January 1918: A Month of Pandemic, Independence, and Turmoil

Unfolding Crises and Revolutionary Movements in a Pivotal Month

The year 1918 was a turning point in world history, marked by significant events that reshaped nations and had a lasting impact on global dynamics.

In January, the Spanish Flu pandemic emerged, becoming one of the deadliest health crises ever recorded.

This devastating influenza outbreak, often mistakenly believed to have originated in Spain, spread rapidly due to the movement of troops and the unsanitary conditions of the war, eventually killing millions worldwide.

Nurses carrying hampers of food for patients during the Spanish Flu pandemic. 

Spanish flu centenary marked by new colourised photos | Daily Mail Online

...a brutal internal conflict...

Simultaneously, political upheavals were unfolding in Europe. The Ukrainian People's Republic declared its independence from Bolshevik Russia, striving for self-determination amidst the chaos of war and revolution.

Similarly, the Finnish Civil War erupted, a brutal internal conflict that pitted the socialist "Reds" against the conservative "Whites," ultimately leading to Finland's independence but leaving deep societal scars.

In Southern Russia, the Kuban People's Republic sought independence and regional autonomy, facing internal strife and external threats that eventually led to its downfall.

These events collectively illustrate the tumultuous and transformative nature of 1918, a year that profoundly influenced the course of the 20th century.

Parade after the Battle of Helsinki in the Finnish Civil War in 1918.

Parade after the Battle of Helsinki in the Finnish Civil War in 1918 : r/OldSchoolCool (reddit.com)

...the brutal stalemate...

January 1918 was a pivotal month in the context of the ongoing First World War and the Russian Civil War, marking significant developments on both fronts.

Amidst the brutal stalemate of the so called 'Great War', the Western Front saw continued trench warfare, with both the Allies and Central Powers preparing for major offensives.

The war’s relentless toll on human life and resources strained all participating nations, contributing to widespread social and political unrest.

Troops of the British 57th and 59th Divisions (XI Corps) entering Lille, France, 1918. Despite 1918 being the final year of the conflict, the First World War continued to bear witness to immense death and destruction.

In Russia, the upheaval following the October Revolution of 1917 escalated into a full-blown civil war.

The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, were consolidating power in Petrograd and Moscow, facing fierce resistance from the White Army, a coalition of monarchists, nationalists, and other anti-Bolshevik elements.

The conflict spread across the vast Russian territory, with brutal clashes and shifting front lines.

The turmoil disrupted everyday life, leading to widespread famine, economic collapse, and a humanitarian crisis. January 1918 thus underscored the profound instability and transformative changes sweeping through Europe.

Outbreak of Spanish Flu, January 1918

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, one of the deadliest pandemics in history, began its ominous spread amidst the backdrop of the First World War.

While its exact origins remain debated, the first cases were reported in military camps in the United States in early 1918.

However, despite its name, Spain was not the epicenter of the outbreak; rather, it garnered widespread attention due to its neutral status in the war, allowing for more open reporting of the disease's impact.

As soldiers moved across continents, the virus quickly spread globally, exacerbated by crowded and unsanitary conditions.

The initial wave of the Spanish Flu was severe but relatively mild compared to the devastating second wave that emerged in the fall of 1918, claiming millions of lives worldwide.

This deadly pandemic would ultimately leave an indelible mark on history, shaping public health practices and medical research for generations to come.

Spanish Flu medical advice poster, USA, 1918. The text of this poster explains how influenza is spread, and gives some preventative advice. The 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, which occurred in several waves between 1918 and 1920, infected one fifth of the world population and killed between 20 and 50 million, more than had been killed in the First World War. The second wave of the pandemic, from August 1918, was much deadlier than the first, with high mortality rates among young healthy adults.

Spanish Flu Medical Advice Poster Photograph by Nara/science Photo Library - Fine Art America

The outbreak of Spanish Flu. The horrific 1918 flu pandemic was thought to have infected around one fifth of the world's population at the time. Pictured are masked Red Cross litter carriers in Washington D.C as they carry a man stuck by the illness.

Royston Leonard – Mediadrumworld.com

Spanish flu centenary marked by new colourised photos | Daily Mail Online

Ukrainian People's Republic declares independence, 22nd January 1918

On 22nd January 1918, the Ukrainian People's Republic boldly declared its independence from Bolshevik Russia, marking a pivotal moment in the struggle for self-determination in Eastern Europe.

Amidst the turmoil of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, this declaration asserted Ukraine's sovereignty and aspirations for autonomy.

Led by prominent political figures such as Mykhailo Hrushevsky and Symon Petliura, the Ukrainian People's Republic sought to establish a democratic and independent state free from Russian domination.

...a protracted and tumultuous struggle...

However, this declaration was met with opposition from both Bolshevik forces and rival factions within Ukraine, leading to a protracted and tumultuous struggle for independence that would shape the country's future trajectory.

Map of Ukraine, 1919. On the 22nd January 1918, the Ukrainian People's Republic declared independence from Bolshevik Russia, asserting its sovereignty amidst the First World War and the Russian Revolution, marking a significant step in Ukraine's struggle for national self-determination.


...the collapse of the Ukrainian State...

Mykhailo Hrushevsky, President of the Central Council of Ukraine (1917 - 1918)

Mykhailo Hrushevsky - Wikipedia

During its brief existence, the Ukrainian People's Republic underwent significant political changes, transitioning from a socialist-leaning republic under the Central Council of Ukraine to a socialist republic led by the Directorate and Symon Petliura.

From April to December 1918, its socialist authority was disrupted by the pro-German Ukrainian State of Pavlo Skoropadskyi, elected as Hetman of Ukraine by a peasant congress.

Following the collapse of the Ukrainian State, the Ukrainian People's Republic unified with the West Ukrainian People's Republic in January 1919 and later allied with the Second Polish Republic after the Polish-Ukrainian War.

However, on the 10th November 1920, it lost the remainder of its territory to the Bolsheviks, and the Peace of Riga on the 18th March 1921, finalized its fate.

In this 1919 caricature, Ukrainians are surrounded by a Bolshevik (to the north, man with hat and red star), a Russian White Army soldier (to the east, with Russian eagle flag and a short whip), and to the west a Polish soldier, a Hungarian (in pink uniform) and two Romanian soldiers.

Ukraine as a ‘borderland’: a brief history of Ukraine’s place between Europe and Russia (theconversation.com)

Start of the Finnish Civil War, 27th January 1918

The Finnish Civil War, fought from January to May 1918, was a bitter and complex conflict that erupted in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution.

It pitted the "Reds," comprised of the working-class faction supported by Bolshevik Russia, against the "Whites," made up of the conservative, middle-class faction led by General Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim and supported by Imperial Germany.

The war was rooted in deep social and economic divisions within Finnish society, exacerbated by political instability and the struggle for independence from Russia.

The conflict saw intense and brutal fighting, particularly in urban areas and the industrial heartlands.

The Whites ultimately triumphed, leading to the establishment of a conservative government and the brutal suppression of the Red faction, including executions and imprisonments.

The brutality of war: Onni Kokko,14 years old white guard soldier (left) and Arvo Koivisto, 14 years old red guard soldier (right). Kokko wounded in battle of Tampere and died in Vaasa. Koivisto, a Red guard messenger, had retreated with the Reds from Tampere towards east but was caught by the Whites near Lahti on 1 May, a month after his 14th birthday. The local White Guard of his home village Tyrvää executed him in June 1918.  

Left: Main frontline of the Finnish Civil War in 1918, the Civil War... | Download Scientific Diagram (researchgate.net)

White Guards in Vasa at the beginning of the Finnish Civil War, 1918. The conflict, fought between the Reds (working-class Bolshevik supporters) and the Whites (conservative middle-class faction), left lasting scars in Finnish society.

Finnish Civil War - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

...bitterness and division that lingered for decades...

The civil war left deep scars in Finnish society, resulting in significant loss of life and a legacy of bitterness and division that lingered for decades.

The victory of the Whites also paved the way for Finland's eventual establishment as an independent republic, although the immediate post-war period was marked by political repression and a cautious relationship with Soviet Russia.

Creation of the Kuban People's Republic, 28th January 1918

The Kuban People's Republic (KPR) was an anti-Bolshevik state during the Russian Civil War, existing from January 1918 to spring 1920.

Proclaimed by the Kuban Rada, it declared independence from the Russian Empire and sought union with the Ukrainian People's Republic but was occupied by Anton Denikin's forces in November 1919 and fully annexed by the Soviets in early 1920.

...aiming to govern independently from Russia...

Historically, the Kuban region was a Cossack territory with distinct demographics and a semi-autonomous status. The Kuban Cossacks, formed to guard against the Mountain peoples, had significant military privileges and loyalty to the Tsar.

However, post-1917, with the fall of the monarchy, they proclaimed the Kuban People's Republic, aiming to govern independently from Russia.

Kuban Cossacks, 19th century. The Kuban People's Republic (KPR), an anti-Bolshevik state from 1918 to 1920, sought independence but faced internal divisions and external pressures. Despite attempts at alliances, it collapsed, impacting future developments in regional nationalism.

How Kuban tried to unite with Ukraine in 1917-1920 — story, photos (babel.ua)

...shifting political landscape and pressure from Bolshevik forces led to its downfall...

Anton Denikin, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of South Russia.  Denikin led the forces that occupied the Kuban People's Republic during the Russian Civil War. His actions, including the arrest of Rada members, contributed to the Republic's downfall and subsequent annexation by the Soviets.

Anton Denikin - Wikipedia

During its brief independence, the KPR faced internal conflicts and external threats. The Rada, or governing council, struggled to maintain unity among Cossacks and non-Cossacks.

Initially, it sought to join a federal structure with Ukraine, but the shifting political landscape and pressure from Bolshevik forces led to its downfall.

In April 1918, the Rada aligned with Lavr Kornilov's Volunteer Army, but internal divisions persisted.

The Republic's attempts to gain international recognition at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 were unsuccessful.

The KPR was de facto recognized by the Ukrainian People's Republic, Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Democratic Republic of Georgia, and the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus.

However, Denikin's distrust and Soviet advances ultimately led to its collapse.

Members of the State Duma from the Kuban Cossacks, 1907. There are several future politicians of the Kuban Peopleʼs Republic among them: Fedor Shcherbyna (3rd row from the top, 5th from the left) and Kondrat Bardyzh (3rd row from the top, 6th from the left).

How Kuban tried to unite with Ukraine in 1917-1920 — story, photos (babel.ua)

The failure of the Kuban People's Republic underscored the challenges of regional nationalism and unity, influencing future efforts in Yugoslavism by highlighting the difficulties in uniting diverse ethnic groups under a single national identity.


The events of January 1918 significantly reshaped global dynamics and set the stage for future conflicts, including the Second World War.

The Spanish Flu pandemic highlighted the importance of international public health cooperation, while the political upheavals in Ukraine, Finland, and Southern Russia demonstrated the fragility of nascent democracies and the volatile nature of nationalist movements.

The Spanish flu affected a fifth of the world's population at the time. Pictured is a boy in front of a sign saying that all theatres were closed, in an attempt  to stop and control the spread of the devastating virus. The Spanish Flu exacerbated post-First World War economic and social instability, contributing to widespread hardship and disillusionment, which helped foster conditions ripe for the rise of totalitarian regimes and the Second World War.

Royston Leonard – Mediadrumworld.com

Spanish flu centenary marked by new colourised photos | Daily Mail Online

These conflicts weakened European stability, contributing to widespread disillusionment and economic hardship.

The harsh outcomes of these struggles fostered deep societal divisions and resentment, particularly against the emerging Bolshevik regime, which became a pivotal force in global politics.

The resultant power vacuums and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk influenced territorial disputes and ideological confrontations, laying the groundwork for future totalitarian regimes.

Ultimately, the turmoil and unresolved tensions of 1918 created a fertile ground for the rise of fascism and the geopolitical strife that would erupt into the Second World War two decades later.

Further reading

1918: The Decisive Year in Soldiers' Own Words and Photographs is a pivotal book by bestselling WWI historian Richard van Emden. Revisiting diaries, memoirs, and soldiers' photographs, it recounts the fierce German spring offensive and the tenacious British defense that thwarted it. The book also details the vivid Allied breakthrough and return to open warfare, culminating in victory in November 1918, capturing the dramatic final year of the war through the eyes of those who lived it.

A compelling and meticulously researched account of the 1918 influenza outbreak. Frank vividly portrays the global devastation and the profound societal impacts of the pandemic. The book delves into personal stories, scientific advancements, and public health responses, making it an engaging read. It offers valuable insights into how this historic health crisis shaped modern medical practices and pandemic preparedness. A must-read for history and health enthusiasts.

Finnish Civil War: A History from Beginning to End by Hourly History is a concise and insightful account of the 1918 conflict. The book effectively summarizes the causes, key events, and aftermath of the war, highlighting the struggle between the socialist Reds and conservative Whites. It offers a balanced perspective, making complex history accessible. Ideal for readers seeking a quick yet comprehensive overview of this pivotal moment in Finnish history. An excellent starting point for further exploration.

Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid offers a compelling and thorough exploration of Ukraine's tumultuous history. Reid expertly weaves together personal anecdotes, historical analysis, and cultural insights, making the complex history of this borderland accessible and engaging. Her vivid storytelling and in-depth research provide a nuanced understanding of Ukraine's past and present struggles. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Eastern European history and the roots of contemporary conflicts.

Between 1917 and 1921, Russia's civil war followed the collapse of the Tsarist empire, pitting Trotsky's Red Army against a fragmented White alliance. This brutal conflict, marked by extreme cruelty and global involvement, is seen as highly influential in modern history. Antony Beevor's detailed narrative, based on updated scholarship and archival research, vividly portrays the war through diverse perspectives, from Petrograd workers to battlefield officers and hospital doctors.

In the 1780s, Joseph II's decree to make German the official language of his realm inadvertently sparked nationalistic movements among his diverse subjects. John Connelly's narrative history of Eastern Europe since the late eighteenth century explores this impact, tracing the rise of nationalism, the creation and dissolution of states, and the resurgence of democracy and populism. Connelly highlights the region's shared experiences of invasion, migration, and upheaval, illustrating the precarious nature of nations in Eastern Europe.




Tuomas Tepora  https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/finnish_civil_war_1918

Max Roser  https://ourworldindata.org/spanish-flu-largest-influenza-pandemic-in-history

Color by Julius Colorization.












Royston Leonard – Mediadrumworld.com


Llewellyn et al, “The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/treaty-of-brest-litovsk/, 2014, accessed [22.06.24].

Steve Maas  https://www.nber.org/digest/may20/social-and-economic-impacts-1918-influenza-epidemic