8/14/13 - war, loneliness, and sex

In today's encore selection -- the carnage of World War I, and the prostitutes that emerged as a moment of relief from that carnage. World War I, the Great War, had no precedent in its bloodshed -- the mere boys who marched to war as soldiers from Britain and elsewhere were witness to twenty-three million casualties:

"The [British] Government's morale-boosting propaganda had contributed in large part to the ignorance at home of the true state of affairs [in the war] abroad. Positive stories written by journalists who feared if they told the truth, were designed to put the best possible slant on the news. Soldiers who longed to describe the dreadful reality of warfare had their letters censored. ...

"How were soldiers to find a way to describe to their isolated, sometimes disbelieving families what happened out there? ... Loneliness was constant. Men missed women. ...

"Just behind the battle lines only a mile or two from the front, girls waited to 'comfort' men, irrespective of whether they were German, British or French, waiting for them in abandoned chateaux, village houses, hay barns, caravans, farm buildings and the upper floors of inns. Different coloured lanterns indicated the rank of clientele allowed entry. Blue denoted a place reserved for officers, the light sometimes swinging from a pole that stood next to a sign declaring 'No Admittance for Dogs and Soldiers'. Common soldiers were directed towards the red light establishments. Sometimes the queues outside these places could number a hundred men or more, with three worn-out French women waiting inside. The price per slot varied from two and a half to ten francs or two to eight shillings, although a bartering system involving bread and sausages was also prevalent. One innocent young officer, hearing his turn called, made his way to room number six where in the bitter-sweet, dirt-smelling near darkness he could see the outline of a female figure who, turning towards him, hiked up her black nightdress to her waist and fell backwards on the edge of the bed. He realised that the highly anticipated delights of seduction were already over. She was ready.

"These women estimated that operating a strict schedule of ten minutes per man, they could service an entire battalion every seven days, a production rate that most were usually able to sustain for only three weeks before retiring exhausted, and invariably unwell, but proud of their staying power. This experience had been, for many of the prospectively syphilitic young men, their introduction to the 'joy' of physical love. Even the virginal Prince of Wales went in 1916 with some fellow officers to watch naked girls performing erotic poses in a brothel in Calais, concluding from his own 'first insight into such things' that it was a 'perfectly filthy and revolting sight'. ...

"The threat of venereal disease sometimes led soldiers to seek sexual relief with each other. The Field Almanac issued to Lieutenant Skelton cautioned men not to 'ease themselves promiscuously', although the detailed instructions on the necessity for cleanliness of the body at all times were impossible to implement in the filthy conditions of the camps. George V, hearing of the extent of homosexual activity in the army some two decades after the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, had been heard to mutter: 'I thought men like that shot themselves.' There was also a belief that homosexuality might be infectious and Scotland Yard kept a register of known homosexuals. Recovery from prosecution was at best rare and in reality unknown. Two hundred and seventy soldiers and twenty officers were court-martialed for 'acts of gross indecency with another male person according to the Guidance notes in the Manual of Military Law'."


Juliet Nicolson


The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War


Grove Press


Copyright 2009 by Juliet Nicolson


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