In spite of preventive measures undertaken by the Medical Office, such as the immunization of the internees against typhus (May and June 1915) or against the paratyphoid fever (June and July 1916), pandemics did appear in the camp. This is especially true in the case of the worldwide flu pandemic A/H1N1, which became notoriously known as the “Spanish flu”. Supposedly it originated in China but mutated into a lethal disease in the United States.
Astonishingly enough it is the Swiss Delegation that, on May 1st 1918, informs the Ministry of the Interior that a flu pandemic had broken out - the camp authorities, however, hasten to deny this. By early summer the flu emerges vigorously. On July 11th, the senior physician informs the Sub-Prefect in Brest that “a flu pandemic has broken out in the camp some weeks ago. The first to be infected were the guards (about one in six men). In the last two days, seven internees have been admitted to the camp’s hospital ward. The pandemic shows every symptom of the common flu. It strikes suddenly and unannounced. In the evenings, temperatures rise to between 39 and 40 degrees. Right away, non-specific pains in the limbs arise. Of the cases I observed temperatures receded on day three and recovery set in on day four. If it spreads, the pandemic may safely be assumed to remain innocuous right to the end. As preemptive measures those afflicted and suspected to be afflicted are isolated immediately. Their bedding is disinfected.” Three days later, he affirms “the benign nature of the pandemic. The most serious cases of which there are roughly one hundred (95) have been admitted to hospital wards. Five hundred additional, more benign, cases were treated in the camp. Only in two cases acute bronchitis appeared. Meanwhile both patients have healed completely. In the last two days, it seems the number of cases has receded.” To be sure, the flu is benign; still, many men, around 600, were afflicted. It seems it was introduced by the soldiers of the guards.
A second flu pandemic hits the camp by autumn, but the senior physician remains optimistic and states “... it seems to remain benign just las the preceding pandemic.” A month later, on November 28th, his report to the Sub-Prefect provides further details. “It was introduced by a detachment deployed as agricultural labourers in the Allier Department. Generally speaking the course of the disease, regarding its clinical symptoms, was benign. Not too many men were afflicted. This was due to preemptive measures undertaken speedily, for example the immediate isolation of the sick. The bedding and barracks of the afflicted were disinfected immediately. Everyone was prescribed potassium permanganate and made to gargle frequently. Disinfectants were sprayed about regularly; the men were kept clean. In addition, some 600 internees who suffered of a benign flu in June seem to have become immune. To date, none of them has had a relapse.” At that moment the physician records 104 cases, 52 of whom already left the sick ward completely healed after having spent the last three days of their convalescence in a barrack that served as quarantine station." Eight sick men, however, had to be taken to the hospital of the arsenal in Brest - they suffered of complications regarding their lungs or hearts. One of them dies on November 26th. Of the 42 remaining patients in the sick ward, two more have to be admitted to the hospital in Brest. The physician orders every internee and every detachment coming from outside the camp or a region where the flu has surfaced in the last three days to be isolated. The physician also reports medicine and disinfectants seem to run short.
It is on December 3rd, however, that he fears the disease will turn infectious. He reports 25 fresh cases, 11 of which must be admitted to the hospital. Four of these men will die. The Île Longue camp orders large quantities of quinine, aspirin and antipyrines, which the usual supplier in Brest can provide, but in insufficient quantities. On December 19th the physician orders the largest sick ward to be evacuated and disinfected. The same is planned for those barracks where the largest number of cases was counted. In addition to this he wants the floors to be washed with chlorinated lime and the walls to be lime washed. He also suggests to suspend transferring internees from one camp to another one, especially those from Crozon to Île Longue. By late November 1918 the internees from the camps in Lanvéoc and Kerbénéat were moved to Île Longue. The internees from Crozon, however, would have to wait until December 30th, 1918.
Apparently the Île Longue camp had suffered three successive waves of the flu: the first in June and July, the second in October and November and the final one in December. In Brest, however, the pandemic rampages most severely in August and September. It mostly afflicts the US Army which suffers several thousand victims, but also the navy barracks and the Recouvrance neighbourhood. The navy has to move its sick to the military hospital of Trébéron and an additional sick bay is established in Kervallon. In the meantime, the non-military authorities adopt strict measures mainly aiming at forbidding any sick bed visits.
There seems to be a time lapse between the outbreak of the pandemic outside of the camp (April through June 1918; December 1918; the spring of 1919) and inside the camp. It also becomes obvious that the Île Longue camp, in spite of its remoteness, is not safe from pandemics. The latter fact seems to originate in the ever changing composition of the camp’s population (change of guards, return of labour detachments, transfers of internees).
Didier Cadou, “Les derniers mois du camp d’internement de l’Île Longue”, Avel Gornog, No. 18, Crozon, July 2010, pp. 34-50
Olivier Lahaie, “L’épidémie de grippe dite”espagnole“et sa perception par l’armée française (1918-1919)”, Revue historique des armées, No. 262, 2011