Soldiers serving along the Western Front lived in ground dug-outs called trenches. Rats were common in these outdoor dwellings, making things even more miserable. This illustration, from the 20 October 1917 cover of Literary Digest, depicts an idealized version of trench living where English-speaking soldiers are studying French. Public Domain. Online, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
At about the time American soldiers at Camp Funston came down with the yet-unnamed Spanish Flu, French and British forces were in trouble along the Western Front. Germany had a readily observable objective: Split apart the Allies so the German war machine could break through the 440-mile line and overrun the French countryside.
Although troops on both sides of the line had been unable to really move much for three years, the Germans were hopeful their spring offensive would be decisive. Georges Clemenceau, then the French Premier, told an American newsman (with great urgency):
A terrible blow is imminent. Tell your Americans to come quickly.
And come they did. By the time World War I was over, about 2 million American troops were in France. During the summer of 1918, Americans crossed the Atlantic in droves:
They were bound, among other places, for the trenches at the Western Front. Robert Graves (the British poet, writer-combatant and author of Goodbye to All That and I, Claudius) had a choice name for the front: “the sausage machine.” His reason for such a description?
...because it was fed with live men, churned out corpses, and remained firmly screwed in place.
Rarely had military men been forced to live for so long in such deplorably desperate conditions as those existing at the Western Front. In the trenches, awful rats as big as cats fed on dead bodies while lice inflicted 97% of the soldiers. “Trench fever” often resulted from the filth and exposure.
The arriving American soldiers, who had come to help the Allies, also brought with them a weapon. It was unseen and unknown. It had already taken aim at the Americans; it would soon turn on their brothers-in-arms. And, according to some scholars, it may have actually helped the Allies win the war.
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