe. So who were Spaniards to blame? A popular song provided the answer. The hit show in Madrid at the time the flu arrived was The Song of Forgetting, an operetta based on the legend of Don Juan. It contained a catchy tune called ‘The Soldier of Naples’, so when a catchy disease appeared in their midst, Madrileños quickly dubbed it the ‘Naples Soldier’.
Spain was neutral in the war, and its press was not censored. Local papers duly reported the havoc that the Naples Soldier left in its wake, and news of the disruption travelled abroad. In early June, Parisians who were ignorant of the ravages the flu had caused in the trenches of Flanders and Champagne learned that two-thirds of Madrileños had fallen ill in the space of three days. Not realising that it had been theirs longer than it had been Spain’s, and with a little nudging from their governments, the French, British and Americans started calling it the ‘Spanish flu’. Not surprisingly, this label almost never appears in contemporary Spanish sources. Practically the only exception is when Spanish authors write to complain about it. ‘Let it be stated that, as a good Spaniard, I protest this notion of the “Spanish fever”,’ railed a doctor named García Triviño in a Hispanic medical journal. Many in Spain saw the name as just the latest manifestation of the ‘Black Legend’, anti-Spanish propaganda that grew out of rivalry between the European empires in the sixteenth century, and that depicted the conquistadors as even more brutal than they were (they did bind and chain the Indians they subjugated, but they probably did not–as the legend claimed–feed Indian children to their dogs).
Further from the theatre of war, people followed the time-honoured rules of epidemic nomenclature and blamed the obvious other. In Senegal it was the Brazilian flu and in Brazil the German flu, while the Danes thought it ‘came from the south’. The Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers: after it first broke out at a sumo tournament, they dubbed it ‘sumo flu’.
Some names reflected a people’s historic relationship with flu. In the minds of the British settlers of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), for example, flu was a relatively trivial disease, so officials labelled the new affliction ‘influenza (vera)’, adding the Latin word vera, meaning ‘true’, in an attempt to banish any doubts that this was the same disease. Following the same logic, but opting for a different solution, German doctors realised that people would need persuading that this new horror was the ‘fashionable’ disease of flu–darling of the worried well–so they called it ‘pseudo-influenza’. In parts of the world that had witnessed the destructive potential of ‘white man’s diseases’, however, the names often conveyed nothing at all about the identity of the disease. ‘Man big daddy’, ‘big deadly era’, myriad words meaning ‘disaster’–they were expressions that had been applied before, to previous epidemics. They did not distinguish between smallpox, measles or influenza–or sometimes even famines or wars.
Some people reserved judgement. In Freetown, a newspaper suggested that the disease be called manhu until more was known about it. Manhu, a Hebrew word meaning ‘what is it?’, was what the Israelites asked each other when they saw a strange substance falling out of the sky as they passed through the Red Sea (from manhu comes manna–bread from heaven). Others named it commemoratively. The residents of Cape Coast, Ghana called it Mowure Kodwo after a Mr Kodwo from the village of Mouri who was the first person to die of it in that area. Across Africa, the disease was fixed for perpetuity in the names of age cohorts born around that time. Among the Igbo of Nigeria, for example, those born between 1919 and 1921 were known as ogbo ifelunza, the influenza age group. ‘Ifelunza’, an obvious corruption of ‘influenza’, became incorporated into the Igbo lexicon for the first time that autumn. Before that, they had had no word for the disease.
As time went on, and it transpired that there were not many local epidemics, but one global pandemic–it became necessary to agree on a single name. The one that was adopted was the one that was already being used by the most powerful nations on earth–the victors in the Great War. The pandemic became known as the Spanish flu–ispanka, espanhola, la grippe espagnole, die Spanische Grippe–and a historical wrong became set in stone.