World War I came to an end on November 11, 1918—nine months after the first cases of what was referred to as the “Spanish Flu” were reported in the United States. Against the backdrop of the war, the 1918 influenza pandemic surged at a time when people were already experiencing scarcity in everyday supplies, coping with having loved ones serving overseas, and living in a wartime economy.
A second global crisis had started before the first one ended.
World War I was devastating, leading to around 20 million deaths worldwide. Deaths from the 1918 pandemic were even more staggering: At least 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans, died from the disease. But the legacy of World War I overshadowed the pandemic, making the unprecedented loss of life from the flu almost an afterthought.
“When the flu impact resolved, people engaged in a kind of collective amnesia,” says Monica Schoch-Spana, Ph.D., a medical anthropologist specializing in public health emergency preparedness at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. “At the same time though, there still was the collective trauma of the war. And so you had processes of post-war rituals and remembrances and monuments.”
Investment in World War I Memorials
For an event to become entrenched in the collective memory, it requires the public to be actively engaged in remembering it, according to Maria Luisa Lima and José Manuel Sobral in Societies Under Threat: A Pluri-Disciplinary Approach. This happens through referencing the event among family members and in everyday conversations, as well as commemorating it in monuments, rituals, archives and narratives.
“The contrast between the investment in the memorialization of the war and what happened with the Spanish flu is huge,” say Lima and Sobral. They point out that, unlike wars, pandemics don’t offer the same “monumental benchmarks” that lend themselves to a monument or public commemoration, like a particular battle or the signing of a treaty.
Commemorations to mark World War I emerged quickly in the wake of the war—and in a variety of forms. School textbook narratives were updated, Veterans Day was established, and monuments and memorials were placed at sites across the country.
In the 1920s and 1930s alone, thousands of monuments and memorials—from commemorative plaques, to statues, to architectural monuments—were erected throughout the United States by state and local governments, as well as colleges, businesses, clubs, veterans groups, and houses of worship, according to the United States World War I Centennial Commission.
One of the most recognizable and pervasive World War I memorials is E. M. Viquesney’s “The Spirit of the American Doughboy” sculpture. Mass-produced in three different variations, the statue was placed in parks, town squares, and other federal properties across 39 states. At least 145 of these statues remain in existence today. They all depict a World War I soldier known as a “Doughboy” holding a rifle in his left hand and a grenade in his right hand, with his right fist raised in a sign of victory.
1918 Influenza Memorials—Far Fewer and Built Later
While hundreds of World War I monuments and memorials have been lost to time, very few dedicated structures and sculptures commemorating civilian lives lost in the 1918 pandemic were built in the first place. Some of the closest equivalents are World War I memorials that include soldiers who died from influenza.
The “Flu Epidemic Monument” at Camp Funston in the Fort Riley Military Reservation in Kansas features a pyramid of stacked stones honoring a unit of medical care soldiers who died in the flu epidemic. The more common iteration is World War I memorials that also include the names of soldiers who died from influenza alongside those who perished in battle, like the stone obelisk at the Camp Merritt military base in Bergen County, New Jersey.
A small handful of other 1918 pandemic memorials scattered throughout the country were, for the most part, established much later—in the 2000s. Several are located in cemeteries or at the sites of mass graves containing unknown numbers of people who died from the flu, including examples in Butler County, Pennsylvania (erected in 2002); Evergreen Park outside of Chicago (2007), Springdale, Pennsylvania (2013), and Earlington, Kentucky (2019). A few other memorials went up in 2018, marking the centennial of the pandemic, including those in Camp Devens, Massachusetts and Barre, Vermont.
World War I Pride vs. Medical Failure
Why such a discrepancy between World War I and pandemic memorials? One factor may be pride: World War I was seen as a show of military strength, while the 1918 pandemic was perceived as a weakness. As much as American medicine and public health had been progressing, the medical field wasn’t able to defeat the deadly influenza strain.
“In an age where medicine was accumulating victories against health problems, this epidemic clearly challenged medical knowledge and questioned medical capacity to deal with the disease,” say Lima and Sobral.
Having very few physical monuments commemorating the 1918 influenza pandemic contributed to its fading from public consciousness. But the 1918 pandemic was finally thrust back into the spotlight—a century later. As the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, the 1918 flu offered a historical example of just how devastating a large-scale global health crisis can be.