Tommies queued in their hundreds to visit brothels in the First World War. Their testimonies, says Clare Makepeace, offer a poignant insight into how the men reacted when constantly stalked by death.
This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
“Keep constantly on your guard against any excesses. In this new experience you may find temptations both in wine and women. You must entirely resist both.”
These were the words sent by Lord Kitchener, Britain’s secretary of state for war, to each fighting man in the British Expeditionary Force before they disembarked for the trenches in France in the First World War. But Kitchener’s warning received short shrift from some of his men. Among them was Private Richards, who had been called up immediately after war broke out. According to him, it “may as well have not been issued for all the notice we took”.
One of the temptations, which Kitchener had in mind, was the legalised brothel or maison tolérée. British soldiers were free to visit these establishments in France for most of the war and statistics indicate that many benefited from this carnal freedom. A report recorded that 171,000 men attended brothels in one sole street over the course of a year.
Only a few soldiers wrote about their sexual experiences, but they used a language that implies they were just one of many. Their observations, some of which are now held at the Imperial War Museum in London, provide us with a more complete picture of the Tommy’s life. They also add poignancy as to how men reacted when faced with the slaughter of trench warfare.
After arriving in France, Richards visited a brothel, or a ‘red lamp’ as they were also known, in the village of Béthune. He abstained on this occasion and found his own “respectable bit of goods” in another village. A few days later, he returned. This time there were “300 men in a queue, all waiting their turns to go in the Red Lamp, the majority being mere lads”. In 24 hours, these ‘lads’ would be fighting in the major British offensive of the battle of Loos.
Queues were a common sight at any brothel entrance. But they were more than just a way of ensuring men waited their turn. They were also a place for male bonding. Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Wood compared the scene outside one red lamp with “a cup tie at a football final in Blighty”. Inside the brothel, Private Amatt views the scene for us: “There was about a dozen girls in there with hardly anything on and high heeled shoes. And they had little what they called chemises then. And they were sitting about on the troops’ knees in all sorts of places. And apparently, the idea was that if you fancied any girl, you bought her a drink and then took her upstairs.”
In this environment, some soldiers chose to spend what could be their final mortal hours. They were places where, according to Lieutenant Wheatley, men who “might well be dead within a week” could have “a little fun”. Lieutenant Butlin found Rouen had been “ruinous” to both his purse and morals but “from what I heard out here I decided quickly that life must be enjoyed to the full”. Young officers had “money to spend” but many had never before experienced sex. Officer Graves observed how “they stood a good chance of being killed within a few weeks… They did not want to die virgins.”
With so many Tommies frequenting red lamps, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that venereal disease (VD) was rife among the British army, resulting in 150,000 admissions to hospital in France during the war. Only in November 1918 were bottles of potassium permanganate lotion and tubes of calomel cream given to soldiers stationed overseas to use for self-disinfection. Before then, they had to trust the measures employed at the brothel. These included the “old lady cock examiner”, as Private Roworth described her, who checked each man on entry. In addition, the army advised men to attend their unit’s disinfecting stations after visiting brothels.
Some soldiers had little interest in such precautions. They patronised brothels because they wanted to catch syphilis or gonorrhea – and, in doing so, secure a more permanent removal from the conflict. One YMCA welfare officer recorded in his diary a conversation in which one of his colleagues had referred to some men who “deliberately risked contracting one of the two diseases, hoping by this ‘self-inflicted wound’ to win a respite from the trenches”.
Another campaigner for disease prevention was, not-surprisingly, keen to point out that this desire to be infected with VD resulted in “the diseased prostitute [getting] more money than the clean one”. At this time, VD was still heavily stigmatised, and the available treatments for syphilis were dangerous and only partially effective. But they did entail about one month’s stay in hospital – a worthwhile trade-off for some, if it enabled them to escape the carnage of the front line.
A physical necessity
Having regular sex in brothels was believed, by others, to be imperative for their health. As a Lieutenant Dixon wrote: “We were not monks, but fighting soldiers certainly with an abundance of physical energy… and if bought love is no substitute for the real thing, it at any rate seemed better than nothing.” This belief was so widespread that a member of parliament spoke of the need “to impress on the officers… that continence is neither impossible nor harmful”.
This thinking led to the perverse idea that it was more acceptable for married men, rather than single men, to visit prostitutes. NCO Chaney, while he surveyed a queue of soldiers outside one red lamp, was told these places “were not for young lads like me, but for married men who were missing their wives”.
Private Clare also remembered a chaplain who excused unfaithfulness to spouses under the present circumstances, but advised the men to only use licensed brothels, otherwise they might contract disease. When the war ended, men declared their readiness to return to their marital beds. For Dixon “the business was compartmentalised”. His “sweet-heart in Blighty” did not belong to the “topsy-turvy world of the battle-fronts, where values were totally different”. The red lamps that had “amused and disgusted” Private Holt as he was redeployed across France “faded away completely when [he] left the towns”.
Whether this really was the end of their indulgences, we do not know, since their descriptions stop with the armistice. As the combination of officially accessible brothels, an all-male environment and the conditions of battle faded, so too does this rare glimpse into men’s commercial sexual indulgence.
Clare Makepeace is the author of “Punters and their prostitutes. British soldiers, masculinity and maisons tolérées in the First World War” in What is Masculinity? by John H Arnold and Sean Brady (eds) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).