The Chronicle Herald

Carl W. Coleman, 1891-1982
Carl W. Coleman, 1891-1982, survived trench warfare in the First World War but was almost lost to the Spanish Flu.

Joining the Army in Kentville in 1916, Carl W. Coleman served in France with the Canadian Expeditionary Force until 1919. He was wounded twice, slight wounds that were minor compared to the mysterious malady that almost destroyed him. This is his story, how the Spanish Flu struck the Canadian trenches and was rampant in Nova Scotia when he returned home.

A thigh wound from shrapnel at Vimy didn’t stop him. Later, when he transferred to a Lord Strathcona cavalry unit, being thrown from his horse when a bomb exploded nearby didn’t slow him down either.

What finally put Carl W. Coleman, a Kings County solider of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, into a field hospital was a mysterious ailment sweeping through the trenches, laying low otherwise healthy soldiers. “I was told they almost lost me,” Coleman said years later when he talked about his experiences in WW1. “There was nothing they could do for me. They put me in a tent along with other sick soldiers and just waited to see if I was going to make it.”

What almost killed Coleman was the Spanish Flu and he was one of the lucky ones that survived it. He recalled later that in the trenches soldiers would be sick and trembling at dusk and at dawn the next day were found dead. Coleman recalled that on the boat coming back to Canada, whole sections of the ship were isolated, those sick with the flu and the wounded lumped together.<!–more–>

By the time Coleman arrived at the pier in Halifax, the Spanish Flu had killed millions of people worldwide. Its origins unknown, the epidemic began in 1918 and by early 1920 had killed an estimated 500 million. Despite its mainly rural population, Nova Scotia wasn’t spared.

“The Spanish Flu was a pandemic that killed 55,000 people in Canada,” writes Gary Young, who has done extensive research on the effect it had in Nova Scotia. “The flu lasted until May 1920 when it disappeared as strangely as it arrived.”

A Kentville native who resides today in the Bahamas, Young found that Nova Scotia was “amongst the provinces with the lowest death rate, most likely attributed to its extensive rural population.” He concludes, however, that Nova Scotia’s death rate likely was higher than recorded since “some death records only showed pneumonia as the cause of death.”

In his research, Gary Young found that in Kings County, especially in Cornwallis Township, at least 26 people died of the Spanish Flu between September 1918 and December 1919. Public health statistics, published after the pandemic receded, noted that in Nova Scotia the official death count was 1,769, about 3.4 deaths per 1,000 of population. Other provinces, Quebec, Alberta, and Saskatchewan suffered higher death rates, averaging about six deaths per 1,000 of population.

As Young noted, the death rate here from the flu was relatively light. The statistics mentioned above indicate that the death rate was the highest in Halifax County, in areas along the South Shore, and towards Cape Breton. Relatively speaking, the farming communities of the Annapolis Valley were spared.

In later years, Carl Coleman recalled that on train ride from Halifax to Kentville, despite the seriousness of the pandemic, people appeared to be treating it lightly. Arriving home, however, he found that some of his old friends were victims of the pandemic. One of them was Peter DeAdder. He died overseas in 1918, the cause of death officially recorded as from influenza. Ironically, another friend – who was turned down by the Army when he tried to enlist – contacted the flu from a returning soldier and died in a few weeks. While Coleman lived into his 90s, his bout with the flu left him with several months of headaches, sore throat, and fever. Doctors later attributed the weak heart he suffered from throughout his life to “the grippe,” an old-fashioned word for the flu.

As Gary Young’s research shows, Nova Scotia was relatively lucky during that first great pandemic to strike Canada. However, soldiers like Carl W. Coleman paid for being in the trenches during WW1 with a lifetime of illness. Many Nova Scotian soldiers paid with their lives.

The Spanish Flu chart, as prepared by Gary Young, indicates the endemic struck young and old alike.

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