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Michel Corday: The plague that comes in war’s train

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Michel Corday: Selections from The Paris Front

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Michel Corday
From The Paris Front (1934)
Translator not known

October 1918

– For the last two months a frightful epidemic, the so-called “influenza,” has descended upon France. It has been hovering over Europe since the spring. It was especially violent in Switzerland this last summer. In France, since the beginning of September, it has attacked the troops – herded together as they are, with their poor food, poor accommodation, and poor medical attention – at the front as well as in the rear. It is complicated by affections of the lungs or meningitis, often fatal. It is a kind of plague. People have given it an innocent kind of label which is almost amusing. They have even called it “Spanish influenza,” since the King of Spain, it appears, has had it. The name suggests the title of a dance, as if it were a kind of fandango. In France, words are all-important. An army doctor solemnly remarked to me: “Soldiers are not invalided out for influenza.” An official in the Ministry of Education, interviewed as to the expediency of closing the schools, remarked: “Influenza is not mentioned on the official list of diseases for which such a step is authorised.”

Later on, this epidemic has been hushed up, censored. At one time even the name was forbidden in the newspapers. It was not until the middle of October that they mentioned it, since Clemenceau’s son-in-law died of it. At present, fifty soldiers are dying of it every week in a single hospital in Sens, and 1,200 people in Paris. They die in a few days, sometimes in a few hours, of suffocation. Every letter from every part of the country mentions this scourge. In Brittany, whole families are being swept away; five hundred soldiers have died in a single depot. Seaports have been especially affected. At Lyons, there are not enough hearses to go round. And yet it does not bring peace any nearer than would the death of a sparrow!

At the hospital at Joigny, where my son (who was wounded on the 1st September) has been for more than a month, lying between life and death, with relapses and complications, there is a shortage of staff. The Chief Medical Officer was attending his own son, who was down with a severe attack of influenza. His assistant was in bed with pleurisy arising from influenza. The nurses were simply swamped with work. One man died every hour.

– The 29th. Some people refuse to recognise the prevalence of influenza. To hear them, you would think that they applied the term influenza to any disease which proves fatal. They also declare: “It is not so severe as the influenza of 1889.” This attitude is regarded as heroic.

– In Paris, during the present crisis, burials are conducted as late as midnight.

– The apathy of the masses is indescribable. Last week 1,800 people died of influenza in Paris – that is, nearly 300 people every day; in other words, as many as have been killed by aeroplanes and super-guns in four years of war.

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