Cranleigh School in November 1918
The 'greatest pandemic in history'
As the country celebrated the Armistice on November 11th 1918, all was quiet at Cranleigh where the boys had been sent home after the School was overwhelmed by Spanish flu. The Cranleighan noted that "one small boy remarked there might have been a half-holiday, had it not been for the flu...whereas, of course, as it was, he only had a fortnight's holiday at home".
The School was lucky in that there were no fatalities but in Britain overall there 228,000 deaths, and globally it is estimated as many as 100 million may have perished.
The first wave of Spanish flu had first been noted in the trenches in the spring where is was known as la grippe (influenza). Initially not serious, it quickly started taking a toll. The first Cranleigh casualty was Sergeant Cecil Bate (1&4 South 1907) of the RAF who died in Lilliers, France on July 10th.
The second wave, which arrived in the autumn, was catastrophic. It is thought the virus had mutated and it swept through a population already weakended by four years of war.
In early October 1918 the Surrey Advertiser carried a headline "Influenze in Surrey: A Widespread Epidemic". The article said: "So far, there have been comparitively few deaths among the civil population, but in the camps, it is a different matter...there are victims by their hundreds".
In this day and age we are used to influenze being an unpleasant illness, but rarely fatal outside the elderly or infirm. Spanish flu was altogether different in two ways. Firstly, it impacted on the young far more, with the majority of victims being in their 20s or 30s. Secondly, it was severe. About a fifth of those infected developed pneumonia or septicaemia. Someone healthy in the morning could be dead by the end of the day.
A doctor wrote to the British Medical Journal explaining the infection. "It starts with what appears to be an ordinary attack of la grippe. When brought to the hospital, (patients) very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission, they have maghogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see cyanosis (blueness due to lack of oxygen) extending from their ears and spreading all over the face. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible.
On October 8th came the first Cranleighan victim when Trooper Arthur Lindridge (East 1903) of the Guards Machine Gun Regiment died in France. He had joined up a fortnight after was was declared in 1914 and served in France since 1915. He was 29. Ten days later Henry Casswell, one of the first pupils who arrived in 1866 and a master from 1870t o 1894, died from influenza at his home in Rusper.
Influenze reached the School in late October. West house, as was the norm as it was closest to the kitchens, was immediately converted into a San overflow (the house was temporarily relocated to the gym) but within a day or two that too was overwhelmed, as were 1 and then 2 North which were also commandeered as emergency sick bays. "The attack came with great suddeness, and within a few days some 260 boys were in bed," the Cranleighan said. "The disease fell with equal rigour on the masters and the staff or servants, most of whom were caught by the plague".
Parents and friends who live locally offered to help, which was readily accepted, and, as was usual when large-scale sickness hit, extra nurses were drafted in but despite this the School could barely function. The Headmaster had no choice but to close the School and telegrams were sent to all parents that boys would be sent home for a fortnight. Those unaffected were sent home by train immediately, other followed after recovering ("happily the type of influenza was mild, and most of those who suffered were in a few days able to get up"). A few who lived far away were billeted with masters of friends. The break worked in that the illness was contained.
The Prep School was largely unaffected. It rather flippantly dismissed the illness in one short paragrah in the school magazine. "The epidemic tried hard to get in here, in fact it caught Mr. Norman when he was not looking, just fluttered over the boys, and then was driven out by a liberal use of quinine and fresh air. Several boys went home in a fright but recovered their equanimity with a week".
On the Western Front, influenza continued to take a toll. On November 9th, 23 yearold 2nd Lieutenant Len Thornback (1&4 South1911) of the RNVR died. Like Lindridge he had served throughout the war.
When the third wave of influenza hit in the New Year, the School was largely unaffected as, generally, those who had recovered from it had immunity. Although West house was again turned into a sick bay, the illness was contained. However, in the Village there were fatalities, perhaps none as tragic as the three Gamblin brothers - John (18), William (27) and Henry (25) - who died within three days of each other in March 1919. Two other Gamblin brothers had already been killed in the war.
Another three Cranleighans on military service perished from influenza in that third wave. On February 20th 1919 Lieutenant Charles Hobson (1 North 1899) died while serving in Ireland. On February 21st, Lieutenant Sidney Kemp (West 1917) of the RAF died at Etaples. He had just turned 19. A day later 34-year old Private William Newton (East 1900) of the Army Ordnance Corps also died.