1918 -the year that changed the world – and Tacoma

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Yes, I know 2018 is almost over, but just as many of the defining events of a decade occur in the latter half, many of the defining events of a year happen in final month or two.

One hundred years ago, World War I was coming to a close and the “Spanish Flu” was sweeping the world – killing far more than the war – in fact this 1918 flu killed more people than any other disease in human history – including the great plagues of Europe.

Somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died around the world – even rural areas far from conflict and war. About 600,000 died in the United States.

About 500 million were infected – about a third of the earth’s population at the time.

The war that we now know as World War I facilitated the spread of the flu with its cramped quarters, compromised hygiene and near global transport of infected soldiers.

Though the flu is called the “Spanish Flu” -  it did not originate, or even do its worst in Spain. Spain was the first country to be (relatively) honest about the epidemic.

According to most epidemiologists, this virulent strain of the flu actually began in Kansas and followed troop movements across Europe, around the world and back home after the war.

For more on the remarkable rise, spread and equally unexpected decline of the flu, take a look at these websites or the PBS documentary here -   https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/,  or https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm or here https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/influenza/.

The war we now know as World War I was known until the early 1940s as “The Great War” – and “The war to end all wars” – a war unlike any others in its scope in terms of length, death rate and number of countries involved.

“The Great War” is considered by most historians to be a pivotal war – in other words, the world was a very different place after the war than it had been before – and would ever be again.

It was because of this war that plastic surgery and blood banks were developed.  (1*)

“The Great War” began with gallant soldiers on horseback waving sabers and ended with mustard gas, machine guns and soldiers dying by the thousands in muddy, rat and disease infested, frigid trenches. This was also the first war to use aircraft – first dirigibles and later biplanes.

“The Great War” began with soldiers fighting hand to hand and face to face and ended with the triumph of machines and the full mechanization of war.

Never again would a battlefront allow an unofficial “Christmas truce” where German and British soldiers took a break from killing each other and celebrated Christmas together (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/christmas-truce/). This event also gave a us a movie – Joyeux  Noel (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0424205/).

One contributing factor to the changes coming in the 20th Century was the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. You can see a video clip of her royal funeral here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9yiG3EUz_A.

Her children (and grandchildren) became heads of state across Europe by 1914 and cousins – or their proxies – slaughtered each other.

Britain’s royal family, due to anti-German sentiment, changed its last name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (from Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria) to the more British sounding “Windsor” in 1917.

About 10 million men died – and about a third of them had no official or known burial. Because so many individuals did not have graves, tens of thousands of war memorials were erected throughout the world.

In Great Britain, 30% of men who were between the ages of 20 and 24 in 1914 died in the war.  (2*)

In many ways, this was the root of the “lost generation” of the 1920s.

American architect Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. in 1982, based her design – and the use of engraved individual names on a wall – on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

Among many other repercussions of The Great War, the global currency shifted from the British Pound to the American dollar and thanks to the economic collapse of virtually all of the colonial powers, the maps of  much of Africa and the Middle east were redrawn, essentially fueling ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah and a host of other “independence” movements for decades, if not generations.  (3*)

Tacoma was one of the largest wood shipbuilding centers of the world in 1918.Image from Tacoma Tribune Industrial Edition, February 12, 1918

Tacoma was one of the largest wood shipbuilding centers of the world in 1918. See the Tacoma Historical Society Museum exhibit through December 1, 2018 in the historic Provident Building, 919 Pacific Avenue. Image from Tacoma Tribune Industrial Edition, February 12, 1918

1918 also changed Tacoma, Pierce County and the Puget Sound region forever. 

Fort Lewis (originally named Camp Lewis) was established in 1917. The ASARCO copper smelter (current home of Point Ruston) and the Port of Tacoma began operating in 1918.

And on a cultural note, the Pantages Theater and Tacoma Little Theater both opened in 1918.  (4*)

The Tacoma Historical Society has a special exhibit on how 1918 influenced the direction and identity of Tacoma. You can see details here – https://www.tacomahistory.org/exhibit-tacoma1918.

In Tacoma, ship builders and other military suppliers made fortunes, Fort Lewis expanded and, for the most part, the Puget Sound region took a big step away from an agricultural basis to industrial. One local example was the founding of the Boeing Company (a hundred years later, still a dominant force in our economy) in 1916.

Washington state, as most of the country, became far more urban – and far less agricultural – as a result of the war.

The holiday we in the United States commemorate as Veteran’s Day was originally known as (and is still by most of the world) as Armistice Day – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – a muted celebration of peace after the relentless depletion and exhaustion of constant war.

In 1918, the world knew one thing for certain – war was nothing to celebrate. And most historians acknowledge that the resentments and sense of betrayal on the part of the German people led directly to the rise of Adolph Hitler and World War II.  (5*)

Armistice Day was a sober day of reflection and acknowledgement of the cost of war and the inestimable value of sustained peace.


(1*)    A few more little known facts about World War I can be found here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/0/26936615.

(2*)    Because so many men died, women took on many traditional “male” roles, including voting. In Germany they could vote as of 1919, in Great Britain, 1918. In the USA women could vote as of 1924.

(3*)    For an enlightening history of the lingering effects of The Great War (including some dramatic propaganda posters) check out this website – http://origins.osu.edu/article/long-legacy-world-war-i or this British one – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/15/firstworldwar.

(4*)    On the literary front, Dashiell Hammett, the detective novelist who essentially invented the noir novel which became the template for film noir as expressed in films like Bladerunner and many others, spent 1918 in Tacoma as a flu/ tuberculosis patient at the Cushman Hospital.

(5*)    For more on the 20th and 21st century repercussions of World War I, take a look at this article – https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/11/05/a-hundred-years-after-the-armistice?