Despite finally marking the end of the First World War, Christmas in 1918 found few with much to celebrate.
The three previous festive seasons of 1915, 1916 and 1917 had been unimaginably hard – both for those troops fighting on the front line and the loved ones they’d left behind at home.
And, by the time December had arrived, the country had already been suffering a deadly Spanish Flu pandemic, a second mutated wave of which had recently devastated much of the population.
But, as the big day approached and the death toll slowly began to drop, people were left facing the difficult decision – just as we are now – of whether or not to get together with loved ones for the holidays or to just stay home and stay safe.
And it’s impossible to look at the speed at which Spanish Flu escalated, along with the damaging effect it had on early 20th Century society, and not spot further stark similarities to the coronavirus pandemic that continues to engulf us in 2020.
Indeed, while there was nothing like the centrally imposed lockdowns we’ve experienced this year- any response back then fell to respective local authorities and was largely uncoordinated – many cinemas, theatres, dance halls and churches and schools also saw their doors shut for long periods.
Many businesses struggled too and doctors and hospitals were overwhelmed, large numbers re-purposing their wards to meet the demands of flu victims.
Seasonal events like carol services and nativity plays were either cancelled or postponed until the following year, although – unlike the Welsh Government’s current pre-Xmas beer ban in pubs nationwide – drinking dens, which had already been hit by wartime restrictions, went largely unaffected.
In addition, a campaign was launched to encourage the use of soap and the avoidance of crowded places as a way of fighting the virus, while shaking hands or kissing was advised against. Anti-germ masks – very often just a thin piece of gauze – were also worn by some.
Nevertheless, whole families had continued to fall ill, with husbands and wives, parents and children all dying within a day or two of the onset of symptoms.
Spread by sneezing and coughing, it would result in victims’ lungs filling with fluid and leaving them struggling to breathe, their faces, lips and ears turning blue – a process known as cyanosis.
As a result, the demand for burial plots rocketed.
Caused by an H1N1 virus which spread from wild waterfowl to humans, the pandemic killed with a swiftness that alarmed medics of the time – remember it would be another 30 years before the NHS and a modern welfare state came to fruition.
Similarly, the very first flu vaccine was still some two decades off, so conditions and survival rates were much worse than today
The flu had started to take hold in Wales in July 1918 in the south-east valleys where death rates of up to 15.9 people per 1,000 in one week were recorded.
Swansea at that time was lower, with 4.3 deaths per 1,000 in one week.
By October/November 1918 the Cardiff death rate was peaking at 38.3 deaths per 1,000 and Swansea at 37.9 during the worst weeks.
The worst-hit area was Ogmore and Garw, where the death rate was 106 per 1,000 in one week in November 1918. During this week alone 57 people died in these two valleys. This was the highest death rate in a week anywhere in England or Wales.
Yet in Maesteg, the death rate was much lower overall during the pandemic, 2.1 per 1,000 or 50 deaths in total.
By the end, the overall death rate in Wales was calculated as up to 11,400 people, with a staggering 50 and 100 million fatalities estimated worldwide.
Believed by some scientists to have originated amongst US troops, whose later deployment to Europe aided its spread, many fortunate enough to survive the horror of the trenches would be struck down before the Armistice documents could even be drafted.
And those casualties would continue even after peace came about – some made it back to Wales only to die within hours or days of developing symptoms.
However, reports of it in the UK while the conflict still raged were largely minimized to protect public morale and prevent mass panic.
Indeed, it was only in Spain – which remained neutral in the First World War – that journalists, thanks to a lack of state-sanctioned censorship, could write about it.
And the resulting glut of virus stories created a false impression of that country being especially hard hit – hence it was dubbed ‘Spanish Flu’.
Yet some papers here still made reference to it – with cartoonists, like the one below, lampooning the contradictory and inconsistent nature of the advice been doled out – from gargling salty water to wrapping up warm and ‘staying in bed until the worst passes’.
On June 22, 1918, a report in The Cambria Daily Leader, headlined ‘Unwelcome Spanish Visitor Reaches Swansea’, read: “If you are well in the morning and before noon develop a fearful headache, a sore throat, an all-round lassitude (weakness), you’ve caught it – or, rather, it has caught you.
“Ordinary influenza creeps upon you. The new kind comes with a jump. The one attacks you as a craven wolf might: the other springs upon you like a lion.”
Nevertheless, by the end of 1918, a degree of normality had started to return, with some newspapers reporting the shops had been busier than ever in the run up to Christmas Day.
Theatres, churches and the like had also begun reopening, while public transport slowly got back up and running.
All of which arguably contributed to another big spike in the spring of 1919, before the disease finally petered out – another mutation, just like the one which had previously intensified it, ultimately weakening its impact on the population.
The previous huge rate of infection also likely meant people had developed immunity to it.
And, 102 years on, we find ourselves at the exact same crossroads, asking the exact same question: “Is it a good idea to drop our guard now -, before a vaccine is fully rolled out – just for the sake of getting together with the rellies for turkey and trimmings?”
Only time will tell what the answer to that will be.