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World War One wasn’t the nation building exercise the elites hoped it would be. And while the soldiers may have shouted “savoia” as their battle cry, the House of Savoy came out of the war weakened in prestige, especially outside of their traditional base of support in Northern Italy. As became apparent early on, Italy couldn’t prosecute the war without massive financial and material assistance from the Allies. Even that wasn’t enough. The Austro-Hungarians, who had a very long military tradition, beat the Italians like a drum in almost every battle. To keep the Italian Army from collapsing completely, British, French, and even American troops had to be sent to steady the Italian front line.
World’s first airmail stamp issued by Italian postal administration for Torino-Rome flight – This is a 1903 express delivery stamp overprinted for the special flight in 1917.
However, we should recognize the major contribution the Italians made to Western Civilization during World War One: they issued the first air mail stamp.
At the end of World War One, what was the “butcher’s bill” for the Kingdom of Italy? 651,000 military deaths. 500,089 Italian civilians dead, most by starvation, lack of medical care, and exposure. Total dead: 1,240,000 or 3.48% of the population. And these figures are probably too low. Record keeping was hardly exact. There were also the wounded to take care of after the war. 953,886 to be exact. (Source: La Salute Pubblica In Italia Durante E Dopo La Guerra, (translating as: Public Health in Italy During and After the War) New Haven, Yale University Press, 1925.)
Italy stumbled out of the war having lost 3 and 1/2 percent of her population and having increased her national debt over 350%. (Source: The Pity of War: Explaining World War One by Niall Ferguson)
As the expression goes, “things couldn’t get worse.” But life teaches all of us that when things are really, really bad, they can sometimes get worse. And for Italy, for Europe, in fact for the entire world, they did. While 16,000,000 or so human beings died in World War One, a disease appeared out of no where killed almost 4 times more than that by the end of 1919.
Beginning in the fall of 1918, just a few months before the Armistice which brought an end to the slaughter of World War One, people in Europe and the United States and Canada, began to die of a mysterious disease, marked by very high fever, which doctors could not identify, treat, or control. We know this in history today as the Spanish influenza pandemic, this last word meaning it wasn’t confined to a smaller geographical area such as a region or country or even continent. That’s an epidemic. A pandemic is something that affects the entire globe.
Policemen in Seattle wearing masks made by the Red Cross, during the influenza epidemic. December 1918.
The Spanish Influenza Pandemic killed the largest number of people of any pandemic and is the worst medical catastrophe in recorded human history. And it didn’t even last very long. Less than twelve months give or take.
Source: National Archives
Scientists, doctors, and health officials could not identify this disease which was striking so fast and so viciously, eluding treatment and defying control. Some victims died within hours of their first symptoms. Others succumbed after a few days; their lungs filled with fluid and they suffocated to death….The plague did not discriminate. It was rampant in urban and rural areas, from the densely populated East coast to the remotest parts of Alaska. Young adults, usually unaffected by these types of infectious diseases, were among the hardest hit groups along with the elderly and young children.
The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population. In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years.
If this last sentence doesn’t cause your jaw to drop then here it is again, all in caps: “IN ONE YEAR, THE AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY IN THE UNITED STATES DROPPED BY 12 YEARS.”
[Images courtesy of Wikimedia and The National Archives.]