first world war WWI

The Imperial War Museum Re-opens in London

imperial war museum

The Imperial War Museum reopened to the public on 19 July 2014, in time for the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. Image credit: Paris Franz, all rights reserved.

The Imperial War Museum was founded during the First World War, so it seems appropriate that, after a £40 million transformation, it should reopen in time for the centenary of World War One.

The Imperial War Museum Reinvents Itself

The building, formerly the Bethlem Royal Hospital, is an imposing structure. Set in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park in the London borough of Lambeth, it is guarded by two 15-inch naval cannons.

The refurbished interior, with its soaring atrium and refurbished galleries, do the building justice.

The museum was founded with the aim of keeping alive the memory of the sacrifices made during the Great War, as it was then known, for future generations.

The new version has kept to that ideal, while acknowledging that, with the passing of the generations, certain things that once seemed obvious now need to be explained. Using modern technology, the displays present a dynamic and fascinating insight into conflicts from 1914 to the present day.

Witnesses to War at the Imperial War Museum

The revamped structure centres on the atrium, a grand space spanning four levels, designed by architect Foster + Partners. It showcases over 400 objects, more than 60 of which have never been seen before.

The Witnesses to War display on Level 0 steals the show. Spanning every major conflict from World War One to today, the iconic objects illustrate the realities of war, from its role as an arena for breathtaking courage to its appalling costs. A Spitfire, the ultimate symbol of plucky heroism, hangs from the ceiling, while beneath it sits the remains of a car destroyed by a bomb in Baghdad in 2007.

The First World War Galleries

The new permanent First World War galleries on Level 0 are riveting. Designed by Casson Mann and lead curator James Taylor, the galleries offer a tantalising mix of the personal and the high-tech that together draw the visitor into the ‘war to end all wars’.

The galleries offer a full immersion experience. As you pass through, you experience something of the rush of patriotism that accompanied the beginning of the conflict, and the feeling of shock engendered by the reality of modern warfare. Seven million men marched off to war in August 1914. A million of them lay dead by the end of the year.

Touch screens invite you to investigate further, while listening to an aural backdrop of exploding shells and machine-gun fire, warnings of gas attack and the deafening sound of rain. It is all too easy to imagine the mud.

first world war WWI

Signposts from the trenches in the First World War galleries at the Imperial War Museum. Image credit: Paris Franz, all rights reserved

The galleries display over 1,300 objects, which range from the 42 cm shell fired by the German mortar known as Big Bertha, to the hollowed-out fake tree trunk that served as a listening post in no-man’s land, to Lord Kitchener’s recruitment poster. You can walk through a trench with a Sopwith Camel flying overhead and marvel at how the museum managed to get a Mark V tank inside the gallery.

There is something very personal about the galleries. Curator James Taylor noted in his welcome speech that the aim of the galleries was to tell the story of World War One through the experiences of those who lived through it, and those who died. The displays are adorned with quotations from letters and diaries from those at the front, and those who supported the war effort at home, detailing the terror and the boredom of it all.

Our latest recreations are tennis with entrenching tools … and cricket with the aid of a biscuit tin and a piece of packing case.”
Lance Corporal Roland Mountfort

The museum commissioned Aardman Studios, famous for Wallace & Gromit, to make a poignant animation about the galleries and their focus on the personal stories of the war.

Conflicts Since World War One

The upper levels focus on more modern conflicts, from World War Two through the Cold War to the uncertainties of today’s ever more volatile world. Exhibits include a Japanese Zero fighter, found in the jungle after being abandoned for 50 years, the casing for an atomic bomb, a suicide vest and a Land River used by Reuters in Gaza which came under Israeli fire.

Current temporary exhibitions in the revamped museum explore the role of art in warfare. Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War runs until 8 March 2015, while the related exhibition IWM Contemporary: Mark Neville runs until 25 September 2014. The latter focuses on the artist Mark Neville’s work in Afghanistan, where he spent two months with 16 Air Assault brigade as a war artist, a tradition that can be traced back to the First World War.

Imperial War Museum Re-Opened

The Imperial War Museum re-opened to the public on 19 July 2014, and is free to enter. Have you been?

USS Zumwalt: America’s Most Advanced Destroyer Sails Troubled Seas


The USS Zumwalt can response to threats with a variety of weapons, including missiles, cannon, and anti-submarine torpedoes. Image Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy’s newest warship looks like a throw-back to the Civil War, is named after a Vietnam-era admiral, contains some of the Navy’s most advanced technology, and Captain James Kirk is at its command.

The USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) — named after the late Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, the Chief of Naval Operations who led the Navy out of the dark days of Vietnam — is the Navy’s newest and largest destroyer and the most advanced warship in the world.

Launched in October 2013, the Zumwalt incorporates the latest in naval stealth, sensor, and weapons technology. At 610 feet long and displacing nearly 16,000 tons, it is the largest destroyer in the Navy, yet thanks to advanced automation the ship’s crew is less than half that of the smaller Arleigh Burke-class destroyer currently in service.

Perhaps befitting the Navy’s most advanced warship, Captain James Kirk serves as its first skipper.  No, not James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, but James A. Kirk, a 1990 Naval Academy graduate and Maryland native whose entire Navy career echoes with jokes about his name.

“I don’t take any offense,” Kirk told the Associated Press when he took command. “If it’s a helpful moniker that brings attention to help us to do what we need to do to get the ships into the fleet and into combat operations, than that’s fine.”

The Next Generation in Ships

The Zumwalt class started life in the 1990s as the DDG-21 new concept destroyer. Later referred to as the DDG-X destroyer, the Navy intended for the new generation of destroyers to replace the Burke-class destroyers with a fleet of more than 30 Zumwalt-class ships.

Though conceptualized as a multi-mission platform capable of operating in a number of naval warfare scenarios, the main mission of the new ship class is littoral warfare. The ship will operate in coastal waters as shallow as 30-feet, providing protection to amphibious forces and bombarding targets far inland with both guided missiles and advanced naval gunfire.

In order to survive in missile-infested littoral waters, designers incorporated stealth technology in the Zumwalt’s design. The Zumwalt features a low freeboard and a smooth, slanting deckhouse hiding an array of communications and sensor antennae, and cannon hidden in similarly canted turrets. This gives the Zumwalt a radar signature that is 50 percent smaller than the Arleigh Burke’s, making the ship difficult for enemy anti-ship missiles to detect and lock onto as a target.

To make the ship quieter as it moves through the ocean, naval architects resorted to two shipbuilding concepts that haven’t been used since the early 20th century. Zumwalt’s hull incorporates a tumblehome design, meaning the hull curves inward as it rises from the sea so the width of the main deck is narrower than the hull at the waterline. This hull form dates back to the early days of sailing ships.

Instead of the standard inwardly raked bow seen on most modern ships, the Zumwalt sports a “ram bow” with a prow that extends forward as it slopes to the waterline, similar to the old Dreadnaughts of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Together the tumblehome and ram bow allow the ship to slice through the sea with less noise than a conventional hull shape.

Ironically, however, all of these design concepts give the Zumwalt a shape reminiscent of an ironclad from the American Civil War.

Starship Command and Control

Despite its size, advanced automation in cargo-handling, weapons-handling and firefighting allows the Zumwalt to operate with a complement of only 148 sailors compared to the 350 sailors needed by the Burke-class destroyer. Instead of placing lookouts outside the ship on the bridge wings, watch standers will monitor an array of video and sensor monitors inside the bridge and in the Ships Mission Control compartment below decks.

The eyes and ears of the Zumwalt include a SPY-3 multi-function radar for air and surface search, high and medium frequency sonars mounted on the ram bow, a multi-function towed sonar array, and electro-optical and infrared optical sensors. The ship also has a landing deck and hangers for two MH-60 helicopters.

Though called a multi-mission destroyer, the main mission for the USS Zumwalt is littoral combat, or attacking inland targets from inshore waters.

Though called a multi-mission destroyer, the main mission for the USS Zumwalt is littoral combat, or attacking inland targets from inshore waters. Credit: U.S. Navy

Zumwalt Weapons Package

But it is the Zumwalt’s weapons package that gives the ship its sting. When the crew identifies a target or threat, the ship can respond with a wide array of offensive and defensive weapons.  Lining the edges of Zumwalt’s main deck are 80 Advanced Vertical Launch System cells for firing Tomahawk land attack missiles, Standard anti-ship missiles, and Sea Sparrow air defense missiles, as well as rocket-launched anti-submarine torpedoes.  For last-ditch air defense, the ship carries two rapid fire 30mm Close in Gun Systems.

For inshore artillery support, the Zumwalt mounts two 155mm Advanced Gun Systems capable of delivering 300-pound Long Range Land Attack Projectiles up to 63 miles away — three times farther than current destroyer weapons — with pin-point accuracy.

In the not too distant future, the Zumwalt-class ships may be the first ship to mount the Navy’s most futuristic cannon —the so-called “rail gun.” Instead of using explosives to hurl shells as conventional cannon do, rail guns will use electromagnetic energy to hurl shells more than a hundred miles inland.

Zumwalt is just the ship to provide the energy needed to hurl explosives so far inland. The ship is a sea-going power plant. Below decks the ship’s two main and two auxiliary generators can provide up to 78 megawatts of energy, enough for the ship’s advanced electric motors to push the ship through the sea at up to 30 knots, power all of the sensors and automation, and power the electro-magnetic rail gun.

Troubled Seas Encountered

As promising as the Zumwalt-class destroyer sounds, it encountered critics early in the program. The Navy has a long history of stonewalling change, and it was no different with this class of ship.

Critics questioned the need for a “gun ship” in a modern guided missile navy. Ironically, many naval strategists made this same argument in the years following WWII. As a result, when the need for offshore gunnery support arose during the Vietnam War, the Navy had no ships suited to the mission. The U.S. Coast Guard stepped in to fulfill the mission.

The cost of the vessel also raised eyebrows.  The Government Accountability Office, Congressional Research Service, and Congressional Budget Office all predicted the DDG-1000 would cost upwards to $5 billion each. With contract changes, shipbuilder Bath Iron Works was able to build the Zumwalt for about $3.5 billion. The Navy expects follow-on ships to cost $2.5 billion, still substantially more than the $1.8 billion cost of the Burke-class destroyer.

The most troubling doubts, however, concerned the stability of the ship in open seas.  As early as 2007, Defense News reported that many in the industry feared the Zumwalt could founder in a heavy sea.

“At least eight current and former officers, naval engineers and architects and naval analysts interviewed for this article expressed concerns about the ship’s stability,” Defense News reported. “Ken Brower, a civilian naval architect with decades of naval experience was even more blunt: ‘It will capsize in a following sea at the wrong speed if a wave at an appropriate wavelength hits it at an appropriate angle’…”

According to Brower, the archaic tumblehome hull form and ram bow do not provide the ship the ability to right itself from a roll the way a conventionally flared hull does.  The Navy, however, countered that basin testing with 30-foot and 150-foot models showed the Zumwalt hull design was stable up to and including Sea State 9, equal to a Force 5 hurricane.

Limited Production

Nevertheless, the Navy decided to reverse its plans for a fleet of more than 30 DDG-1000 destroyers. In 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced the DDG-1000 program would end with just three ships of its class. Instead, the Navy opted to continue construction of Burke-class destroyers.

The Navy announced plans to name the next ship in the Zumwalt-class the USS Michael Monsoor in honor of a Navy SEAL commando who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Iraq. The third and final ship in the line will honor President Lyndon B. Johnson, who served in the Pacific Theater with the Navy in WWII.

Zumwalt: Limited Numbers, Long-term Impact

Though the number of ships limits the operational impact of the Zumwalt-class destroyers, their influence on naval warfare may offer a long-term impact. Besides normal operations, the three DDG-1000s will serve as technology demonstrators for advanced technology and operational concepts that could affect future naval operations for the next 50 to 100 years.



Florence Nightingale in the Crimea: Improving Medical Care by the Numbers

Florence Nightingale instituted sanitation measures at the British Army hospital at Scutari, Turkey (seen here) that improved patients survival. Credit: Wiki Commons

Florence Nightingale instituted sanitation measures at the British Army hospital at Scutari, Turkey (seen here) that improved patients survival. Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Many describe the Crimean War as the most bungled war Britain ever fought. Best known for the British Army’s tragic and disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade made famous by Lord Tennyson’s epic poem, outdated tactics, poorly managed logistics, and medical care more deadly to the British Tommy than enemy fire marred the early 19th century campaign.

Fought between Russia and the allied nations of Britain, France, and Turkey, the Crimean War is also known as the conflict that gave birth to the modern nursing profession and earned Florence Nightingale the name bestowed upon her: the Lady with the Lamp.

The war began in the summer of 1853, when the Russian Black Sea Fleet attacked and destroyed the fleet of the dying Turkish Empire. The victory put Russia in the position to capture Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) and the Bosporus Straits, threatening French and British interests in the Mediterranean. In March 1854, Britain declared war on Russia and allied itself with France and Turkey.

That September, British and French forces landed on the Crimean Peninsula, on the north shore of the Black Sea. Following a Russian defeat at Alma, the allied nations captured the small port of Balaclava, which they established as their logistical base, and encircled Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea Fleet.

Disaster Snatched from the Jaws of Victory

The British Army was not prepared for a prolonged campaign despite its initial victories. It hadn’t fought a major conflict since Lord Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, and its tactical thinking hadn’t changed much since then.

Sevastopol wiki commons

The siege of Sevastopol exposed British soldiers to harsh conditions that reduced the fighting force from 55,000 troops to just 11,000 fit enough to fight. Image by Valentin Ramirez

The Industrial Revolution, however, had changed the mechanics of war. Smoothbore muskets firing short-range lead balls had been replaced with muskets with rifled barrels and the new long-range Minié conical bullet. Improvements in field artillery brought about the tactic of blind, or indirect, cannon fire. Such developments put an end to Napoleonic tactics and introduced a new form of combat—trench warfare.

Antiquated British tactics led to the Light Brigade debacle at Balaclava. The charge of light cavalry into a valley bristling on three sides with modern cannon and rifles could end only one way—disaster. One of every three horsemen were killed, wounded, or captured. The Russian guns remained in place.

The British logistics training was equally inadequate. Ammunition and particularly food remained in short supply. By the time the Allies reached Balaclava, meat was rarely available for the troops; when it was, it was inedible. When the Tommies did get edible meat, there were no pots or fuel to cook them with. “The Commissary did serve out a small portion of fresh meat,” a British colonel recorded in his diary. “Too late! No fires or means of cooking!”

Britain sent three thousand pounds of fresh vegetables along with the troops to ward off scurvy. It rotted aboard cargo ships before distribution to the troops and was tossed overboard. By February 1855, scurvy was rampant throughout the British forces.

Shortages of Medical Supplies and Skills

The winter of 1854-1855 in the Crimea was particularly severe. Bitter, Arctic-like blizzards were followed the next day with torrential rain. Snow turned to frigid slush. Sleep in the trenches was nearly impossible. British Tommies began succumbing to disease, exhaustion, and frostbite.

Unfortunately, medical care in the British Army was as arcane as its tactics and logistics. Though the germ theory – the recognition that microorganisms caused infections – was still in its infancy, simple sanitation measures were known to reduce infections and death. British Army hospitals in Crimea and Scutari, Turkey, failed to enact these measures.

Edward Mason Wrench, a young British Army surgeon, wrote disparagingly of the care given wounded at the British hospital at Balaclava. “I had charge of 20 to 30 patients, wounded…mixed with cases of cholera, dysentery, and fever. There were no beds…or proper bedding. The patients lay in their clothes on the floor, which…was as muddy as a country road.”

The lack of supplies and old-school biases also hampered medical care. “We were practically without medicines,” Wrench wrote. “[T]he supply landed at the commencement of the campaign was exhausted, and the reserve had gone to the bottom of the sea in the wreck of the [supply ship] Prince so that in November 1854 even the base hospital at Balaclava was devoid of opium, quinine, ammonia, and…drugs.”

Even with the unlikely availability of adequate medical supplies, British doctors were forbidden to use many of the latest clinical innovations. Wrench complained, for instance, that the Director General of the British Armed Forces had virtually forbidden the use of the new anesthetic chloroform during surgeries. The view of the hidebound medical bureaucracy, Wrench wrote, was that the “cries of the patient undergoing an operation were satisfactory to the surgeon, as an indication that there was no fear of syncope and that the pain was a stimulant that aided recovery.”

Infected wounds have always been a major cause of death in warfare. In the Crimean War, however, more wounded soldiers died of infectious diseases contracted in the hospitals than from infected wounds. Many believed that a wounded soldier would have a better chance of survival if left on the battlefield than if treated in a field hospital.

By the end of 1855, injuries and disease had shrunk the British force from 55,000 troops to just 11,000 well enough to shoulder a rifle.


Florence Nightingale’s work in British Army hospital during the Crimean War would form the foundation of modern nursing care. Image by H. Lenthall, London

The Lady with the Lamp

The Crimean War became the first conflict in which the telegraph and the camera provided news coverage to the home front. News articles and photographs documented the wretched conditions inflicted on the British soldier. Public outrage forced the British war minister to invite a 33-year-old nurse named Florence Nightingale to raise a corps of civilian nurses to help improve patient care in the Crimea.

Born into English high society, Nightingale was well-educated and well-travelled. Despite her highbrow upbringing, Nightingale felt her calling lay in providing care to the sick and injured. In 1851, at the age of 31, she began her training as a nurse. A year later, she was appointed the superintendent of London’s Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances.

At that time, nursing in England was not considered a profession. Nursing care was left to “immoral” women who spent most of their work shift drunk. “Drink was the curse of the hospital nurse,” wrote one physician. “The nurses are drunkards.” As superintendent of the Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen, Nightingale established the first program to train professional, well-educated, and respectable nurses.

In October 1854, Nightingale set out for the hospital in Scutari with 38 nurses. Unwelcomed by the British medical corps, the nurses established a foothold by improving meals for the patients. Convinced miasma- or bad air- caused deaths, Nightingale eventually set about improving cleanliness and sanitation, and general patient care in the hospital.

Stories in the British press described Nightingale’s work in Scutari and the Crimea. The descriptions of her administrations while walking the wards at night with a lantern caring for patients inspired the sobriquet, the Lady with the Lamp.

But Nightingale was more than an angel of mercy. She had a passion for statistical analysis. She showed that in the first seven months of the war, British Army field hospitals suffered a 60 percent death rate from disease alone. Following the improvements she ordered, that death rate dropped to nearly the same experienced by hospitals back in England.

Report to the Minister of War

The Crimean War ended with the signing of a peace treaty in 1856. Upon returning to England, Nightingale fought for establishment of a Royal Commission to report on military health care during the conflict. After six months, and in poor health herself, she produced her report, Notes of the Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army.

Nightingale’s paper addressed the whole gamut of health care concerns – medical, sanitary, statistical, architectural, and military – and eventually formed the bulk of the Royal Commission’s final report. The commission’s findings prompted changes in British military health care and ultimately led to their implementation between 1859-1861.

Nightingale wrote the first nursing manual, Notes on Nursing, in 1859. The following year, she established the Nightingale School for Nurses. She died in 1910, having secured her position in history as the mother of modern nursing.

Britain Not Alone in Failed Medical Care

The British Army was not alone in experiencing casualty care problems during the Crimean War. Both the Russians and the French experienced high disease rates. The French Army, however, benefited from a well-developed casualty care system first implemented during the Napoleonic Wars.

Unfortunately, the United States paid little attention to the lessons learned during the Crimean campaign. When the American Civil War erupted in 1861, neither the Union nor the Confederate armies were prepared for the kind of casualties incurred from modern weapons. Nor were they prepared for the amount of disease that plagued large populations of soldiers.

It would take four bloody years of war for the Americans to understand what Florence Nightingale learned on the peninsula of Crimea.


Castle, I. Death Ride. (2003). In M. Stephenson, Battlegrounds: Geography and the History of Warfare (pp. 37-42). Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Hibbert, C. The Nightmare of the Crimea. Victorian Web. Accessed November 15, 2013.

Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. Florence Nightingale: Measuring Hospital Outcomes. (1999). Oak Brook, IL.

McCoubrey, H. Before “Geneva” Law: A British Surgeon in the Crimean War. (1995). International Review of the Red Cross.

Angelfire. Medical Advances of the Crimean WarAccessed November 15, 2013.

Stephen, C. R. Nursing Through the Mid-19th Century. Accessed November 15, 2013.

The Spanish Flu and Wartime Secrecy: Creation of a Global Pandemic

Camp Devens 1918 where flu started US Army

An Army doctor examines a flu victim at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, which was hard hit by the deadlier second wave of the Spanish Flu. Credit: U.S. Army

In America’s head-long rush to war in early 1918, few paid much attention to the growing number of soldiers reporting in sick with high fevers, body aches, and chills. It was, after all, flu season, and wartime expediency would not allow common influenza to slow down military training.

Within a year, however, that flu would become notorious as the ‘Spanish Flu,’ and the number of people it would kill would vastly surpass the number of soldiers and sailors who died in combat on all sides during all four years of World War I.

So-Called Spanish Flu Death Toll

From August 1914 to the signing of the armistice in November 1918, about 16 million military personnel and civilians were killed or died of diseases associated with combat. From the spring of 1918 to the spring of 1919, the Spanish Flu claimed the lives of at least 40 million people—far more, too, than were lost in the Black Plague. Some estimates of the number of persons who succumbed to the Spanish Flu reach as high as 100 million.

The Spanish Flu came in three waves, with infection rates rising and ebbing, then rising again. At its height in the fall of 1918, the Purple Death, as it was also known, could kill a person in mere hours. Unlike most influenza variants, this flu killed more than just the very young and the very old. It was also particularly harsh for victims 20 to 40 years old—the very population that was fighting at the front.

There was no cure, no vaccine, and little support that medicine could provide other than prayer.

Flu Epidemic: Where Did It Come From?

Even today, no one absolutely is sure where such a virulent avian H1N1 flu virus came from. Some researchers believe it may have started in China. Others theorize the virus had been around for years, with minor outbreaks occurring in France in 1916 and England in 1917.

chicago_poster_1918l USPHS

Businesses just as theaters restricted their operations or were closed entirely in an attempt to stop the spread of the Spanish Flu. Credit: U.S. Public Health Service

What we do know is that in January and February 1918, flu swept through rural Haskell County, Kansas. Between late February and early March, three recruits from Haskell County reported for training at Fort Riley, Kansas. Many historians believe one or more of these recruits carried the virus. By the end of March, thousands of Fort Riley soldiers were ill. Soldiers transferring to other military camps carried the virus with them, and soon 24 of the nation’s 36 largest military installations were suffering large outbreaks of influenza.

Though highly contagious, at this point the flu was still relatively mild. Though the death rate from this flu was somewhat higher than the normal rate of 0.1%, it wasn’t high enough to cause alarm. Infected and uninfected soldiers were packed into cramp troop ships for the voyage to the French port of Brest. By the time the ships arrived, even more of the soldiers were infected. They, in turn, carried the virus into the trenches.

Once brought into the trenches, the virus quickly spread through the British, French, and German forces. In wartime, however, casualty rates, even for illness, are kept secret. Media censorship prevented journalists from reporting on the large numbers of soldiers coming down ill in both the training camps and trenches. The families of soldiers who died of the flu were simply notified that their love one “died on the field of honor.”

Whether on the battlefront or the home front, few people knew there was a flu epidemic. And no one realized how quickly it would become a global pandemic— or how deadly it would be.

Citizens with masks USPHS

Cotton masks were worn in public in a futile attempt to ward off the Spanish Flu. Credit: U.S. Public Health Service

The 1918 Flu Gets Its Name

By spring, the flu reached Spain, probably brought across the border by returning Spanish laborers who had been working in France. It arrived just as Spain was celebrating the Fiesta de San Isidro, a holiday celebrated by large gatherings of people that allowed the virus to easily propagate. Spain’s King Alfonso XIII and the country’s prime minister came down ill with it, as did many cabinet members.

Because Spain was neutral in the war, there was no press censorship, and the Spanish media reported freely on what the news service Agencia Fabra called a “strange form of disease of epidemic character.

When the citizens of the belligerent countries finally became aware of the epidemics in their own nations, the flu had a new name. “Under the name of Spanish influenza, an epidemic is sweeping the North American Continent,” reported the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “It is said to have made its appearance first in Spain, hence Spanish influenza.”

The Second Wave Arrives

The flu subsided during the summer months of 1918, so much so that British military authorities declared the end to the Spanish Flu on August 10. But that was merely wishful thinking. The influenza virus was only in waiting; changing itself, mutating into a more efficient predator.

Today, scientists understand that viruses can become more virulent as they pass from one human to another, a process called “passage.” The 1960 Nobel recipient Dr. Macfarlane Burnet estimated the relatively mild virus seen in the first wave of Spanish Flu had gone through fifteen to twenty human passages, emerging in the fall of 1918 a much more lethal disease than before.

It would be this mutation that would give the Spanish Flu the nickname Purple Death.

Army recruits take their enlistment oath during WWI. Wartime training was responsible for spreading the Spanish flu. Credit: Library of Congress

Army recruits take their enlistment oath during WWI. Wartime training was responsible for spreading the Spanish flu. Credit: Library of Congress

Purple Death Hits Soldiers

As American soldiers continued to arrive in France in late August, French military authorities saw another eruption of influenza among their troops. So many sick French and American soldiers were hospitalized that the hospital had to turn away new victims.

And now, victims were dying in large numbers – 20 times higher than normal flu – and many only hours after first showing symptoms. It was not unusual for a victim to wake up feeling fine, then collapse a few hours later. By dinner they would be dead. In between, bloody fluid filled the lungs, preventing the exchange of CO2 for oxygen. Cyanosis turned the skin blue, then purple, and sometimes nearly black, as the victim literally drowned in their own bodily fluids.

As the French and American soldiers left Brest for the battlefields, they took with them the new, deadlier virus.

Warships spread the disease even further. When the HMS Mantua arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, that month, she carried 200 sailors sickened by the flu. They, in turn, infected the dock workers, who then spread it to every other ship that stopped in Freetown.

In the trenches, influenza was decimating both sides. An outbreak among German troops entrenched near Ypres, France, so weakened their fighting strength they could not hold out against an attack by Commonwealth troops. Flu outbreaks among the British 15th and 29 Divisions forced them to postpone operations.

The Flu Comes Full Circle

In September the virus came full circle, returning to the U.S. with a vengeance aboard troop ships and warships returning from France. Once again, wartime expediency help spread the disease.

On September 25, 3,108 soldiers boarded a troop train at Camp Grant, Illinois. By the time they reached their destination at Camp Hancock, Georgia, a 950 mile trek, 2,000 of the soldiers had to be hospitalized with the flu. Dozens died.

phs_website_pneumonia_ranks USPHS

Death from pneumonia secondary to the Spanish Flu was so prevalent, it was ranked as the third leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease and cancer. Credit: U.S. Public Health Service

In a September 29 letter to a friend, army physician Dr. Roy Grist described the horrors the flu created at Camp Devens in Massachusetts. “It takes special trains to carry away the dead. For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up… An extra long barracks has been vacated for the use of the morgue. It would make any man sit up and take notice to walk down the long lines of dead soldiers all dressed and laid out in double rows

The day before Grist wrote that letter, Philadelphia held a patriotic parade featuring thousands of soldiers, sailors, Boy Scouts, and civic group members. Within three days, every hospital room in the city was filled with flu victims. As many as a quarter of the victims died every day, only to be replaced with new victims.

Similar results were seen in every large city in the nation. In an attempt to staunch the spread of the disease, public health officials ordered stores and theaters closed. Businesses shut down. Public coughing and hand shaking were outlawed. People wore cloth masks over their faces in a useless gesture to avoid the virus. Field hospitals like those normally seen on battlefields began popping up across the country to take in the overflow of flu patients from brick and mortar hospitals.

Desperate to avoid the growing plague, Gunnison, Colorado sealed itself off from the rest of the world. Armed guards prevented any outsider from entering the city limits. Gunnison was probably the only town in the U.S. to avoid the flu.

The military draft imposed to build up America’s small peacetime army was stopped because of the flu, and by October almost all military training was halted. The pipeline of fresh troops headed for the trenches of France began to dry up.
Historians estimate about 700,000 Americans died from the Spanish Flu—more than all the Americans killed in combat in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War together.

Philadelphia patriot parade exposed thousands Naval Historical Center

This patriotic parade held in Philadelphia, PA in September 1918 was responsible for infecting thousands of citizens with the Spanish Flu. Within days, every hospital in the city was overflowing with flu victims. Credit: Naval Historical Center

A Pandemic of Global Devastation

But America was not alone in its suffering. This second wave of influenza spread throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. In Spain, which gave the pandemic its name, Catholic Masses held to pray for deliverance only helped spread the virus faster. Twelve hundred flu victims died daily in Barcelona alone; eventually more than 260,000 Spaniards would perish. Churches and funeral homes could not keep up with the dead.

When the killing stopped on the battlefields, the dying from influenza and secondary infections continued.

A week after the November 11 armistice, the number of flu-related deaths in England soared to 19,000; eventually some 200,000 would die in the United Kingdom. India lost 5 million to the flu. Between 30,000 and 50,000 Canadians died. Many more perished in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.

Then, by the end of November, it was gone.

The virus that arrived in the third wave in December was a mere shadow of its former self. The virus had undergone an antigenic shift, creating a less virulent mutation. The third wave swept over New York City and San Francisco, California. It lingered throughout much of 1919, causing outbreaks here and there, but never the devastation the second wave wrought.

Improvised Hospt Iowa USPHS

Countries across the globe established improvised hospitals like this one to treat the overflow of Spanish Flu victims from established care centers. Credit: U.S. Public Health Service

Spanish Flu: Aftermath

Despite its devastation, the Spanish Flu was largely forgotten until recently. Deadly outbreaks of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus in 2003 and the Novel H1N1 “swine flu” virus in 2009, plus the ongoing threat of terrorist acts involving biological agents, have led scientists to re-examine the etiology of the Spanish Flu.

Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger, a pathologist with the U.S. Armed Forces Institute, and Professor John Oxford, of London’s Queen Mary College, have isolated specimens of the 1918 flu virus from the bodies of persons who died nearly a hundred years ago. They hope to isolate genetic material from the virus samples to better under how a normally mild flu virus became so deadly.

The more we can learn from this kind of investigation,” Professor Oxford told WelcomeScience in 2005, “the better chance we have of holding off new pandemics.”

postal_carrier_with_a_maskl NARA

A postal worker makes his rounds wearing a cotton mask in a futile attempt to avoid the Spanish Flu. Credit: National Archives


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Billings, Molly. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918. (2005). Stanford. Accessed October 21, 2013.

Taubenberger, J. The Origin and Virulence of the 1918 “Spanish” Influenza Virus. (2006). U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Eyler, J. The State of Science, Microbiology, and Vaccines Circa 1918. (2010). U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Brown, Robert J. Revisiting the Spanish Flu. (2005). Wellcome Science.

Cofman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars: The American Experience in World War I. (1968). The University Press of Kentucky,.

Getz, David. Purple Death: The Mysterious Flu of 1918. (2000). Henry Holt and Co. LLC.

Gillett, Mary. The Army Medical Department 1917-1941. (2009). Center of Military History, U.S. Army.

Goldsmith, Connie. Influenza. (2011). Twentyfirst Century Books.

Oxford, JS, et al. WWI May Have Allowed the Emergence of “Spanish” Influenza. (2002). The Lancet.

Trilla, Guillem, Antoni Guillem and Carolyn Daer. The 1918 “Spanish Flu” in Spain. (2008). Clinical Infectious Disease.

Beach Jumpers: Actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and the U.S. Navy’s Masters of Deception

CDRDouglasFairbanks_Wiki Commons

Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. conceived the idea of the Beach Jumpers tactical deception units, and courageously led them into combat during WWII. Image by: Lou Sander.

Before WWII, Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was famous for his big screen heroics. But none of his celluloid adventures could match those he had as a WWII U.S. Navy commando.

Leading a team of maritime deception specialists called the Beach Jumpers, Fairbanks and his men were charged with raising hell with German coastal defenses throughout the Mediterranean Theater, and keep them off balance while the Allies planned the invasions of Sicily, Italy, and southern France.

When the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into the war, Fairbanks was already a seasoned covert operator. A close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the actor often undertook sensitive diplomatic missions abroad for the Commander-in-Chief.

In 1940, Fairbanks was commissioned a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. In 1942, after serving sea tours on everything from minesweepers to battleships, he was attached to British Admiral Lord Mountbatten’s Combined Operations (Commandos) Command in 1942.

Though attached to Mountbatten’s command as an observer, Fairbanks – already in his thirties – chose to undergo the physically rigorous British commando training.

He also took part in several small, cross-channel raids. On one raid, he was allowed to command a British flotilla of amphibious landing craft used by the commandos. It was during these commando assaults that Fairbanks developed an interest in military deception operations.

Douglas Fairbanks: A Brash Officer with Brash Ideas

Reassigned to the United States in late 1942, Fairbanks – as brash a junior naval officer as he was a brash onscreen hero – pitched his idea for a U.S. Navy unit specializing in tactical cover, diversion, and deception operations to Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, commander of all U.S. amphibious forces and all American naval forces in North African and Mediterranean waters.

Hewitt loved the idea and took it to the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Ernest King. In March 1943, King issued a secret order to establish a force of 180 officers and 300 enlisted men for “prolonged, hazardous, distant duty for a secret project.”

Within weeks, Beach Jumper Unit 1 was stood up. The origins of the name Beach Jumper is unclear. One story maintains the moniker came from the unit’s mission to “scare the be-jesus out of the enemy,” and BJ led to the name Beach Jumpers. In a 1993 interview with the U.S. Naval Institute’s journal Proceedings, Fairbanks provided a much more mundane answer.

“It was a codename given by Mountbatten,” he said. “The idea was for it to be a cover name – partly descriptive – and a code name at the same time.”

Unfortunately, Fairbanks was too junior to command such a large unit. However, he was later appointed the Special Operations Officer to Captain Charles L. Andrews, commander of all Beach Jumper units, a position which made Fairbanks responsible for planning, training and supervising all Beach Jumper missions.

Intensive Commando Training: From Hollywood to Hero

Sixty-three foot air rescue boast like this one were adapted for use a tactical deception platforms for Beach Jumper Units. Credit: Wiki Commons

Sixty-three foot air rescue boast like this one were adapted for use tactical deception platforms for Beach Jumper Units. Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy

The training Fairbanks organized for the Beach Jumpers included seamanship and small boat handling, gunnery, ordinance, demolitions and pyrotechnics. The Beach Jumpers were assigned 63-foot Air Sea Rescue (ASR) boats, lightly armed plywood vessels similar to the torpedo boats of the time. In addition to two twin-mounted .50 caliber machine guns, the Beach Jumper ASRs carried 3.5-inch rockets, smoke generators, and time-delayed floating explosive packets, as well as specialized deception equipment.

The latter consisted of a wire-recorder (precursor to the tape recorder), a 5-phase amplifier, 12-horn speakers, power generators, and ZKM and MK-6 naval balloons. The sound equipment was used to project the noise created by a large amphibious force—anchors dropping, landing craft engines revving up, even orders being shouted.

With radar reflecting material attached, the balloons would be dragged along by the boats. To enemy radar operators, the balloons looked like much larger naval ships. Later on in the war, the ASRs would also carry radar jamming equipment.

In theory, with such deception equipment, the Beach Jumpers could dupe the enemy into believing an amphibious landing was taking place in one location while, in reality, it was taking place in an entirely different location.

It wouldn’t be long before Beach Jumper Unit 1 would learn whether the theory held up in combat. Their first test would come in July 1943 as part of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.

Operation Husky: The First Combat

On July 11, one night after the initial invasion, Beach Jumper Unit 1 was ordered to conduct a diversion off of Sicily’s Cape San Marco, about 100 miles west of the landing beaches. The idea was to make the Germans believe a second landing was taking place. The Beach Jumper ASRs closed to 3,000 yards offshore and fired up their smoke generators and sound equipment. Search lights from Cape San Marco began probing the offshore waters, followed by machine gun and artillery fire. The ASRs fired back with their twin .50s and rockets. At 2:30 in the morning, they returned to their operating base with no casualties.

The next night, the Beach Jumpers did it again. This time the Germans were fully expecting an amphibious landing, and opened up with everything they had. The Beach Jumpers returned to base, again without a single casualty. The two night raids convinced the Germans a second Sicilian landing would take place, and they kept an entire reserve division in place, preventing it from attacking the real Husky beach head.

That was the first Beach Jumper action, but it wouldn’t be the last.

Fairbanks and the Beach Jumpers took part in diversionary missions for the invasion of Italy. Fairbanks earn a Silver Star, one of the country’s highest awards for gallantry, by leading a raiding party onto the Island of Ventotene and setting up picket position under heavy enemy fire.

Operation Dragoon: The Invasion of Southern France

Pictured here is the France Navy operation routes for Operation Dragoon. Image by the U.S. Army.

Pictured here is the France Navy operation routes for Operation Dragoon. Image by the U.S. Army.

Fairbanks took part in planning the diversionary tactics used in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, and was given command of one of the Beach Jumpers detachments taking part in the operation.

Again, the idea was to convince the Germans the landing would come somewhere other than the beaches of French Riviera surrounding St. Tropez. One Beach Jumper unit would simulate a large landing force approaching Marseilles; the other, commanded by Fairbanks, would do the same in the Nice-Cannes area. A portion of Fairbanks’ unit would break off and land a group of Free French commandos at Theoule to cut German communication lines.

The deception tactics worked as well for the invasion of southern France as it did for Operation Husky. However, what started as a deception ended as the largest naval engagement of the that invasion, when one of Fairbank’s ASR boats ran head-long into two much larger, and better armed German corvettes.

An Unexpected Battle at Sea

Fairbanks led his remaining boats straight into the enemy, guns and rockets firing, and generating smoke screens.

According to a citation for the Legion of Merit with a bronze V for valor, Fairbanks “courageously led the ships of his unit into action and, aggressively directing the combat operations with expert seamanship against heavy odds, greatly aided in the ultimate sinking of the two (German) vessels.”

As soon as the corvettes were sunk, Fairbanks organized the rescue of the German survivors.

For their action during the invasion of southern France, the Beach Jumpers earned a Presidential Unit Citation.

Beach Jumper units also served in the Pacific Theater of the war. Fairbanks, in fact, was working on deception tactics to use in the planned British retaking of Singapore when the war ended.

Beach Jumpers: Later Missions

With the war’s end, the Beach Jumpers were deactivated. They were reactivated, however, for the Korean War and also saw action in Vietnam. In 1986, the Beach Jumpers were renamed Fleet Tactical Deception Groups, and continue the work first envisioned by Fairbanks.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. finished World War II as a lieutenant commander. He returned to Hollywood and continued his big screen and stage career. Fairbanks has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He eventually retired from the Naval Reserve as a captain, and died in May 2000 at the age of 90.


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U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers Association. Beach Jumpers: The Inception. (2005). Accessed September 2, 2013.

Naval History & Heritage. Biographies In Naval History: Commander Douglas Elton Fairbanks, Jr.USNR. Accessed September 2, 2013.

Dwyer, J. B. Seaborne Deception: The History of U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers. (1992). Greenwood Publishing Group.

Psywarrior. U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers. Accessed September 2, 2013.