'Sex and the Somme' written by Clare Makepeace, addresses the culture of brothels and prostitution in France during the Great War.
Sex and the Somme:
The officially sanctioned brothels on the front line laid bare for the first time
The brothels provided men with an escape from the slaughter and filth of the trenches
When Corporal Jack Wood was given a few hours of leave from waging war on the Western Front, he probably never imagined that he was about to shed yet more of his innocence.
He had only recently arrived in France, but already had witnessed the travesty of friendly fire and been exposed to enemy shelling. He had waded through the mud of the trenches, felt lice crawl across his body and rats scuttle over him as he slept, exhausted, on the Front.
Yet, as he strolled through the streets of a nearby town, there was another shock awaiting him: a brothel. Wood wrote in his diary of how ‘we had heard of the renowned Red Lamp with a big No 3 on it, but never thought of the reality of the thing. My first view, I shall never forget.
‘There was a great crowd of fellows, four or five deep and about 30 yards in length, waiting just like a crowd waiting for a football cup tie in Blighty.
'It was half an hour before opening time, so we had to see the opening ceremony.
'At about five minutes to six, the lamp was lit. To the minute, at six the door was opened. Then commenced the crush to get in.’
This establishment — marked by its red lamp — was one of the legendary maisons tolérées, or legalised brothels that dotted the towns of northern France.
They housed professional prostitutes who worked under the discipline of a madame and were subject to regular medical inspections. By 1917, there were at least 137 such establishments spread across 35 towns.
Outside these settings, vast numbers of amateur prostitutes also plied their trade in streets, hotels, cafes and bars. It’s not known precisely how many British soldiers indulged.
One snap-shot study, carried out by British medical officers in Le Havre, suggests it was a vast number. They counted 171,000 visitors to the brothels in just one street in this port town in 1915 alone.
We also have the personal accounts of the men themselves. Over the past four years, I have scoured archives and libraries for any mention of British soldiers consorting with prostitutes as part of an academic dissertation.
Unsurprisingly, this subject tends to be shrouded in secrecy. But the unique circumstances of the Great War encouraged a few men to discuss their indulgences in their letters, diaries, memoirs and interviews. Their language suggests that consorting with ladies of the night was commonplace.
Extraordinarily, visits to French brothels by British soldiers were officially sanctioned. It was traditional for the British army to accept the local customs wherever they were stationed.
The French thought nothing of allowing their soldiers to use brothels and, not wanting to offend their allies, the British High Command insisted that they should be kept ‘in bounds’ for most of the war.
Not everyone in authority agreed with such liberal measures. The Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, provided each man with a leaflet offering him some intimate advice. It warned soldiers to ‘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.’ But according to one of the recipients, Private Frank Richards, a reservist soldier who had been called up the day after the war broke out, this guidance ‘may as well have not been issued for all the notice we took’.
Soldiers did not know when their time might be up. One in ten British soldiers who saw service in France and Flanders was killed there
The brothels, along with cafes and bars, provided men with an escape from the slaughter and filth of the trenches. They were bright and warm, light and jovial. And large or small, intimate or formal, they always had plenty of women to choose from.
Corporal Wood described the scene that greeted him inside the Red Lamp.
‘There were seven young women, I should say by appearance from 28 to 40, made up in the finest of flimsy silk dresses and then showing the daintiest of lingerie I suppose for attraction. From the passage came an entrance to a flight of stairs.
‘Here stood Madame taking a franc for admission and I afterwards found out you paid the lady of choice any sum you cared from a franc upwards.’
Some visitors were so shocked by what they found, they left within seconds. Private Eddie Bigwood had just been posted to one battalion that had suffered enormous casualties during the first battle of the Somme.
They stopped in Rouen where Bigwood was encouraged to go into town to have some fun.
At the first pub they came to, he recalled how ‘the ladies there had nothing on except a piece of lace and my eyes popped out’. The group soon moved onto a brothel but ‘when five naked girls came dashing down the corridor we turned to and ran’.
A young Private, William Roworth, who joined the army when he was three years under the official minimum recruiting age, lost his virginity at one brothel soon after arriving in France.
Here, he found himself in ‘a very small room, the furnishing were unlike any room I had ever seen — this dirty-looking girl only had a stretcher, with a very thin sheet and blanket.’
The pleasure he got from this experience was minimal. It was, he explained, like ‘pulling your thing, but you have some one to talk to’.
Some deemed the brothel to be a fitting supplement to the experiences of war. Lieutenant R. Graham Dixon, who spent the final year of hostilities on the Western Front, believed that soldiers had ‘an abundance of physical energy’.
When he went to Dunkirk, he patronized one particular brothel, always visiting the same ‘black-haired, black-eyed wench, whose enthusiasm was quite adequate and whose skill, likewise.’
Aside from the shock, the amusement and the frolics, these visits were often accompanied by a note of fatality.
Soldiers did not know when their time might be up. One in ten British soldiers who saw service in France and Flanders was killed there.
During its bloodiest phase, a junior officer had on average just six weeks to live. These men had an entire life’s worth of experiences to squeeze into their next few mortal days.
Lieutenant James Butlin was one of them. Shortly after the outbreak of war, he swapped his place at Oxford University for one in the trenches. Immediately before Butlin returned to the front for the final time, he spent a few days in Rouen.
He revealed to a confidante how the town had been ‘ruinous to my purse, not to mention my morals. From what I heard out here I decided quickly that life must be enjoyed to the full — and so it has been, with judicious selection and moderation.’
These men had an entire life's worth of experiences to squeeze into their next few mortal days
For the younger recruits, their predicament was even more urgent. Some had yet to experience this particular earthly pleasure.
According to Captain Robert Graves, in his famous autobiography Goodbye To All That, ‘There were no restraints in France; these boys had money to spend and knew that they stood a good chance of being killed within a few weeks anyhow. They did not want to die virgins.’
Such behaviour was condoned, understood and accepted. But astonishingly, even more acceptable was the idea that older, married men should be entertained by prostitutes whilst away at war.
An 18-year-old Private, Bert Chaney, was intrigued by the orderly queue he saw during his few days in Béthune. He was advised by one man in the line that ‘these places were not for young lads like me, but for married men who were missing their wives’.
Private Percy Clare recalled similar advice. Clare’s memoir details the affairs that took place in Amiens and Arras between numerous prostitutes and English soldiers.
He also refers to one sermon given by his Brigade Chaplain in which he ‘excused unfaithfulness to our wives while away from home in the present circumstances’.
It was widely believed during this era that regular sex was necessary for men’s physical health.
For married men, the need was considered to be even more imperative. They had become so accustomed to regular sexual fulfillment that the routine needed to be continued even while away from the marital bed.
While married men were considered to have greater carnal needs than single men, sexual opportunity also varied according to rank.
There was no room here for notions of trench comradeship or patriotism. Officers and rankers were serviced in different brothels, known as Blue Lamps and Red Lamps respectively.
The commission that Second Lieutenant Dennis Wheatley received when he was just 17 entitled him to patronize one of the most luxurious brothels in France reserved for officers.
Upon arrival, ‘the Madame took me to an eight-sided room, the walls and ceilings of which were entirely covered with mirrors.
‘The only furniture in it was a low divan on which a pretty little blonde was displaying her charms. She welcomed me most pleasantly and later we breakfasted off an omelette, melon and champagne.’
Meanwhile, the professional soldier Brigadier-General Frank Crozier described how officers and other ranks’ experiences starkly differed: ‘The officers are better off. Comparative luxury, knowledge and armour (condoms) stands them in good stead. Wheatley, who went on to become a well-known author, was gassed in a chlorine attack at Passchendaele and invalided out after service in Flanders.
'It is one thing sleeping the night in Lina’s arms, after a not too good dinner and minding one’s p’s and q’s: it is another making the best of it in a thorny ditch.’
This discrepancy in service was so great that it even overrode enemy divides.
As the Allied troops advanced towards the end of the war, British officers readily took over the high-class prostitutes of the German army.
They considered it more palatable to share prostitutes with enemies of their own class than with lower-class men on their own side.
As well as being divided by class, the brothel market was regulated by the differences between each nationality’s rates of pay.
Dominion soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada might have received about six shillings a day for their wartime service, the British soldier just six pence. It was a financial advantage that entitled colonial troops to their pick of the prostitutes.
After he had been taken out of the front line and was enjoying the rewards of payday, British Private Sidney Amatt decided to go to ‘one of these places of evil intent’ in Le Havre.
In the bar, he noticed ‘plenty of troops there, but hardly any British troops. But there was Canadians and South Africans and French troops there.
‘Because I think in those days our pay was not sufficient to visit these places very often.’
As Amatt explained, ‘the idea was that if you fancied any girl, you bought her a drink and then you took her upstairs.
'Well, before you went upstairs there was a woman which I afterwards found out was the madame of the establishment. And you had to pay her. And then, of course, you had to pay the girl you took upstairs.’
All Amatt could afford was ‘a drink and a look round’ before leaving.
A brothel visit did not just buy men a momentary release from the war. Sometimes its legacy could be more long-lasting.
Venereal disease rates amongst serving soldiers were of great concern to the army authorities. 150,000 men in the British army were admitted to hospital with a venereal infection whilst stationed in France.
Some measures were taken to limit the spread of disease. Some brothels might have employed an elderly woman who intimately checked the men on entry. Each army unit also had a treatment station where men could get ointment consisting of mercury and chlorine to prevent infection, or receive a urethral irrigation with potassium permanganate after exposure.
But some soldiers had little interest in such precautions. They patronized brothels precisely because they wanted to catch syphilis or gonorrhea.
One YMCA Welfare Officer recorded in his diary a speech made by a colleague which 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.’
This was such an attractive option that a prostitute who had venereal disease could actually earn more money than an uninfected one.
Venereal disease at this time was still heavily stigmatized.
Venereal disease at this time was still heavily stigmatized.
Syphilis was treated with injections of mercury, which usually did nothing to prevent the fatal progression of the disease years later. But the contraction of an infection meant a hospital stay of about 30 days. It was a worthwhile trade-off for some, if it enabled them to escape the carnage of the front line.
And that, ultimately, was what brothel visits were all about for many men. They provided an escape, a release from the horror of the trenches.
This remains one of the few aspects of life on the Western front that is still little discussed. Perhaps veterans have been reticent to mention it in anticipation of outsiders’ condemnation.
And although I have focused on the soldiers who visited prostitutes, we cannot fail to wonder what happened to the poor women who were used in this way.
But, according to Private Clare, who prided himself on writing a ‘faithful’ account on soldiers’ lives in France, it is ‘better to know the truth’. He added a brief warning in case we should think ill of these men.
‘Feel not disgust dear reader; nor think too hardly of them — I, who know all their circumstances, what they have borne, what they have yet to bear, cannot find it in me to condemn them, and you have no right to!’
Clare's article can be found here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2054914/Sex-Somme-Officially-sanctioned-WWI-brothels-line.html#ixzz3fkE91dgM