The Mantua holds the dubious distinction of being the ship that brought the Spanish Flu to West Africa. In his book "Living With Enza", Mark Honigsbaum states that in August 1918 "the HMS Mantua arrived at Freetown, Sierra Leone, en route from Southern England, with 200 sick sailors on board. Within a week 600 employees of the Sierra Leone Coaling Company had come down with the disease."
The Mantua left Devonport on 1 August 1918 with just 4 on the sick list. It has been reported that the first flu symptoms appeared two days out of port and the sick list figure increased gradually during the first week through 5, 6 and 7 until 8 August when the figure jumped to 14, falling by one the next day, only to increase to 25 on the 10th, 38 on the 11th, 74 on the 12th and 103 on the 13th.
On 14 August, the Mantua arrived in Sierra Leone with 124 on the sick list, and the log states "Vessel ordered in strict quarantine". It would be interesting to know what "strict quarantine" actually meant in practical terms, since the next day the log contains the entry at 10.00am "Commenced coaling, native labour". Hence the rapid spread of the disease to the employees of the Sierra Leone Coaling Company. Four warrants were read at 8.45am on 15 August - of course, we can only speculate what for. The first death is recorded at 9.30am on this day, Fireman
Patrick McFarlane, Mercantile Marine Reserve. The cause of death for all fatalities from the epidemic is recorded as pneumonia. A surgeon and a sick bay rating joined the ship from HMS Africa and another sick bay rating arrived from HMS Brittania. The number on the sick list reached 132.
The sick list numbers continued to rise to 159 on the 16th, and 164 on the 17th, finally reaching 176 on 18 August. This was to prove to be the peak figure; another sick bay rating joined the ship from HMS Africa. The sick list figure fell for the first time since the epidemic took hold on 19 August, dropping to 170, and reducing again on the 20th to 157. A second death occurred on 20 August, William Sutton AB. The sick list figure fell again to 117 on the 21st, but two more deaths occurred: Private William J Glazzard RMLI and Herbert Tilling OS RNVR (aged 22).
With the number of cases on board continuing to fall (103 on the 22nd, 77 on the 23rd, 57 on the 24th, and 48 on the 25th) there was another death on 23 August, Petty Officer Gilbert Francis Brown, age 30. Four deaths occurred the following day: Albert J Young AB (age 31); Ponny Morris (Steward MMR Rating); Leading Seaman H A Taylor; Edward Dawson AB. The tenth death occurred on 25 August, Sidney Durston, Ward Room Steward. Two RNR officers joined the ship: Lt Otterson from HMS Africa and Lt Middleton from SS Chepstow Castle. Lt Otterson may have thought he had rather a raw deal here at the time.
On 26 August the Mantua sailed from Sierra Leone escorting a convoy for the return journey to Plymouth, with the sick list figure having dropped to 30. The next day saw the death of Private Daniel Copland RMLI, who was buried at sea on 28 August. The sick list figures declined steadily (27 on the 27th, 20 on the 28th, 17 on the 29th, 13 on the 30th and 11 on the 31st).
On 1 September at 2.00am the twelfth and final death from the epidemic occurred, that of George Morris, Steward MMR Rating, age 29. He was buried at sea later the same day, and the log records that three volleys were fired by the Marines. The sick list totals had dropped to a relatively normal 8 by 1 & 2 September. However, on the 2nd it is recorded that the Mantua sent a boat across to one of the convoy ships, SS Chepstow Castle, with two sick bay ratings and a quantity of drugs. The Mantua eventually arrived back at Devonport on 10 September, with only 5 sick.
The second wave of the Spanish Flu epidemic started in August 1918. However, because all the deaths which occurred on the Mantua are recorded as being from pneumonia, it appears that the strain involved here was still the first wave virus, which was not as lethal as the mutated second wave virus. Although no-one knows for sure where the second wave originated, it has been postulated that the mutation may actually have occurred in West Africa ("The Biology of Epidemic Influenza, illustrated by Naval Experience" by Sheldon F Dudley). The outbreak of
the flu affected so many of the employees of the Sierra Leone Coaling Company that HMS Africa and HMS Britannia had to lend parties of men to help coal the ships, with the virus then being transmitted back to the crews. However, the outbreak of flu on HMS Africa in September 1918 was far more severe than that experienced on the Mantua. So Lt Otterson, who was sent to the Mantua from the Africa, may have been a great deal more fortunate than he probably imagined at the time!
Both Honigsbaum and Dudley quote a figure of 200 sick on the Mantua, while the peak figure shown in the logs for the sick list is 176. This apparent discrepancy may be explained if some of the earlier cases had already recovered by 18 August, so the 200 figure may be the total number of cases altogether.